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Gender was a decisive force in slave society. Slave men's experiences differed from those of slave women, who were exploited in both reproductive and productive capacities. They did not figure prominently in revolts because they engaged in less confrontational methods of resistance, emphasizing creative struggle to survive dehumanization and abuse.
About the Author
DAVID BARRY GASPAR, Professor of History at Duke University, is the author of Bondmen and Rebels. DARLENE CLARK HINE, John A. Hannah Professor of American History at Michigan State University, is the author of several books,
including Black Women in White. She is co-editor of Black Women in America.
Read an Excerpt
More Than Chattel
Black Women and Slavery in the Americas
By David Barry Gaspar, Darlene Clark Hine
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1996 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
AFRICA INTO THE AMERICAS? Slavery and Women, the Family, and the Gender Division of Labor
Among the many forms of socioeconomic deprivation, African slavery on both sides of the Atlantic has probably provoked the most historical debate, and recent contributors to it have focused on women slaves. Still, there has been little cross-fertilization of ideas between Africanists and New World specialists. It is time to remedy this situation. In the 1990s we need to look at our African heritage and the various sorts of issues that muddy the waters. The study of gender issues in particular provides an excellent lens for new analyses, while use of comparative method can clarify much about socioeconomic structure.
This chapter attempts to place New World African slavery as it related to women into the context of African slavery and culture, and by so doing illuminate both. It draws on my own and others' African research and on recent research on gender with respect to New World slavery, especially the other essays in this volume. I will try to identify the parameters of some of the crucial issues and to widen the debate where appropriate, while acknowledging that there is a pressing need for more research. These issues include the definition of types of slavery and status deprivation; the matrifocal family debate, especially as it pertains to possible African retentions; and labor use with regard to gender, sometimes termed the gender division of labor, with particular attention to fertility issues as they relate to class.
This analysis is possible only because of the opening up of research on African slavery in the 1970s and 1980s that followed several decades in which the subject was almost entirely ignored in the explosion of African nationalism and pan-Africanism surrounding independence for most countries on the continent. African and African-American nationalists often agreed that white rule had damaged male control over females. African men cited colonial laws that prohibited wife beating, while women were gaining economic autonomy, if not usually prosperity. African-American men felt that slavery had removed their authority to control their families—wives and children alike—and their power to protect them against white atrocities. Any attempt to consider women's rights was seen as divisive and irrelevant; race oppression was the central issue.
We have now moved into a more radical phase of scholarly analysis. In it no one is exempt; everyone is equal. This equality assumes not only that humans are entitled to equality of rights but also that they have equality in human potential—that men, women, children, Africans, Europeans, African-Americans, and European-Americans alike share the complexity that makes human nature so endlessly fascinating. This means, however, that if virtue, intelligence, and altruism can be found universally, so can ambition, greed, and violence. In every group there are victims and oppressors and, especially in many cases of African slavery, it was possible to be simultaneously both slave and slaveowner. The determinants of the nature of oppression are not to be found in any essential human nature but in economic systems. If there is a universal human need, it is to maximize survival by maximizing gain, and most civilizations have employed slavery at one time or another to do so. At issue here is how African slavery in its cultural context relates to African-American slavery in the New World, especially with regard to women.
Types of Slavery and Status Deprivation
Slavery was universal in highly differentiated societies in the ancient world, including those in Africa. But its form varied radically in accordance with the economic needs of a society, which could change over time. Sub-Saharan Africa was an ancient source of slaves, albeit on a relatively small scale, supplying North Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf area. A few African slaves even trickled into underdeveloped northern Europe, but they were more curiosities than economic necessities in medieval times. It was only with the worldwide expansion of the European economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the European-American demand for African slaves assumed large proportions. An enabling factor in the development of this trade was the existence in Africa of an internal and an export slave trade. The export trade, however, seems to have been much smaller than the ultimate size of the New World trade. In European eyes Africans made desirable slaves because they were accustomed to agricultural labor—most were sedentary horticulturalists—and they were able to endure harsh labor in the tropical West Indies. The epidemiological factor worked in Africans' favor and against Native Americans, who died in droves from exposure to European-borne diseases. Africans also died in large numbers under the notorious conditions of the Middle Passage and from harsh treatment and hard labor in the West Indies, in particular; but ultimately they survived their masters and mistresses.
Those were not, however, the main reasons Africans were enslaved; nor was their race. They became slaves primarily as a result of the economic needs of Africa and the Americas. In both areas, wealth was to a large extent dependent on labor recruitment because ownership of land was useless without labor to work it. According to Mary Karasch (chapter 4 in this volume), frontier areas of Brazil in the early nineteenth century absorbed most of the slaves, drawing them away from older settled areas in a pattern similar to the large-scale sale of slaves away from Virginia to newer areas of settlement in North America. Richard Roberts and Suzanne Miers noted that expanding African states were often both the greatest suppliers (they sold their prisoners of war) and the greatest users of slaves. However, one should not push this analogy too far. There were major differences between sub-Saharan Africa, where most land was controlled but not owned by lineages, and the southern United States, for instance, where private land ownership eventually triumphed as the westward movement of European Americans drove out Native Americans, whose concepts of landholding were more akin to those of Africans. Nonetheless, it is well to recognize that without a West African slave trade that took advantage of extensive interior trade networks, there would have been very little export slave trade because of the incapacity and ignorance of European-Americans regarding Africa and the ability of Africans to control trade and keep out foreigners. As Walter Rodney observed, the African ruling class enabled, assisted, and benefited from the slave trade. Thus Africa and the Americas have been inextricably linked by a trade that most scholars agree exploited more Africans than it benefited.
Large areas of precolonial Africa were underpopulated, hence the need for slavery, which served as a means both to recruit much-needed labor and to increase population. The export slave trade, of course, only magnified the need for slavery within certain African societies by depopulating some areas. Igor Kopytoff and Suzanne Miers pointed out that slavery in Africa entailed a continuum all the way from relatively mild forms of clientage and pawnship to chattel slavery similar to the European-American form prevalent in the United States and the West Indies. There were areas in Africa where European chattel-type slavery existed owing to extensive European settlement, as in South Africa. This chapter, however, is particularly concerned with forms of slavery used by Africans. These forms were far more complex and varied than chattel slavery as it evolved in the United States. They were also usually less onerous. The variations can be explained by the tremendous cultural differences within Africa, the world's second largest continent with thousands of languages and cultures, and by contrasting economic conditions. Mercantile rather than industrial capitalism characterized most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century West African economies; large areas paid tribute and had a fair degree of local economic autonomy. In the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the United States and the West Indies were required to meet the needs of industrial capitalist development in Europe and the northeastern United States. The routinization of slave labor in their economies was driven by the needs of the industrializing world, which forced ever-greater rates of exploitation in a foretaste of the relationship of the twentieth century "developed" world to the "developing" world, where mechanization in the center and partial mechanization at the periphery increased the rate of exploitation of manual labor. The cotton gin and the steam-driven sugar mill created a need for more slave labor in the nineteenth-century South and the Caribbean, just as the twentieth-century introduction of the plow to reduce men's labor in breaking ground in sub-Saharan Africa greatly intensified women's labor of cultivation. Similarly, the increasing involvement of West Africa in the "legitimate" export trade (not the "illegitimate" slave trade) in commodities needed for European industrial use, such as palm oil, increased the internal demand for slaves in the late nineteenth century.
Despite vast variations in African forms of slavery, it is possible to make some generalizations. If the first striking characteristic about African slavery is its variability—from mild debt servitude to harsh plantation slavery—the second is its malleability. Even under harsh chattel slavery in Africa (usually called Islamic or market-based), manumission was possible for significant numbers of slaves. In the nineteenth-century Sahel, where a close analogue to southern United States chattel slavery existed, "because so many slaves were women, one feature of slavery ... was the assimilation of females through concubinage and marriage and the automatic emancipation of children by slave women, if the master accepted paternity." In fact, multiple modes of emancipation were a common feature of African slavery. Most slaves kept in Africa were women who, if they bore free children to their masters, could often be freed themselves. Moreover, male and female slaves usually had the right to keep any monetary earnings and so could buy their freedom more easily than was the case in the United States, although some owners did hire out slaves and keep most of their earnings, as in the United States.
But most African slavery was not chattel slavery, even though most large-scale slavery was. More common was what has variously been termed lineage, kin-based, or absorptionist slavery, which was used primarily to increase labor but had as an essential feature the eventual assimilation of the slave into society. Two-generation slavery was therefore uncommon. The fact that most slaves were women aided this absorption, as did polygyny when women became junior wives to free men. In Islamized societies where free women were secluded, slave women performed, as they did in other African societies, most of the field labor. Pawnship was very common; most pawns were girls whose labor paid the interest on their fathers' or other male relatives' debts. If they were seduced by a male member of the creditor's lineage, they would be married to him, with cancellation of the debt serving as bridewealth to legitimate the marriage. In such cases the status of pawn merged invisibly with the status of woman; both were disadvantaged. Such arrangements were particularly common in mercantile West African coastal society.
Less severe than pawnship was clientage, in which slaves had autonomy over most aspects of their lives but by law "belonged" to free persons or lineages and owed them a share of their crops, cash, or labor each year, as well as political loyalty. Such retainers were typical of African societal organization into lineage families, clans which recruited by birth, marriage, slavery, and free clientage. The distance between clientage and chattel slavery was great; one ultimate goal of clientage was to increase the free population (a comparison with the situation of Indian slave women in Brazil as mentioned by Karasch in chapter 4 is worth attention). While in most African societies slave ancestry carried a stigma, it could also be hidden because it was not usually associated with a caste bearing visible markers. In Africa, with the abolition of slavery ex-slaves usually became clients and beneficiaries of a certain patronage from former owners, whereas in the United States South this was far less common because racism, as well as continued efforts by whites to subordinate as laborers African-Americans who tried to evade that control, inhibited the development of clientage.
However, slavery in Africa was not a benign institution. It was, as in the Americas, concerned above all with the extraction of maximum profit from the slave's labor. To do so it relied on force. Claude Meillassoux's description of Sahelian slavery could just as well apply to the United States plantation South: "Desocialized, depersonalized, desexualized, slaves are susceptible to a severe exploitation not tempered by any concern about preserving their physical and social capacities of reproduction." In another telling description equally applicable to southern slaveowners, Meillassoux said that "the [slaveholding] aristocracy must be a repressive class, armed, turned as much against the [free] people as against the slave class." The element of force was, of course, essential to the creation and perpetuation of slave systems, but even in this aspect Africans had many varieties of enslavement. A majority of slaves were probably prisoners of war, but kidnapping and judicial processes also accounted for substantial numbers, as well as the innumerable small transactions involved in pawning. The methods used varied in incidence over time and from place to place. In times of famine people sometimes sold their children to wealthier buyers or to passing slavers.
There were also more means of escape in Africa than in the United States or the West Indies. If slaves were, by definition, strangers in their owners' societies, in Africa some had the possibility of returning home, although if they had been very young when enslaved they often no longer knew their original homes or had lost rights in their natal societies. Nonetheless, fleeing a cruel owner was more likely to be possible where there were fewer means of enforcement—no patrols to stop runaways—and societies nearby that did not practice slavery. Because of the kinship organization of the vast majority of societies, the slave or ex-slave might always be a stranger to some extent, but there were numerous methods for creating Active kinship ties. There were also usually means for improving one's status within slavery. In nineteenth-century equatorial Africa, for example, some male slaves became heads of free lineages. This was not a unique situation for precolonial Africa. It is therefore not surprising that given the vulnerability of kinless persons in many African societies (flight was more likely to bring reenslavement elsewhere than liberation, for instance), some male slaves preferred to buy slave women as wives for themselves than to buy their own freedom. There were also slave women who owned slaves. "Those who have people are wealthier than those with money" is an old Igbo saying.
To turn to slavery in the United States South is to narrow the definition of slavery considerably, despite the attempts at ameliorative views. Of course, slavery there did not begin as the relatively rigid institution it later became. In the early days of white settlement there was a continuum from white and black indentured servants to chattel slavery, but as the desire to increase the rate of exploitation arose with the development of industrial capitalism, slavery evolved in a segregated, castelike direction, with fewer opportunities for manumission. Frederick Cooper noted that "racial distinctiveness is a particular form of the more universal condition of the slave ... being an outsider." As the nineteenth century wore on, southern slaves had only those rights their owners chose to give them, which meant that they were completely subject to the arbitrary whims of those who profited from their labor. Even freed blacks in the South were constantly threatened with re-enslavement, and in the North they were subject to restrictions on mobility (many states had constitutional provisions prohibiting freed blacks from entry), education, occupations, meetings, and a variety of other activities. Meanwhile, forms of debt servitude in which whites had participated mostly disappeared and were made illegal by the end of the nineteenth century. In the West Indies they had disappeared by 1700.
Excerpted from More Than Chattel by David Barry Gaspar, Darlene Clark Hine. Copyright © 1996 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Africa and the Americas,
I. Africa into the Americas? Slavery and Women, the Family, and the Gender Division of Labor Claire Robertson, 3,
Life and Labor,
II. Women, Work, and Health under Plantation Slavery in the United States Richard H. Steekel, 43,
III. Cycles of Work and of Childbearing Seasonality in Women's Lives on Low Country Plantations Cheryll Ann Cody, 61,
IV. Slave Women on the Brazilian Frontier in the Nineteenth Century Mary Karasch, 79,
V. "Loose, Idle and Disorderly" Slave Women in the Eighteenth-Century Charleston Marketplace Robert Olwell, 97,
VI. Black Female Slaves and White Households in Barbados Hilary Beckles, 111,
VII. Black Homes, White Homilies Perceptions of the Slave Family and of Slave Women in Nineteenth-Century Brazil Robert W. Slenes, 126,
VIII. "Suffer with Them Till Death" Slave Women and Their Children in Nineteenth-Century America Wilma King, 147,
IX. Gender Convention, Ideals, and Identity among Antebellum Virginia Slave Women Brenda E. Stevenson, 169,
Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom,
X. Hard Labor Women, Childbirth, and Resistance in British Caribbean Slave Societies Barbara Bush, 193,
XI. From "the Sense of Their Slavery" Slave Women and Resistance in Antigua, 1632–1763 David Barry Gaspar, 218,
XII. Slave Women and Resistance in the French Caribbean Bernard Moitt, 239,
XIII. Slave and Free Colored Women in Saint Domingue David P. Geggus, 259,
XIV. Economic Roles of the Free Women of Color of Cap Français Susan M. Socolow, 279,
XV. Urban Slavery-Urban Freedom The Manumission of Jacqueline Lemelle L. Virginia Gould, 298,
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY Celia E. Naylor-Ojurongbe and David Barry Gaspar, 315,