Remembering the Women of Slavery

By Sylviane A. Diouf
March 27, 2015
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Women and Slavery

Since my graduate school days in Paris, I have been researching and writing and talking about the slave trade and slavery. On March 25, I had the honor of doing the latter during the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. 

I gave the keynote address on Women and Slavery to the UN General Assembly.

Here's what I wanted people to know and remember:

It is a great honor to be here today among you as we commemorate the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade whose memory has been so movingly captured and rendered by architect Rodney Leon. This year’s theme, “Women and Slavery,” comes fittingly on the heels of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. This theme reminds us that no history, no present and no future can be written without recognizing the vital role of women that, unfortunately, is too often obscured, glossed over, forgotten, or even denied.

So I am particularly pleased to be helping to break the silence that surrounds the women who were not simply the victims of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, but were also immense contributors to the creation of a new world. But, first, let us remember that between the early 1500s and 1867 as many captives crossed the Atlantic as were forced out of Africa  by all the other slave trades combined from 500 CE to 1900. The transatlantic slave trade was the most massive forced migration in history.

As a result, from 1492 to 1820, 80 percent of the people who arrived in the Americas were Africans, only 20 percent  were Europeans. Africans landed in every country, from Argentina to Bolivia, from every Caribbean Island to Honduras and North America. The Africans’ skills, knowledge, and work transformed the land. They mined and cultivated the riches of the continents. They built cities and towns, and fought for their freedom and the independence of the countries that enslaved them, all the while developing new cultures, new languages, new religions, new peoples. Females represented  30 percent of the people who survived the Middle Passage.

We know  that most deported Africans were between the ages of 15 and 30. What it means is that the majority of the women who boarded the slave ships were married and had children. It was the case for many men too. These women were not only daughters and sisters, then, but they were also wives and mothers leaving husbands and young children behind, or seeing them embark on another ship. 

The sheer agony at being so brutally separated from the family that had loved them, uprooted from their community forever can never be adequately described, and it often was expressed without words. On the slave ships, one surgeon explained, men and women “showed signs of extreme distress and despair, from a feeling of their situation at being torn from their friends and connections. They were often heard in the night making a howling melancholy noise, expressive of extreme anguish. It was because they had dreamed  they were in their own country againand finding themselves, when awake, in the hold of a slave-ship. This exquisite sensibility was particularly observable among the women; many of whom, on such occasions, he found in hysteric fits.”

The women who survived the ordeal represented 80 percent of all the women who landed in the Americas before 1820. Their presence had a considerable impact on the formation of the continents’ societies. They were central to the demographic, social, and cultural development of the Western Hemisphere.

They carried with them their knowledge of medicinal plants and various crops, their skills at gardening and midwifery, their cuisines, their songs, dances, and stories, and their gendered traditions, values, cultures, and religious practices. Although their mortality rates were high and their fertility rates were low, they were the women who brought to the world the first generations of Americans.

But as slaves and as women, they and their daughters and granddaughters bore the brunt of oppression. Studies have shown that women were more likely to be subjected to excessive physical abuse than men. They were more vulnerable, less likely to respond with force. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest.” Women, like men, were stripped naked and whipped and humiliated in front of their children and the larger community.

The abjection of slavery took  an added dimension when women were concerned. They were the victims of sexual abuse, from harassment to forced prostitution, and from breeding to rape. Rape by sailors on the slave ships, and rape by overseers, slaveholders, and their sons in the Americas was a persistent threat to all, a horrific reality to many. Used, like it continues to be used today, as a weapon of terror, rape was meant to assert power over and demean not only the women, but also their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, who were reminded daily that they were considered less than men since they could not protect their womenfolk. Breeding through compulsion or incentives was another appaling feature of the gender-based violence and exploitation women had to endure. Overall, the sexual abuse of women was part of the larger attempt at demoralization and submission of the entire community.

Slavery did not recognize the sanctity of marriage.  Couples and families could be broken up at any time, without warning. Commonly, except on large plantations, husbands and wives did not reside on the same place, sometimes not in the same neighborhood following sales or owners’ relocation. Thus, the reality is that despite men’s often incredibly heroic efforts at visiting and supporting their families, women were forced to raise their children largely on their own, for as long as they could since they lived under the constant threat of sales, sale of their children, or their own sale.

But in the midst of it all, women fought back in a multitude of ways.  Throughout the Americas, their “insolence” was noted. Verbal confrontations, gestures, attitudes, looks, facial expressions that showed lack of respect and challenged authority were deemed to be mostly the weapon of women. These overt manifestations of hostility and insubordination could be brutally punished. It was often the women who were the poisoners  of animals and people, spreading terror among slaveholders who feared for their lives and the lives of their families, and saw their holdings in beasts and humans shrink.Rejecting the owners’ management of their fertility, mothers and midwives were the abortionists, and the perpetrators of infanticide who refused to bring children into a miserable world and increase slaveholders’ fortunes.

Even if less frequently than men, women ran away to cities and free territories or stayed on their own or with their families in small and large maroon communities all over the Western Hemisphere. In the United States, there were mothers and their children who lived in caves they had dug 7 feet under the ground. Some gave birth there and remained safely hidden for years. During insurrections women fed the fighters, transported ammunition, acted as spies, and tended to the wounded. Some fought arms in hand sometimes disguised as men. Others used their gender as a weapon. The uprising and the revolution in St Domingue, for example, saw some women exchange sexual favors with the French soldiers for bullets and gunpowder. Women were hanged, whipped to death, burned alive, mauled by dogs, or shot for marronage, assault, arson, poisoning, or rebellion.

But one of the most enduring aspects of women’s resistance was the preservation and passing on of culture. Because of the widespread dislocation of families, mothers were, not the only but too often the main, social and cultural nurturers of 15 generations of enslaved men and women in the Americas. Given the circumstances, they, predominantly, provided  their children with the inner strength and the coping mechanisms that enabled them to survive, live, love, hope, create, and form strong, resourceful communities.Through oral traditions, skills, deeds, example, and sheer determination, women largely kept the African Diaspora in the Atlantic world together. They were instrumental in creating and transmitting the dynamic and vibrant cultures we know as African-American, Gullah-Geechee, Caribbean, Bushinenge, Afro-Peruana, Afro-Brasileira, Creole, and antillaise.

The women’s bravery and stamina in a world that tried to degrade them as human beings, as Africans, and as women, is an extraordinarily inspiring example for all times and all places. In a most evil terror system, in a racist, sexist and patriarchal environment, women found ways: they taught, they protected, they nurtured, they challenged, and they fought.

The women’s struggles, alongside the men, did not end with the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. As the need for an International Decade for People of African Descent abundantly shows, their 200 million descendants in the Atlantic world still face daunting obstacles: individual and institutional racism, racial and gender marginalization and discrimination, poverty, de facto segregation and the denial of basic rights. Breaking the silence and confronting these issues, including modern slavery and sexual slavery that primarily victimize girls and women, are our responsibility today so that the next generations will not have to fight the same battles.

As a historian of the slave trade and slavery, there are many things I wish I did not know, or I wish I could forget. But one  thing I know and I will not forget is the remarkable creativity, energy, resourcefulness and fortitude of the women who, with amazing courage and grace, showed us the way.

Ark of Return (detail)

The Ark of Return at the United Nations

That memorable day saw the unveiling of the magnificent  “Ark of Return,” a beautiful, striking memorial designed by architect Rodney Leon, who is also the creator of the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan. The permanent memorial is located on UN ground.