Women and their forgotten role in Slavery Nigel Sadler Sands of Time Consultancy

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Women and their forgotten role in Slavery

Nigel Sadler

Sands of Time Consultancy
Often when the history of slavery is studied the argument is over whose history is being told. This debate rarely goes beyond whether it is the history as written by or about the white or black involvement. There is often an assumed male history.
History books mainly reflect the involvement of men. The abolitionists (Clarkson and Wilberforce), the Slave traders (Canot) and the enslaved (Equaino). In portrayal of enslaved people, men appear more frequently. In the movie Amistad it is told from the point of view of Cinque; in the TV series Roots it follows Kunta Kinte. This male dominated history fails to acknowledge, belittles and devalues the role of women at all levels of slavery. What about the female slave traders, slave owners, enslaved females, female rebels and abolitionists? Are they really invisible?
Verene Shepherd, in Women in Caribbean History states that up until the 1970s Caribbean books neglected women because early historians looked at colonisation, government, religion, trade and war fare, activities men were more involved in. Also some historians felt that women’s issues did not merit inclusion and where women could have been included, such as slave uprisings, their contributions were ignored.
Shepherd believes changes occurred with the influence of women’s groups who tried to correct the gender neutral or male biased history. There was also a shift into social history, looking at the non elite and into topics such as family life. Books started to look at women’s social and political activities. Unfortunately there was a lack of first hand accounts from the period of the transatlantic slave trade – accounts written by men at the time either ignored women or perpetuated the myth of female inferiority and stereotyping. Gender sensitivity history was one thing, finding the information regarding women was another.
Fortunately Gender Analysis is now an integral part of historical studies. Even so the gender bias of history is still apparent for all to see, and hopefully sessions like today will dispel some of these false inequalities. Even though as historians we want to dispel some myths, this may be hard. Some women accepted their ‘place in society’. They lived a stereotypical life as there was no other option available to them. Social construction, not physical, dictated what work was available to them.
In the early days of colonisation of the Americas men out numbered women. Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century shipped Irish women to Jamaica and ‘Women of loose life’ from London to Barbados to remove this imbalance, but it was not successful.
Slave traders

There is little written about individual slave traders. We learn about most through the logs of slave ships but there are some notable exceptions such as Theodore Canot whose memoirs were published in 1854. Of Italian and French parents, he had fallen into the slave trade as a slave ship captain and then a trader on the West Coast of Africa. His wife Rosaline, born in Georgia, gains several mentions for example during dinner with Captain Bell, a Navy officer, she refilled the wine glasses.

It is assumed that Rosaline, even though a Mulatto, was also involved in the selling of slaves. One of the glimpses of this was found during the research into the slave ship Troubadour that sank in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1841. The Pitsfield Sun, dated April 29, 1841:  A SLAVE SHIP WRECKED – The brig Troubadaur, under Spanish colors, reported as belonging to Rosaline Kitan, of Bissau, (Africa) with 289 slaves on board, from the coast’
Researchers believe that Rosaline Kitan is probably a misspelling of Rosaline Canot who lived at Cape Mount in northern Liberia. The Canots had a connection with Bissau, capital of Portuguese Guinea, an active slave trading port. Theodore had agreed to stop slaving in 1840 but it is known that he went back on his word. Maybe this is why his wife could have been trading in slaves at this time.
Slave Ownership

It must be remembered that it was not just men who owned the enslaved. Some women built up their own plantations and others inherited estates from deceased husbands. Also some wives were given enslaved workers by their husbands as gifts, or by fathers to daughters mainly to carry out the household chores, or were if young as companions or play friends, like Mary Prince was in her early days in slavery. Other wives brought slaves to carry out their own small ventures, with a bit of independence from their husbands.

In 1815 European women owned 24% of those enslaved in St Lucia. In Barbados 40% of properties with 10 or less enslaved people were owned by women. In Bridgetown, Barbados women were the principal slave owners, using slaves in domestic occupations.
In the past it was assumed that female slave owners were not as brutal as their male counterparts. However, this wasn’t a sex divide. There were good and bad male and female slave owners. Some of the harshest treatments could be vetted out by a slave owner’s wife against a female slave who her husband had been intimate with or an enslaved child that was the result of a sexual encounter between her husband and a slave. Some European women took out revenge on the enslaved for their punishment by cruel fathers or husbands. European women’s cruelty shocked many observers in the Caribbean. Mary Prince stated that her mistress caused me to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin, when applied to my naked body by her own cruel hand. And there was scarcely any punishment more dreadful than the blows I received on my face and head from her hard, heavy fist. She was a fearful woman, and a savage mistress to her slaves
Harriet Jacobs in Incidents of a Slave Girl (1861) was scathing about the treatment meted out by the slave owner’s wives explaining it as retaliation for their husband’s sexual interaction with enslaved women. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage.
She recorded that Mrs Flint’s nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash.. . If dinner was not served at the exact time on that particular Sunday, she would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till it was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans that had been used for cooking. She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meager fare with the remains of the gravy and other scrapings.
Enslaved Women

Historians are unable to agree a figure for the numbers of enslaved Africans shipped across the Atlantic, falling somewhere between 9 million and 16 million but they all seem to agree that a third were female illustrated here by the numbers from Trouvadore. This means that between 3 and 5 million women were shipped to the New World as Enslaved Africans. Here are some figures from the Royal African Company for slaves shipped to Barbados 1673-1723.























Men were in demand for heavy labour. Later women were required to keep the men company and as domestic and field labourers. However, as time passed the enslaved women started to out number male slaves. Part of the reason for this was that enslaved females lived longer.


Males per 100 females






St Kitts









St Vincent






Demerara (British Guiana)



(B W Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1984)
Unfortunately there are few first hand accounts written about slavery in the Caribbean. The strongest is by Mary Prince, whose memoirs were published in 1831. For more accounts by enslaved females one has to look to the USA. The most detailed was by Harriet Jacob, born a slave in 1813. She was sold in 1825 to Mr Norcom.
Did the Law protect the enslaved?

In the early days the British did not have a unified slave code, meaning British territories produced their own. The French and Spanish had unified laws. The French Code Noir made provisions to protect pregnant and sick women for encouraging child bearing whilst the Spanish Siete Partidas stated enslaved women would be freed if they were sexually abused or used for prostitution by their owners. In the 19th century Britain introduced some standard laws. Some of these reduced the types of punishment that could be given to enslaved women, and forbade punishing a woman in public, the number of lashes she could receive and forbade the punishing of a pregnant enslaved woman. Unfortunately, these laws were often ignored and the enslaved had no protection.

What was their role in the work place?

Some worked in the home as domestic slaves, looking after the home and the children, in fact young enslaved females were expected to be companions of the slave master children. The females were the cooks, seam mistress, maids, cleaners and some were employed as wet nurses, breast feeding the children of her slave master. Not all domestic slaves had easier lives. Washerwomen, laundresses, water carriers as examples worked as hard as the field labourers and suffered physical punishment if the work was not satisfactory. They were also expected to work in the fields especially at harvest time.

More females than males worked in field labour. The reason behind this was that as they lived longer they worked longer in the fields. Slave owners did not see the enslaved women as delicate as African women were used for this type of labour in Africa.

There were three levels of field work. Heavy work was carried out by those aged between 16 and 50. Lighter work was carried out by young enslaved between 12 and 16, the ill, pregnant women and new mothers. The final gang did the weeding and clearing fields of small items and consisted mostly of children under 12. Older trusted women would supervise these children.

The enslaved sometimes were able to produce their own food or craft work for the family and market. Generally women dominated this production, following the African tradition where the women looked after the home. The market also became the place where the enslaved could gather news so it would be obvious that if enslaved women dominated the markets then they were also responsible for this dissemination of information which could allow news to be passed between family members and even to planning uprisings. The market was a vital place because here rules for enslaved congregation were relaxed.

Even though family life was restricted and the threat of family break up was high due to the selling of children and movement of slaves between plantations irrespective of family ties, enslaved women ran the home – this was a matriarchal society. With the end of importation of Africans after 1807 in British territories and 1808 in the USA, slave owners realised the importance of stronger family ties. Without stable family life there would be no children and the enslaved population would decline. The enslaved had to have children to maintain their numbers.

This did not mean families were not split up. Harriet Jacobs talking about her free carpenter father, stated that ‘His strongest wish was to purchase his children; but, though he several times offered his hard earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded’.
Martha Browne was born in Kentucky in 1808 and her autobiography, Autobiography of a Female Slave was published in 1857. On the death of her master Harriet was sold and separated from her mother. She recounted the day of her sale. ‘A tall, hard-looking man came up to me, very roughly seized my arm, bade me open my mouth; examined my teeth; felt of my limbs; made me run a few yards; ordered me to jump; and, being well satisfied with my activity, said to Master Edward, "I will take her."
Martha recorded how devastated her mother was. "Sshe gave full vent to her feelings in a long, loud, piteous wail. Oh, God! that cry of grief, that knell of a breaking heart, rang in my ears for many long and painful days. ……….Ah, when I now think of my poor mother's form, as it swayed like a willow in the tempest of grief; when I remember her bitter cries, and see her arms thrown frantically toward me, and hear her earnest - oh, how earnest -prayer for death or madness’. It was accounts like that that fuelled the anti slavery movement in the USA. However other accounts were too horrific and were threatened with censorship.
Sexual abuse and Rape

One of the most horrific aspect of life for many enslaved woman was being raped by masters, overseers and ships crews, or expecting to be ‘baby machines’ producing a next generation slaves. As property the enslaved workers were open to physical and sexual abuse. Many slave owners didn’t see this as rape. After all they believed not only that these women were their property to do with as they pleased but also there was a belief that Black women had low morals, lacked shame and were promiscuous. On one hand the men saw fit to rape the enslaved. On the other there were stereotypical views that the appearance of Black women, their noses, lips, hair and bosoms were all described as unattractive.

In 1825 Harriet Jacob was sold to Dr. James Norcom. People were concerned by Harriet's descriptions of the behaviour of Norcom (name changed to Flint in the book) and his sexual advances. Lydia Maria Child, the books editor, defended the inclusion of the material by arguing I am well aware that many will accuse me of indecorum for presenting these pages to the public; for the experiences of this intelligent and much-injured woman belong to a class which some call delicate subjects, and others indelicate. This peculiar phase of slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn. I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen to them. I do it with the hope of arousing conscientious and reflecting women at the North to a sense of their duty in the exertion of moral influence on the question of slavery, on all possible occasions. I do it with the hope that every man who reads this narrative will swear solemnly before God that, so far as he has power to prevent it, no fugitive from slavery shall ever be sent back to suffer in that loathsome den of corruption and cruelty.
Harriet wrote ‘I now entered on my fifteenth year …….. He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him - where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; Harriet claimed that he had fathered 11 children by enslaved women. Wives knew what was happening and children resulting from these rapes were passed into the slave-trader's hands as soon as possible.

It wasn’t just the men that sexually abused the enslaved women. According to Shepherd, some white working class women who owned enslaved Africans females rented them out as prostitutes. The children born to these enslaved women were then brought up by the slave owner until they were weaned and then were sold off.


Liberty is an overriding right for all. All Enslaved worked for this state of freedom and liberty. Some slave owners saw females were more troublesome – some were called ‘bothersome domestics’ and ‘female demons’.

Maroon women showed women were leaders in rebellions and as priestesses who rallied troops. The most formidable in Jamaica was the Ashanti Nanny maroon. Being a free woman she never personally experienced slavery, but was painfully aware of the suffering of her fellow enslaved countrymen and women. She led a highly organised community in the Back Rio Grande Valley in resistance. She never partook in the fighting but using the magico-religious tactics she advised on the best time to wage war, gave charms to protect warriors and participated with military commanders in rituals designed to weaken the enemy.
At the end of the first Maroon War in 1740 she received a grant of 500 acres of land from the Jamaican Government for herself and her people. By anyone’s standards this was a remarkable achievement. Her success in resisting slavery is partially evidenced by the largest and most formidable stronghold of the Portland Maroons being named after her – Nanny Town in the Blue Mountains.
Another rebel was Carlota who was one of three leaders in a slave revolt in Matanzas province, Cuba in 1843. She was captured, tortured and killed. Today a monument at the Triumvirato Sugar Mill commemorates ‘Carlota’s Rebellion’.
Passive Resistance was more common. Day to day resistance included domestic enslaved women accidentally burning the favourite dress of the lady of the house during ironing or putting too much salt in the food, women singing songs as they worked and teaching their children about their traditions, Africa, and rebellion leaders. Unfortunately some took drastic action against themselves and their families – taking poison to induce abortions or killing their own children to prevent a life of slavery and abuse. Unfortunately any perceived resistance was dealt harshly. Mary Prince wrote about a pregnant enslaved domestic called Hetty who had badly tied up a cow which later escaped. Hetty was stripped, tied to a tree and whipped, regardless of her pregnant state. This caused her to have a premature birth and the baby died, and Hetty later died from further beatings.

Harriet Jacobs ran away from her owner in 1834. A reward notice was put out for her offering $300. In the Caribbean it was hard for runaways to hide unless there were maroon societies. However in the USA the Underground Railroad was an informal process where those who were opposed to slavery aided escaping enslaved. It could be as simple as providing food, to hiding them and risking arrest or worse.

The most famous female conductor was Harriet Tubman. Born a slave in 1820, when her owner died in 1849 she feared being sold. Without telling her husband, a freed black man called John Tubman, she ran away, following the North Star at night to avoid detection and walking 100 miles to Pennsylvania. In 1851 she began as a conductor and during 19 trips back to the south she helped over 300 people escape to freedom in the North. She returned to Maryland on several occasions to rescue her sister’s family and then her brothers. In 1857 she rescued her parents. She also went back to get her husband but he had remarried.

Harriet’s disguises were good and one time she ran into her former master who did not recognise her. She was a hero to the enslaved and a reward of $40 000 was offered for her arrest. Harriet was never caught and never lost a ‘passenger’, becoming known as the ‘Moses of her People’.

During the Civil War she became a spy for the Union Army. After the war she turned her attention to helping educate the newly freed blacks, setting up many schools, and supported campaigns for women’s rights. In 1897 Queen Victoria recognised the bravery of Harriet by awarding her a Silver Medal. The famous campaigner Booker T Washington spoke at her funeral and she was buried with full military honours.
Free Blacks

Slave ownership was seen as a sign of status, and was a necessity if some businesses were to survive. Unfortunately, this meant that some free blacks, either those born into freedom or freed from slavery aspired to own slaves – this included women.

However, many freed blacks tried to help those still enslaved. One of the better known was Sojourner Truth. Isabella Bomefree was born into slavery in 1797. In 1827 a new state law emancipated all the slaves in New York. She was free but a son was illegally sold into slavery. She sued for his return in court and brought her son home.
Her road into anti slavery movement started when she found religion. In 1843 Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth, meaning traveling Preacher, and left home without telling her family. She joined a Massachusetts Utopian Society, where members like Frederick Douglass taught her about social reform like women’s rights and abolition of slavery. When she left the society she became a popular public speaker to anti slavery and women’s rights groups.
She was one of America’s most noted anti-slavery campaigners. Exaggerating her own experience of slavery she could make her point effectively and in 1850 The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave was published. Her skills as an orator could hold the attention of a room full of people and her reputation was recorded by other woman suffragists and anti slavery lobbyists.
The Growth of the UK Women’s Anti Slavery Society

Hannah More, was born in 1745. Her father was a strong Tory schoolmaster at a boarding school he had established in Bristol. Hannah became a pupil and then taught there in her early adulthood. In 1767 she left the school to follow literary pursuits but her literary failures caused More's withdrawal from London's intellectual circles.

Her new friends were the Evangelical clergyman and hymn-writer, John Newton and the abolitionist Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. Her poem, Slavery, was published in 1788 to coincide with the first parliamentary debate on the slave trade. She was also a friend of Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London and a leading abolitionist.
Hannah More in retirement wrote best-selling works of Evangelical piety, and continued in the anti-slavery movement. She was a role-model for the generation of Evangelical women who came after her.
When the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was set up in 1783 it was an exclusively male organization. Some of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement were totally opposed to women being involved in the campaign. In 1826 William Wilberforce wrote about women's involvement in the Anti Slavery Society stating ‘For ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions - these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture. I fear its tendency would be to mix them in all the multiform warfare of political life’.

Although women were excluded from the leadership of the Society in the UK, a considerable body of working and middle-class women was involved in the campaign from the very early stages. These White women spoke out against the slave trade, boycotted slave-grown produce and wrote anti-slave trade verses to raise awareness of the violation of family life under slavery. The strength of their support for the campaign can also be gauged through their subscriptions to the Abolition Society; 10% of the 1787-8 subscribers were women, but in some areas, such as Manchester, women made up over a quarter of all subscribers.

Josiah Wedgwood, potter and abolitionist, produced a ceramic cameo of a kneeling male slave in chains with the slogan 'Am I not a Man and a Brother?'. Later, women campaigners secured production of a similar ceramic brooch, with the caption 'Am I not a Woman and a Sister?
After the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, organisations were formed to campaign against slavery. The most important of these was the Anti-Slavery Society founded in 1823. Members included Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. Women were allowed to be members but excluded from its leadership. In 1825, a meeting took place at the home of Lucy Townsend in Birmingham to discuss the role of women in the anti-slavery movement. Townsend, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge and other women at the meeting decided to form the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later becoming the Female Society for Birmingham).

The formation of other independent women's groups soon followed. By 1831 there were seventy-three of these women's organisations campaigning against slavery. Jane Smeal was one of the leading figures in the anti-slavery movement and established the Glasgow Ladies Emancipation Society. Elizabeth Pease created the Darlington Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. In 1838, Smeal and Pease published the pamphlet, Address to the Women of Great Britain, where they urged women to form female anti-slavery associations and believed that women should to speak at public meetings.

In a letter written by Quaker William Curtis (living in Alton) to his wife Jane while she was staying with her family in Andover, mixed with family news is one of the best insights we have into the process of abolition campaigning in Hampshire. He writes ‘Is there no one in Andover to be found who will act the part of a Mrs Heath in the slave question? A female antislavery association seems to be wanted there to spread information – the one formed here has flourished amazingly, and distributed pamphlets in all directions. The Alton petition has been numerously signed, and that to the house of lords will be given to the bishop to present. Many of the neighbouring parishes are following our example’
Wilberforce was concerned that women wanted to go further than the abolition of the slave trade. His fear that women wanted a radical strategy proved to be correct. Early women activists such as Anne Knight and Elizabeth Heyrick were in favour of the immediate abolition of slavery, whereas Wilberforce believed that the movement should concentrate on bringing an end to the slave trade. Elizabeth Heyrick wrote ‘The restoration of the poor Negroes' liberty must be the beginning of our colonial reform, the first act of justice, the pledge of our sincerity. It is the only solid foundation on which the reformation of the slave, and the still more needful reformation of his usurping master, can be built.’ In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick published Immediate not Gradual Abolition. She argued for the immediate emancipation of the enslaved in the British colonies, opposing the official policy of the Anti-Slavery Society for gradual abolition. The leadership of the organisation attempted to suppress the pamphlet and William Wilberforce gave out instructions for leaders of the movement not to speak at women's anti-slavery societies.

Heyrick's pamphlet was distributed and discussed at meetings of Women’s anti slavery groups all over the country. In 1827 the Sheffield Female Society, became the first anti-slavery society in Britain to call for the immediate emancipation of slaves. They wrote Slavery is not exclusively a political, but pre-eminently a moral question; one, therefore, on which the humble-minded reader of the Bible, which enriches his cottage shelf, is immeasurably, a better politician than the statesman versed in the intrigues of Cabinets. We ought to obey God rather than man’

In 1830, the Female Society for Birmingham submitted a resolution to the National Conference of the Anti-Slavery Society calling a campaign for an immediate end to slavery in the British colonies. Heyrick, treasurer of the organization, suggested that the society should threaten to withdraw its funding of the Anti-Slavery Society if it did not support this resolution. This was a serious threat as it was one of the largest local society donors to central funds, and also had great influence over the network of ladies associations which supplied over a fifth of all donations.
At the conference in May 1830, the Anti-Slavery Society agreed to drop the words "gradual abolition" from its title. It also agreed to support Sarah Wedgwood's plan for a new campaign to bring about immediate abolition. The following year the Anti-Slavery Society presented a petition to Parliament calling for the "immediate freeing of newborn children of slaves". Unfortunately Heyrick died in 1831 and did not live to see the passing of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act.  

USA White Women Abolitionists

In the USA some of the female abolitionists were more direct. Fanny Wright was born in Dundee in 1795. Her Guardian James Milne encouraged Fanny to question conventional ideas and this had a lasting influence on her. She visited the USA in 1818 and after returning to England published her observations. In 1824 she returned to the USA and visited a socialist community established by Robert Owen and his son Robert Dale Owen. She converted to Owenism and decided to form her own co-operative community.

In 1825 Wright purchased 2,000 acres of woodland near Memphis, Tennessee and formed a community called Nashoba. Wright bought enslaved people from neighbouring farmers, freed them, and gave them land on her settlement. Her community had some controversial believes, especially her decision to encourage sexual freedom as she saw marriage as a discriminatory institution. She developed her own dress code for women including bodices, ankle-length pantaloons and a dress cut to above the knee, a style later promoted by feminists such as Amelia Bloomer, Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.The Nashoba co-operative community failed and in 1828 she abandoned her experiment, and sent the former slaves to Haiti.

In 1829 Wright wrote that ‘All men are born free and equal! That is: our moral feelings acknowledge it to be just and proper, that we respect those liberties in others, which we lay claim to for ourselves; and that we permit the free agency of every individual, to any extent which violates not the free agency of his fellow creatures.’ She joined with Robert Dale Owen to publish the Free Enquirer. In which Wright advocated socialism, abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, free secular education, birth control, changes in the marriage and divorce laws. On Wrights death in 1852 Robert Dale Owen wrote she was ‘an advocate of universal suffrage without regard to colour or sex’.

Sarah Grimke (born 1792), and her sister Angelina, daughters of slaveholding judge from South Carolina, abhorred slavery. After moving to Philadelphia in 1819, joined the Quakers and produced several anti slavery publications.

They moved to New York and became the first women to lecture for the Anti-Slavery Society. This brought attacks from religious leaders who disapproved of women speaking in public. Sarah wrote bitterly that men were attempting to "drive women from almost every sphere of moral action" and called on women "to rise from that degradation and bondage to which the faculties of our minds have been prevented from expanding to their full growth and are sometimes wholly crushed." Refusing to give up their campaign, they became pioneers in the struggle for women's rights and in 1838 Sarah linked the rights of slaves to the rights of women but abolitionist Theodore Weld (who Angelina married in 1838) advised her not to "push your women's rights until human rights have gone ahead."

Others used their skills. After hearing Theodore Weld at an anti slavery meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe was determined to help. She wrote a novel with the main character based on Josiah Henson, an escaped slave whose narrative Harriet had read. Her Novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written as a serial, appeared in the anti-slavery journal the National Era, in 1851. Published as a book the following year Stowe stated "The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away with the good effects of all that can be attempted for them by their best friends."

The first edition of 5000 copies sold out in a week. Despite being banned in the South, over 300,000 copies were sold in its first year. Frederick Douglass later pointed out: "Its effect was amazing, instantaneous and universal". Supporters of slavery were furious and thirty pro-slavery novels were published in an attempt to reverse public sympathies in what had now become a propaganda battle. Stowe responded by publishing The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), a book of source material on slavery.
The struggle for equal rights for the enslaved didn’t end with emancipation acts. These were just words on paper and many refused to treat former enslaved workers or blacks with respect and equality. Many of those who fought for emancipation continued their struggles to better the conditions of Black workers. Josephine St. Pierre, born 1842, had a white mother and her father had been born in Martinique. When she was 16 she married George Lewis Ruffin, the first African-American to graduate from Harvard Law School. The couple were both active in the struggle against slavery.

Josephine also supported women's suffrage and in 1869 with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone formed the American Woman Suffrage Association in Boston. With money left to her by her husband she funded the Woman's Era, the country's first journal published by and for African-American women advocating women's suffrage and equal civil rights.

Some women in the USA did make it into the ‘Mans World’. Following her book An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) and the publication of the Weekly Newspaper Anti-Slavery Standard With her husband, David Lee Child, in 1839 Lydia Maria Child along with Lucretia Mott and Maria Weston Chapman was elected to the executive committee of the Anti-Slavery Society. This upset some members of the society and Lewis Tappan argued that: "To put a woman on the committee with men is contrary to the usages of civilized society." In the USA some male leaders were as committed to women's rights as they were to the abolition of slavery. When women called their first convention Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave, attended. Mrs Anthony recalled "He said he could not do otherwise; that we were among the friends who fought his battles when he first came among us appealing for our interest in the antislavery cause”. Until his death Douglass was an honorary member of the National Women's Suffrage Association. Others disagreed. In 1840 a group formed a rival organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.
The affects of slavery did not end in 1834 in the UK. In 1855 Lydia Prideaux wrote about the journey of a group of emancipated enslaved from Havana to Africa, via England. Many had been in Cuba for over twenty years and most had their own freedom. They were in Plymouth awaiting a ship to take them to Lagos from which they could travel to their native Lucomi. Lydia was one of a number of people interested in their welfare: she arranged games for the children in her garden, while others helped in providing religious services in Spanish or with negotiations for their passage.
The account by Lydia Prideaux was subsequently updated with reports of the progress of the party after their arrival in Africa, and reports of the arrival of further groups of emancipados on their way to Africa. Lydia did not approve of the drawings of emancipados bound into the account, commenting ‘All the females… wore their dresses very long… the elder [children], as well as the Women were more fully clothed, and very modest in their behaviour. In this respect the Sketch in the Church Missionary Intelligencer does not do them justice; any more than it does their faces, which are grotesquely caricatured, and such is the case with the other Sketches I have seen.’
The 1840 World Anti Slavery Convention – Inspiration for Women’s rights?
The women's anti-slavery societies in the UK were disbanded after the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1833. However, several of the women that had obtained experience in these societies now turned their attention to other issues including the campaign for parliamentary reform. The UK experience was not unique. It applied to the USA and Caribbean. Many of the female abolitionists were also involved in the suffragette movement for women and the rights of the poor. Some women moved into or strengthened their ties with the women’s suffragette movement because of their treatment whilst lobbying against Slavery. One of the major turning points for many of these radical women was their treatment at the 1840 World Anti Slavery Convention.
Anne Knight, a Quaker who worked closely with Thomas Clarkson had argued for immediate abolition of slavery without compensation. Her contribution to the anti-slavery campaign was recognised when a village for Jamaican freed slaves was named Knightsville.

Anne was furious when women delegates were not allowed to speak at the World Antislavery Convention held in London. The behaviour of the male leaders inspired Knight to start a campaign advocating equal rights for women. This included having gummed labels printed with feminist quotations that she attached to the outside of her letters. In 1847 she published what is believed to be the first leaflet on women's suffrage, and established the first association for women's suffrage, which first meet in Sheffield in 1851.


When the American delegates Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott, went to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 both were furious when they, like British women, were refused permission to speak. Stanton recalled: "We resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advocate the rights of women." In 1848 they organised the Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. In 1866 Stanton, Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone established the American Equal Rights Association.

The treatment of the women went beyond not being allowed to speak. In 1840 Benjamin Robert Haydon began painting a group portrait of the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Anne Knight wrote to Lucy Townsend complaining that most of the leading women involved in the anti slavery campaign were not going to be included. I am very anxious that the historical picture now in the hand of Haydon should not be performed without the chief lady of the history being there in justice to history and posterity the person who established (women's anti-slavery groups). You have as much right to be there as Thomas Clarkson himself, nay perhaps more, his achievement was in the slave trade; thine was slavery itself the pervading movement.
To Conclude

Society should learn from these women of the past. After the Transatlantic trade had ended it wasn’t the end of slavery. Nor was the 1834 Emancipation Act or the ending of the Apprenticeship scheme in 1838. Indentured labour replaced slave labour and was seen as another form of slavery. This was outlawed in 1917.

Slavery still exists today and women and children are a major focus of the modern day slavers, or as known today human traffickers. In 2001 the U.S. research group Protection Project stated that there was an estimated two million women and children sold into the sex trade every year.
The legacy of 2007 should be that everybody lobby to eradicate slavery worldwide.


Beckles, Hilary, “White Women and Slavery in the Caribbean” in Verene A. and Hilary McD. Beckles, Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World: A Student Reader, 659-69.

Ferguson, Moira, “History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave”, 1996
Gottlieb, Karla, The Mother Of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny, Leader of the Winward Jamaica Maroons, Africa World Press, 1998.
Mair, Lucille Mathurin, “Women Field Workers in Jamaica During Slavery” in Shepherd, Verene A. and Hilary McD. Beckles, Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World: A Student Reader, 390-97.
Ibid., “The Rebel Woman in the British West Indies During Slavery” in Shepherd, Verene A. and Hilary McD. Beckles, Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World: A Student Reader, 984-1000.
Prince, Nancy, A Black Woman’s Odyssey through Russia and Jamaica: the Narrative of Nancy Prince, 1850 (rep. 1990 with introduction by R. G. Walters).
Seacole, Mary, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857 (1984, edited by Alexander and Dewjee).
Shepherd, Verene A., “Gender and Representation in European Accounts of Pre-Emancipation Jamaica” in Verene A. and Hilary McD. Beckles, Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World: A Student Reader, 702-12.
Shepherd, Verene A. “Women in Caribbean History”, 1999
For more information about individuals named in this paper type the name into google

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