Member of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Presentation Made at the Panel Discussion on “Women of African Descent”
An IYPAD Event, United Nations, NYC, 19th October 2011
My presentation provides a panoramic view of the experiences of African women who suffered under the European-directed trade in enslaved African captives across the Atlantic and of African women and their descendants who were brutalised by enslavement in the Americas. It takes its inspiration from the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action which identifies slavery and the slave trade as appalling tragedies in the history of humanity and identifies them as historical injustices and root causes of present-day racist attitudes towards people of African descent, which my fellow panellists will speak to in greater details.
There were four essential lines of historical human trafficking that included women and girls: the internal, domestic trade in Africa; the trade dominated by Western Europeans across the Atlantic, the Arab trade in enslaved Africans across the Sahara to northern Africa and Southern Europe and the Indian Ocean and East African trade towards India. The under-reporting, the destruction of records, the smuggling even after the official ending of the trades, the attempts to downplay the magnitude of the atrocity – all help to explain why it is almost impossible to arrive at any accurate figure of the quantitative dimensions of what is increasingly being called the Maafa or African holocaust. But it was wrong and a crime against humanity, whether it involved 1 or 100 million.
In terms of the trade across the Atlantic, we know that enslaved women were captured in the same general areas as men – in that wide area from Senegambia to Angola. Southern and East Africa and Madagascar, became catchment areas especially to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the 19th century. The quantitative study of the trafficking of people from Africa to the Americas from the 15th to the 19th century has revealed that 65% of those traded to the Americas were men, 21% were children and the rest were women. Women may have been in short supply for the trade to the Americas because of their numerical dominance in the trans-Saharan and domestic trades, which increased their cost beyond what enslavers in the West were willing to pay.
The conditions aboard ship and the death rate were appalling. The overall mortality rate was 10-20% on the Middle Passage but demographic historians have shown much higher percentages on individual voyages. It also appears as if females survived the Middle Passage better than males.
Once located in the Caribbean, enslaved women were subjected to various forms of exploitation. They outnumbered men in the field gangs that did the more arduous work. In the complex and hierarchical division of labor that existed on large plantations, men were valued for craftsmen skills or work in the semi-industrial processes of the sugar mill. As field laborers (and as domestics and concubines), women saw their bodies become the site of power contestation.
In addition to the abuse of their bodies through arduous physical field
régime and severe whipping, enslaved women were open to great sexual abuse.
Neither colonial statutes nor slave codes invested enslaved women with any rights
provides the best example of sexual exploitation of enslaved females by overseers and his exploits are graphically outlined in the Book, In Miserable Slavery edited by the late historian Douglas Hall. Thistlewood was not alone as a sexual predator during slavery. Robert Wedderburn wrote in 1824 of his Scottish father, James Wedderburn:
My father's house was full of female slaves, all objects of his lust; amongst whom he strutted like Solomon in his grand seraglio or like a bantam cock upon his own dunghill.... By him my mother [Rosanna] was made the object of his brutal lust....1
This reality of enslaved women’s lives caused all sources to demonstrate in one way or another, that slavery was a system of gendered tyranny. As a result, women’s resistance to enslavement – on all sides of the Atlantic, in fact - was endemic. The evidence of resistance from marronage (land and sea) to armed revolts - is compelling and speaks to the existence of the slave trade and slavery as existing within a context of endemic mass opposition. Of course, women suffered for their participation in resistance against slavery, some paying with their lives for daring to contemplate liberty. These examples from Jamaica will illustrate. The names I will read represent a sample of those punished for participating in the 1831/32 emancipation war that forced Britain to pass the Emancipation Act just a year later:
It was in recognition of the fundamental contribution of women to the anti-slavery movement that many States in the Black Atlantic singled out women among its post-colonial icons: Cecile Fatima of Haiti; Nanny of the Jamaican Maroons; Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth of the USA; Nanny Grigg of Barbados; Alida of Suriname; Tula of Curacao - all recognized as quintessential rebel women who embodied the spirit of Black women's resistance to systems of domination. Their actions, in addition to those of some intellectuals, politicians and humanitarians in Europe, ensured that by 1888, the slave systems had been abolished in all European jurisdictions in the Americas.
It is for these black women that we as African descended women demand reparation from all states that sanctioned this Maafa – which not only destroyed African lives and left traumatised descendants but which so under-developed Africa and the Caribbean. We must continue to work to ensure that the atrocities of the past are never repeated because as Emperor Haile Sellassie the 1st said all those years ago, but it is still timely, “throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voices of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph”. Today we are breaking the silence to avoid such a charge being laid against our generation.
1 Robert Wedderburn, The Horrors of Slavery (London, 1824), For more on the transatlantic trade in African captives to the Caribbean, see Hilary Beckles & Verene Shepherd, eds., Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World (Kingston, 2000). On women’s experiences, see Verene Shepherd, Women in Caribbean History (Kingston, 1999) and Barbara Bush, Slave Women in Caribbean Society (London, 1990)