The Importance of Female Slaves in the British Caribbean

Over the past three decades interest in the experience of enslaved women in the British Caribbean has grown immensely. The key explanation is the influence of the women’s movement in the 1970s. Thus, challenging past scholarship that focused strongly on the male perspective. The negative portrayal of these women presented a stereotypical view that the enslaved female was passive, weak and feeble. What I am suggesting then is that enslaved women in the British Caribbean did not hold an inferior position in slave society as previously suggested but had an important role that gave them agency.

Slave Population and the Law

The majority of captured Africans sent to the Caribbean during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade were predominantly male. It is interesting then, that females performed the majority of the work on the plantations. At first women were transported to the Caribbean as a way of controlling the male population. As slave owners began to see the importance of female slaves on their plantations there was a move especially in the latter years of the slave trade to invest in the female population. A decrease in the imbalance of the sexes was seen and enslaved females, therefore, realised their importance in slave society as they were in demand. Unlike that of French or Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, England did not establish a unified slave code but left the different colonies to make their own. The law saw men and women equally as chattel except when a woman was pregnant. This law however, was applied only a few weeks before and after the child was born. Hence, women were exploited and abused to their owner’s content. One of the most devastating acts of punishment is written in ‘The History of Mary Prince’. Hetty, a slave in the same household as Prince, who is pregnant, is harshly punished after accidently letting a cow loose.

‘My master flew into a terrible passion, and ordered the poor creature to be stripped quite naked, notwithstanding her pregnancy, and to be tied up to a tree in the yard. He then flogged her as hard as he could lick, both with the whip and cow-skin, till she was all over streaming with blood…the consequence was that poor Hetty was brought to bed before her time, and was delivered after severe labour of a dead child.’[1]

Role of the Enslaved Female

Women had two primary roles on the plantations; the dual burden of production and reproduction. Women dominated the plantations as field labourers. These females worked alongside the men and did hard labour in their field gangs. Strength was certainly needed as these women were required to dig and cut cane from sunrise to sunset. The gender assumption that female’s are weak goes completely out the window here as it is quite evident that women were physically capable to do tough manual work. Thus, females are important in plantation production and the key sex relied upon. Domestic work is the other major form of labour that women made up. It is believed that this form of labour held a higher status than that of field work, thus field work to a domestic was seen as a form of punishment. Despite the higher status and the belief of a more comfortable lifestyle; domestics were under constant watch of their masters which could not have been easy. Sexual exploitation was common, yet having sexual relations with one’s master could have some perks. This form of agency was part of the unique experience that enslaved women obtained, as was the role of reproduction. As abolition gained momentum female slaves were soon expected to reproduce the next generation of slaves for their masters. Slave breeding, positive incentives and lactation practices were used as means to reproducing slaves. Enslaved women once again saw their importance as family and sexuality were transformed in British Caribbean slave society.

Resistance

Since women and men were both treated equally under the law, under the whip, and shared similar labour roles, both took part in acts of resistance. Plantation owners were suspicious of women and believed them to be more troublesome then men. Subtle day to day activities such as being slow at work or faking illness was economically damaging for plantation owners. One of my favourite sources that I came across talked of a large number of women going to the doctors but sitting in the waiting room and just having a chat. Burning crops and property were some extreme methods. Running away was common which Prince did a couple of times but publishing her autobiography was her biggest resistance against slavery. Despite being seen as the feeble minority, enslaved women were at the heart of slave resistance; a way of surviving these horrific circumstances that so many African women and men were unfortunately apart of.

When looking at slavery it is usually through a male perspective. I found it quite interesting then researching the role of the female on these plantations. These women were not in the background being silent but were quite important for the plantation owners and played an active role in the resistance of slavery.

[1] Mary Prince, ‘The History Of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Related By Herself ‘In Caribbean Slavery In The Atlantic World: A Student Reader, (1st ed., 843-857. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers Limited, 2000), p.843.

Further Reading

Beckles, Hilary, and Verene Shepherd. 2000. Caribbean Slavery In The Atlantic World. Kingston, [Jamaica]: Ian Randle.

Shepherd, Verene. 1999. Women In Caribbean History. Kingston: I. Randle.

or anything by Barbara Bush, Lucille Mathurin Mair or James Walvin

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4 comments on “The Importance of Female Slaves in the British Caribbean

  1. stanleywu1 says:

    This was a really insightful read! I drew alot of connections between your work at my readings about women in the Renaissance from MHIS322. It’s amazing how women could hold so much cultural power and power behind the scenes, yet historical research had always steered away from studying their influence.

  2. This is such an interesting topic. The fact that so many domestics provided slaves for their masters is something that I was not aware of. The extract about Hetty being whipped whilst pregnant and the death of her child is tragic, yet highlights the cruelty and hardships experienced by so many women. The fact that these women were not a silent group but played such an important part in plantation life, as well as an active role in resisting slavery, I believe is something often overlooked.

  3. Like stanleywu1 I’m also in Renaissance MHIS322, so well done we’re very intrigued! The role of domestic female slaves within the plantation was of particular interest to me. I can’t help wonder what would have happened to the ‘half cast’ offspring (if their mother avoided been tied to tree)? ‘Half cast’ children would have been around I’m assuming, as result of the domestic slaves been used by their masters for sexual exploitation?

  4. nathanfallon says:

    What a great topic to consider, especially after the release of ’12 Years a Slave’ last year. When I was reading your post I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fantastic female slave portrayal by Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years. I spend a few good hours sobbing through that movie in London in January (in a good way – just so powerful). So If you haven’t seen it its definitely worth a look. Obviously your work regards the British Caribbean, but I think a similar experience of slavery was had in the Southern States. I wonder, when you talk about women being brought over to control the male slave population, in what was was this intended? Was it a kind of concession to encourage harder work?
    On a side note, did you come across the work of Diana Paton in your research? She has published a great deal of work on the slavery in the Caribbean, with a lot of her work looking at the gender history and slavery, worth a look if you have the time.

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