- Women and Slavery: The Modern Atlantic
At the risk of replaying a wearing record, I will join other scholars who lament that, in yet another tome on slavery, there is no colonial Canada in the Modern Atlantic; or that, in other words, there ain't no forty-eighth in the Atlantic slavery debate. The second volume of Women and Slavery: The Modern Atlantic reveals a similar cartographic abyss that George Elliott Clarke and others have highlighted, most notably in Paul Gilroy's groundbreaking The Black Atlantic (1993). Fifteen years later, that gap persists, though publications about enslavement in pre-Confederation Canada are increasing: a recent and tremendously popular example is Afua Cooper's The Hanging of Angélique (2006), the history of the enslaved woman Marie Joseph Angélique, accused of (then tried and executed for) setting fire to Montreal on 10 April 1734. Surely an essay about this woman would have augmented Women and Slavery's analyses of enslaved women's strategic negotiations of slave-holders and slave systems in the Modern Atlantic, within 'the relative coherence of the Americas.' Indeed, the problem with exempting slaveholding, colonial Canada from historical study is that the omission dangerously simplifies transatlantic slavery, when it is the system's enduring and expansive complexity, of capital and labour, that laid the foundation for our contemporary economic 'globalization' as the heir of Atlantic Europe's cultural and political imperialism.
Nevertheless, Women and Slavery covers much vital territory, topical and tropical/southern: reproductive strategies in Jamaica and Louisiana; politics and Catholicism in colonial Brazil; law in the post-revolutionary Carolinas; emancipation and manumission via rachat in the Caribbean; freedom and citizenship respectively in Barbados and the French Antilles; pro-slavery representations of Jamaican women's sexuality; African-American literature during Jim Crow; and two historiographies of women and slavery. The strength of the papers is uneven, and some essays contradict others (albeit productively). Nicely, the collection reads as a conversation - among people who disagree - about the 'second sex' and slavery.
Standouts include Barbara Krauthamer's essay about fugitives in the American Southeast who found not only refuge with the Creek Indians but kinship and a particular self-identification as well, and Laura F. Edwards's superb analysis of enslaved women's influence in post-revolutionary Carolinian law. Joining Krauthamer's work, Edwards [End Page 548] articulates the academic tendency to 'conflate inequality with civic exclusion [and] associate the effective exercise of guaranteed civil and political rights with personal agency and social progress.' Rather, Edwards explicitly converses with other essays in the collection and delivers a nuanced and expertly researched demonstration of how enslaved women shaped the civic sphere and became 'subjects of legal or political history.'
The collection should be commended for its panoply of concerns and authors and its breadth and depth of historical research. Regardless of the gaps and generalizations to which such a geographically and historically broad survey is prone, the book contributes valuably to our knowledge of women in slavery, and that is essential, for, without enslaved women, slavery is impossible.
Yet, though the preface accurately indicates the collection's tendency to consider women primarily in light of reproduction and sexuality (with noted and notable exceptions), it gestures problematically toward a paternalistic paradigm: 'Masters in the commercialized modern world of the Americas enslaved women primarily for their reproductive abilities and raped some to beat them into physically self-depleting submission, but the women enslaved may well have found their greatest triumphs, their means of self-realization, in the children they raised and the families they nurtured, in spite of it all.' However, privileging women's domestic and maternal 'triumphs' against brutality clouds women's angrier and subtler means of self-realization and strategy against blatant and furtive aspects of slavery. In the larger conversation, however, several authors in this collection, along with Marie Joseph Angélique before them and together with the many famous and nameless women enslaved in the Americas, remind us of the nuances of negotiation and the complexity of...