- Women and Slavery: Africa, North America and the medieval North Atlantic (Volume 1), and: Women and Slavery: the modern Atlantic (Volume 2)
In her pioneering work on slavery in India, Indrani Chatterjee notes that ideas about slavery drawn from experiences in the Americas and the Caribbean led British colonial officials to ‘divide the world made by the slave holders into neat little spheres – one where adult men laboured outdoors, and another where women and children laboured at tasks which could never be measured, and therefore remained undervalued as domestic labour’ (in Gwyn Campbell (ed.), Abolition and Its Aftermath in the Indian Ocean World, 2005: 151). The nineteenth-century colonial emphasis on both the western hemisphere and the male slave experience in shaping discussions about slavery has enjoyed surprising longevity. Even until relatively recently, the historiography of slavery has focused overwhelmingly on the Atlantic experience and the stereotypical image of the male slave ‘toiling from sun up to sundown in fields and canebrakes’ (Vol. 1, p. xv). The 27 articles in the two-volume collection Women and Slavery make an important contribution to ongoing efforts to redress this balance, both by supplementing the Atlantic experience with regional studies of slavery and slave systems in Africa and the Indian Ocean and by focusing on diverse experiences of female slaves, not only in the ‘fields and canebrakes’, but also in the home, the harem and the imagination. The numerous themes of the two volumes are too many and too diverse to do full justice to here, but what they share is a commitment to uncovering a history of female slavery that transcends the compensatory, instead employing insights about women’s experiences of bondage in various times, places and contexts to help redefine our understanding of slavery as an institution.
The first volume, Women and Slavery: Africa, the Indian Ocean world and the medieval North Atlantic, focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on the experiences of female slaves in the domestic realm. In chapters ranging from sub-Saharan Africa to the medieval Norse Atlantic, from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to Madagascar and Mauritius, this volume clearly demonstrates that far from simply being a by-product of a trade in male slaves, in many societies women were the prime focus of the slave trade, as the acquisition of female slaves and the retention of their productive and reproductive labour was fundamental to the functioning of the domestic economy of the home. Among the themes explored in this context are the relative importance of productive and reproductive labour in shaping conditions of servitude, the vulnerability of slave women within the home and the often ambivalent relationships of power and exploitation that existed at the blurred boundaries between kinship and ownership, slavery, concubinage and marriage.
Compared to Volume 1’s geographical and cultural diversity, Volume 2, Women and Slavery: the modern Atlantic deals with the more coherent milieu of the Americas – ‘from Brazil to Barbados and Baton Rouge’ (p. viii). Joseph Miller sees the chapters in this volume as sharing a ‘distinctive general context of modernity’ (p. viii). Unlike the cases explored in Volume 1, where the locus of community recognition and support for slavery lay in households, patronage and clientage, ‘In the Americas these private and personal relationships receded into the background of the vast canvas of modernity, in which commercial relations among strangers, anonymous markets, and imagined communities like nations left individuals at the mercy of abstract categories and impersonal laws that defined and structured them’ (p. xiv). The chapters in this volume [End Page 622] deal in various ways with women’s experiences of these commercialized and impersonal structures of slavery, as well as with the more immediate relationships between slaves, owners and offspring. The chapters explore women’s strategies for surviving or resisting slavery, the sexualization of female slaves, the later gendering of emancipated women...