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  • Enterprising Women: Gender, Race, and Power in the Revolutionary Atlantic by Cassandra Pybus and Kit Cardrin
  • Robert D. Taber
Enterprising Women: Gender, Race, and Power in the Revolutionary Atlantic. By Cassandra Pybus and Kit Cardrin (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015. 240 pp. $49.95).

Possibility and self-fashioning are the central themes of Candlin and Pybus's study of free women of color during slavery's apogee in the Caribbean. The authors draw on an impressive variety of manuscript and printed materials from archives in Great Britain and the Caribbean to present "mini-biographies" of women of color that push beyond the tropes of "madam" and "mistress" in which [End Page 573] white, male, British writers placed them during and after their lifetimes. In helping readers understand the lives of these women on their own terms and within the larger world they navigated, the authors perform a tremendous service.

The authors root their study in the southern Caribbean during the Age of Revolutions (1763-1830). The islands of Dominica and Grenada, along with what's now Guyana, came into British ownership during the first half of the period, creating a new frontier for sugar and slavery and opportunities for free people of color fleeing discriminatory regimes in Jamaica and French Saint-Domingue (Haiti). The revolutionary wars only increased turmoil, movement, and opportunities to apply entrepreneurial savvy. By focusing on women of color, the authors push the dialogue on gender and the British empire, too often rooted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, back into the eighteenth, a period with considerably more possibility for women and free people of color.

As a social history, the authors employ a qualitative, prosopographical method, weaving together biographies of wealthy women, most for the first time. After a brief introduction, the authors use the story of Mary Rose Fedon, a central figure in the eponymous 1795 rebellion on Grenada, to explore the political and social turmoil of the 1790s Caribbean, turbulence that extended well beyond the Haitian Revolution (1789-1804). The next chapter moves to long-settled Barbados, providing much-needed grounding to our understanding of Rachel Pringle Polgreen and Rosetta Smith, women of color who had previously been known, respectively, as a madam and a mistress. The authors make a convincing argument that these labels hide more than they reveal, particularly regarding both women's skill in business.

Chapter four uses Susannah Ostrehan's dependence on her nieces to free Ostrehan's mother to move the reader from Barbados, with strict rules regarding manumission, to the much newer colony of Demerara (Guyana). The latter colony is also the setting for the remarkable career of Mrs. Dorothy Thomas, who rose from slavery to become one of the wealthiest planters therein. Unlike what many writers of the Caribbean had previously assumed, not all wealth held by women of color came because of a sexual connection with white men. Even among those women who inherited a little were entrepreneurs who turned small bequests into significant fortunes. Chapter six traces the dynamics of Thomas's youngest daughter Dorothea Christina's two marriages to white Britons to further nuance the mistress trope. The final body chapter follows several children of color in their search for "legitimacy and acceptance" in the British empire of the early nineteenth century (149). The authors conclude by tying these biographies to the global history of women and empire, particularly the Ashanti queen mothers, the métis of Senegal, and free women of color in New Orleans.

One of the earliest stumbling blocks for students of African slavery in the Americas is the realization that prior to the Haitian Revolution (1789-1804), many ex-slaves and children of ex-slaves eagerly participated in the slave economy without questioning either the system's underlying logic or its praxis. The authors patiently explain the way that slavery pervaded every aspect of Caribbean life. They also demonstrate the ways that white officials used unverified stories of abusive masters of color to bolster whites' paternalistic defenses. In one of many examples, the authors point to a testimony provided by a Captain Cook to a 1791 Parliamentary inquiry on the state of slavery. Cook eagerly discussed...


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pp. 573-575
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