Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia


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In , the Crown withdrew the Royal African Company's monopoly after it had sold slaves on credit to startup planters in Barbados, who paid their debts too slowly for the company to continue to operate.

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Enslaved Women in America

But with its monopoly gone, private traders swooped in to build up the trade in slaves. In part because more independent traders were involved and selling to more planters around the Chesapeake, the number of enslaved Africans coming to Virginia rose eightfold in —, to 8,, dipped slightly to 6, in —, and more than doubled to 13, in — From to , 90 percent of the enslaved Africans brought into Virginia went to work in the tobacco-rich Tidewater region.

The independent traders, mostly based in remote Bristol and Liverpool, were aided by the increasing liquidity provided by guinea coins minted from the Royal African Company's gold and held by the Bank of England, founded in The term "guinea" was a nod to the gold's African origins, as was the elephant on the front of the coin. On the Gold Coast of Africa, meanwhile, a series of wars were intensified with financing, including weaponry, gained through the selling of slaves. These wars resulted in even larger numbers of captive Africans whom a powerful warrior regime in the interior, known as Asante, then sold, mostly to the Dutch but also to the British.

Slaves from this region came to be known in Virginia as Coromantees , after a minor British trading fort in the area. In order to escape Dutch and increasingly also French competition on the Gold Coast, smaller British traders moved east to regions beyond the Niger River delta, particularly in the Bight of Biafra. By the nineteenth century, well-armed traders there, known as Aro, purchased goods from British traders on credit, which they loaned to buyers in the interior, again on credit, to be paid later with slaves.

They developed a shrine and associated oracles, which served as a kangaroo court to condemn whole communities to slavery for defaulting on their loans. These captured men and women were labeled in Virginia as Igbo, or sometimes Eebo, a name that derived from a pejorative ethnic stereotype in the region. The ensnaring of whole communities there, as opposed to just male prisoners of war, meant that substantial numbers of women and children from the Bight of Biafra made the Middle Passage, which produced higher mortality at sea and led to an American stereotype of Igbo being weak.

More women arriving in Virginia meant that the slave population in the Chesapeake quickly reached a point where it increased naturally, which is to say through births rather than entirely from new arrivals from Africa. This demographic success gradually reduced planters' dependence on the transatlantic trade, and imports after the Seven Years War never returned to earlier levels, leaving the Rhode Islanders to supply mainly Charleston.

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In the Bight of Biafra British traders favored trading towns known as Old and New Calabar, and in Virginia the slaves from this region became known as Calabars. After , the British moved south of the equator, as far as the mouth of the Congo River, or to what was called the Loango Coast. There they competed with the Dutch and, more intensely, with the French, who were building up a large sugar and coffee industry in Saint-Domingue. In Virginia, slaves from this region came to be known as Angolas, from the Portuguese term for the region.

A second triangular pattern of trading developed in British North America and the United States, as merchants from Rhode Island sold naval stores and other New England provisions to sugar plantations in the West Indies and returned to Rhode Island with molasses. There they distilled the molasses to very high-proof rum, which they took to parts of Africa outside the European slavers' primary investments—Upper Guinea, mostly, an area also referred to as Senegambia, and the Windward Coast—to sell for slaves.

They then carried these captive men, women, and children to the West Indies to sell to sugar planters for more molasses. The significant economic benefits this trade created for Rhode Islanders and early southern cotton planters became part of the debate during the American Revolution and the subsequent Constitutional Convention over ending the Atlantic trade in slaves.

The abolition movement that had begun with British Quakers had spread to the United States, including Virginia. It aroused popular alarm against the transatlantic trade by reporting on the horrors of the Middle Passage and, among other strategies, spreading far and wide an iconic image of the British slave ship Brookes , one of several slaving vessels in the s measured to demonstrate the extreme crowding of the captives on the slave deck.

In , the British Parliament restricted the number of enslaved Africans who could be transported in given spaces on the ships, and in Westminster banned trade to foreign territories, including the new United States. On March 25, , Parliament ended British participation in the trade altogether. In Britain, the stakeholders in the trade were primarily merchants invested in the goods and ships. In the United States, they were planters, whose profits from owning slaves were often substantial and who seldom found slavery to be in conflict with their Revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality.

Thomas Jefferson , in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence , criticized Britain's practice of selling slaves to colonists at inflated prices, and debate over the civil standing of individuals enslaved in the new United States resulted in a constitutional compromise allowing limited additional numbers to be sold into the country.

Constitution ceded temporary control over imports to the states by prohibiting Congress from interfering with the "Migration or Importation such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit," for twenty years. However, at its first opportunity, Congress passed an "Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves" on March 2, , effective January 1, Elite Virginia planters supported the prohibition of further imports of slaves, but not because they opposed slavery.

Rather, many of them had transitioned from tobacco to production of less labor-intensive wheat, and for three generations or more their holdings of enslaved Africans had been increasing naturally, creating a surplus of hands. Around the same time, the invention of the cotton gin and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution created a cotton boom in the southern states. Virginia slaveholders thus found themselves positioned to become the suppliers of the hands needed to cultivate cotton, in part by vigorously supporting the ban on the transatlantic slave trade.

Absent new supplies of enslaved laborers from Africa, planters from Georgia west to Texas would be forced to purchase captives from Virginians. Between and , more than 1 million enslaved men, women, and children were transported in a large and very profitable domestic trade from the Upper South—mostly Virginia—to what came to be known as the Deep South.

Elsewhere, the French gradually gave up slaving in the wake of the Paris revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The Danes and the Dutch dropped out. The Portuguese legally participated in the South Atlantic slave trade until Brazil banned it in Brazil became independent in The trade survived illegally for two decades after that. A northern branch, supplying Cuba's booming sugar and coffee estates, often with United States ships and financial connections, defied increasing British diplomatic and naval suppression until The human toll of the slave trade in terror, death, and widespread social disruption, is difficult to fathom.

Miller, J. The Transatlantic Slave Trade. In Encyclopedia Virginia. Miller, Joseph C. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Aug. Thank you! Thanks to your advocacy efforts on our behalf, we're happy to report that the recently passed Omnibus Spending Bill includes a very small increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities!

While our work is not over with regards to the upcoming budget to be passed in the fall, the Omnibus Spending Bill represents an endorsement of the important work that the humanities do for our communities. These funds will continue to support our work of providing free access to authoritative content about Virginia's history and culture.

Miller The transatlantic slave trade involved the purchase by Europeans of enslaved men, women, and children from Africa and their transportation to the Americas, where they were sold for profit. Origins Portuguese mariners began patrolling the west coast of Africa in the fifteenth century, primarily in search of gold. Time Line - A shipload of enslaved Africans lands in Lagos, Portugal, marking the start of a slave trade from Atlantic Africa. April 22, - Sailing far to the west in an attempt to pick up the best winds down the west coast of Africa, Pedro Alvares Cabral sights what is present-day Brazil in South America.

He claims it for Portugal. After stealing fifty or so slaves, the ships sail to Virginia with the intention of selling them. These are the first Africans to enter the Virginia colony. Four days later, the Treasurer arrives and sells an unknown number of its slaves. March 2, - The U. Congress passes an Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. Congress in , goes into effect.


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Eltis, David and David Richardson. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Harms, Robert. New York: Basic Books, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, O'Malley, Gregory E. Rediker, Marcus. Through essays, photos, and primary source documents, the female experience is explored, and women are depicted as central, rather than marginal, figures in history.

Slavery in the history of the United States continues to loom large in our national consciousness, and the role of women in this dark chapter of the American past is largely under-examined. This is the first encyclopedia to focus on the daily experiences and roles of female slaves in the United States, from colonial times to official abolition provided by the 13th amendment to the Constitution in Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia contains entries written by a range of experts and covering all aspects of daily life.

Topics include culture, family, health, labor, resistance, and violence. Arranged alphabetically by entry, this unique look at history features life histories of lesser-known African American women, including Harriet Robinson Scott, the wife of Dred Scott, as well as more notable figures. Deleso A. This is useful for humanities collections, in particular for history and gender studies subjects, but anyone with an interest in the Old South, the American Civil War, the roots of feminism and the era of slavery would find this a worthwhile read.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Although other books cover this issue, the encyclopedia approach is unique.

Enslaved Women in America

All public and academic libraries supporting American history, African American studies, or women's studies programs should purchase this work. For instance, when masters or mistresses mistreated their indentured servant women physically or sexually or violated the terms of their labor contracts, the servants had a right to complain at the local court for redress; in some jurisdictions, their pleas met with remedies from the bench.

Nevertheless, patriarchal models of authority prevailed, and despite their access to the courts, indentured women remained restricted by a series of laws that gave their masters extensive powers over them. They could not marry or travel while under contract, and if they ran away, became pregnant, or challenged their masters, they would be penalized with extra terms of service.

The statutory language is clearly indicative of class-based notions of dissolute sexuality. Indeed, the statutes enacted across imperial North America, like those iterated above, were devoted to creating and enforcing differences among women on the basis of not only race but class as well. Native Americans understood a range of conjugal unions, only some of which paralleled the Western concept of marriage. Particularly, before contact with Europeans, when Native American law held sway, polygyny—the marriage of one man to several women—was a normal feature of many Native societies across the Americas, practiced mostly by elites.

Most individuals in Indian communities engaged in monogamous unions with other individuals, but these could be dissolved at the discretion of either party. These marriages forged kin and clan associations, social bonds, and diplomatic alliances. However, where European trade networks, expansion, and settlements penetrated existing Native American communities, the colonizers attempted to align Native marital practices with their own laws.

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Marriage was central to European social and religious order, and in New England, New France, and New Spain, for instance, missionaries worked earnestly to persuade their converts of the superiority of European marriage; indeed, Native conjugal practices were a central institution that Europeans sought to control. In many cases, European and Indian conflicts over marriage reshaped gender roles of Native men and women. From the colonial southeast, across the continent, and in the southwest, marriage among Native Americans was a central instrument in brokering and fostering intercultural alliances.

On imperial frontiers, for instance, intermarriage between European men and Indigenous women cemented diplomatic and economic alliances between Indigenous communities and European traders. Like their male counterparts, women indigenous to North America who married Europeans held a unique status, simultaneously within and outside the European legal systems.

In a later period, some European men took advantage of this extralegality to dissolve these relationships when it suited them, something that would have been nearly impossible in marriages among whites. Marital unions of enslaved men and women in British North America proceeded according to custom and generally carried no legal protections. However, in other European jurisdictions, marriages between slaves carried legal recognition. In 17th-century New Amsterdam, for instance, a group of enslaved men petitioned their owner, the Dutch West India Company, for their freedom and that of their wives.

Their request was granted, but it came with significant qualifications and did not reflect the status of all New Netherland slaves. In addition, some enslaved women in New Netherland appear to have been successful in their requests for free status because of the value that whites placed on their domestic labor.


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In French and Latin America, slaves were often granted a limited legal personality with regard to marriage. While practices varied, several types of legally recognized marital arrangements seem to have been possible within and across the status of enslaved and free; occasionally, they were racially exogamous as well.

Moreover, the legal recognition of marriages among slaves and between enslaved and free persons had the backing of ecclesiastical courts and the Catholic Church: depending upon jurisdiction, enslaved people could successfully sue masters who threatened to separate couples or families, for cruelty, and as well as to protect their property rights. Evidence from Latin America and French and Spanish Louisiana testifies to some official recognition of unions between slaves as well as between enslaved and free blacks, and, occasionally, between whites and blacks. When courts—usually ecclesiastical jurisdictions—ruled in favor of enslaved couples over masters, they upheld the legal primacy of marriage over slavery.

In addition, in some jurisdictions marriage provided an avenue out of slavery. Despite its ban on interracial marriage, an early version of the Code Noir stipulated that concubines bearing children to unmarried free men would gain their freedom if the couple married. Although a later revision of the Code eliminated the legality of sex across the color line, interracial unions occurred, and some were sanctioned. Moreover, in comparison to English jurisdictions, the manumission policies under both the French and Spanish regimes were more liberal and defined for ex-slaves and free people of color.

This accounted for half of all manumissions after the assumption of New Orleans. The conditions and legal regimes in Spanish settlements created a society in which racially mixed unions were tolerated and in which free blacks, and particularly the women who predominated among that population, enjoyed the possibilities of legal, social, and economic standing. Despite French and Spanish hostility towards free blacks, the imperial powers left unscathed many of their rights as subjects. The situation across colonial British America could not have been more different. Colonial statutes almost always proscribed marriage and sex between Europeans and African- or Indian-descended people, often under penalty of banishment.

Extralegal, if locally recognized, unions seem to have predominated in regions such as the Chesapeake as well as colonial Louisiana and Florida and resulted from various causes, among them uneven sex ratios, the initial legal indeterminacy between slavery and servitude, religious attitudes, economic and political instability, and the mixing of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans. If free African- and Indian-descended women were able to marry under these terms, they could not expect that marriage would guarantee the protections and disabilities of coverture as their European counterparts did.

Marriages between two enslaved spouses were denied legal protection altogether in British North America. Throughout the early modern Americas, political authorities tailored legal regimes, including the legalities of marriage, to reflect both imperial inheritance and the realities of New World settlements. Free black men in late colonial and revolutionary New England, for example, sought to exploit these competing tensions to their advantage. These legal strategies employed by plaintiffs set coverture against slavery and used the legal subordination of wives to husba claims that met with some success in the lower courts.

Coverture positioned wives and husbands differently in marriage, of course. In lateth-century New England, for instance, the rules of coverture were used to limit the rights of enslaved and free women. In mixed-status marriages in which wives were free and husbands were enslaved, however, women could not consistently claim rights as heads of households and were forced to balance their rights as heads of households with their subordination as wives.

Free women of color would need to carefully navigate the competing aims of masters, local courts, and statute law in order to keep their families intact. They would need to develop their skills as litigators and their legal acumen if they were to survive the shifting legalities of marriage and race occurring all around them.

Although the association between women and the crime of witchcraft looms large in the contemporary imagination of early North America, women were far more likely to be accused of slander or defamation, sexual crimes, or running away than of felony witchcraft. In all of these cases, the crimes and their punishments intersected with and varied according to race and status under the law.

Where women were the targets of defamation, for instance, the offending words typically cast aspersions on their sexual reputations and could also extend to accusations of interracial liaisons. For women, gossip was a way not only to judge others but also to enforce collective values. Slander was a major mechanism for women to exercise power in early modern America, a classic weapon of the weak; women had few other means to attack their enemies. Fornication outside marriage and bastardy, or out-of-wedlock pregnancy, predominated as crimes for which free women were prosecuted in early North America.

This was one of the few official functions of women before the colonial courts, one that recognized their legal expertise. Prosecutions for fornication and bastardy occurred in the North American colonies throughout the colonial period. Some urban centers, such as Philadelphia and New Orleans, exhibited a relative tolerance for a range of sexual behaviors outside of marriage and an acceptance for unofficial marital practices; both of these spanned across class and race.

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In the former, a double standard—or the drive to hold women alone accountable for sexual infractions, rather than alongside their partners—emerged by the 18th century. Extramarital sex was punished with whippings or fines, even when the offending couple married, and, particularly in the early years of settlement, required public penance as well.

Where servants were numerous, such as in the Chesapeake, lawmakers evidenced a concerted drive to prosecute their sexual crimes. Here, too, men were prosecuted alongside women; while the latter bore the brunt of punishments, the courts were interested in determining paternal identity in order to secure support for the child. Servant women who bore children out of wedlock in the time of their servitude were saddled with a year or two of extra service in order to pay for their misdeeds.

Statutes in particular indicted the character of servant women who bore children out of wedlock. Authorities also enacted particular punishments for white women who engaged in interracial sex, selling them into long-term labor contracts. Prosecutions of sex crimes before the courts were shaped by racial considerations from nearly the beginning of settlement, and by the early 18th century some British colonial jurisdictions had written race-specific statutes punishing bastardy.

In Virginia, mixed-race offspring of white women and men of color were sentenced to thirty years of service; similarly, the out-of-wedlock offspring of free women of color who had been servants in Virginia, for instance, were often bound over for similarly lengthy terms of service, typically thirty to thirty-one years. In the upper south, these laws effectively shaped the household polity for free blacks, creating a bound system of mixed-race, if nominally free, laborers.

Many free mixed-race children became servants for at least the first three decades of their lives. As had been the case in England since the enactment of the 16th-century Statute of Artificers, it was perfectly acceptable to compel free individuals, if they were poor, to labor. Keeping family members together was less important to the law than forcing the poor to work.

Unlike their free counterparts, enslaved women could not legally be construed to be mothers, because the legal status of slavery for the most part negated prosecutions for fornication and bastardy. In another point of contrast, enslaved women were subjected to plantation justice as well as the criminal justice system that lawmakers erected specifically for slaves.

When they stood before the court as criminal defendants, African and Indian slaves and servants were more likely to be convicted than their European counterparts. Enslaved women were subjected to all manner of private punishments meted out by their masters or mistresses or, if tried in the separate slave courts established in Virginia and other slave colonies, they were convicted in a summary justice system and endured far more severe punishments than their free and European counterparts.

Some evidence from after the period of the American Revolution suggests that local communities mitigated these punishments or more actively sought redress for enslaved women who had been convicted of crimes. In these cases, the abstraction of the law could be undercut by the concrete knowledge of communities, and cases, even those involving slaves, could hinge on local knowledge.

Historians of early American women have argued for some time that the Revolution did not substantially alter the legal status of free women. The Revolution did not challenge coverture or alter the law of domestic relations, and, in fact, female subordination may have even been strengthened in the landscape of the early Republic. Legal changes in the wake of the Revolution did, however, liberalize complete divorce in the United States. While colonial statutes had allowed partial divorces in the form of legal separations a mensa et thoro , only a few jurisdictions had offered absolute divorce a vincula either through the courts, as in Connecticut, or through private legislative act.

Making divorce, albeit on the premise that one party was at fault, more widely available carried fairly radical implications for marriages involving free women. The Revolution did, however, alter the landscape of slavery in the new United States. Northern states, where slavery was never as directly central to the labor system as it was in the south, began enacting gradual emancipation statutes in the wake of the American Revolution. Although in the southern colonies the earliest codes defining racial slavery were elaborated throughout the colonial period and remained in place through the Civil War, a wave of manumissions in the upper south followed in the wake of the American Revolution, when legislators briefly liberalized emancipation statutes.

In the north, free women of color became involved in antislavery work; in the south, they became active petitioners and litigants in court, seeking to maintain or secure the freedom of themselves and their families. Yet, while slavery may have been dismantled or compromised in some jurisdictions, that did not quell racism.

In contrast, the U. Manumissions were restricted to those above the age of thirty, and newly freed individuals were ordered to leave the territory. Marriages across status between enslaved and free people were outlawed, as were interracial unions. The lines of legitimate inheritance, previously much more expansive in Louisiana, were changed to strictly follow marriages. In addition, while Pennsylvania repealed its ban on interracial marriage in , existing and new statutory laws against interracial marriage and sex were strengthened and spread through much of the new United States.

Some Indian nations also enacted prohibitions against intermarriage with African Americans. The altered landscape of slavery in the aftermath of the American Revolution had some liberatory consequences for women of color, but its more repressive features are the ones that truly mark the institution through the eve of the Civil War.

The earliest studies of women and the law in early America include Richard B. A renewed concern for the topic remerged alongside feminism in the s, and by the early 21st century the intersection of gender and the law had become an established subfield of both U. One early expression of the need to consider the gendered politics of law can be seen in Linda K. Kerber, et al. See for instance Barbara S. Their work evidenced a concern for the larger implications of legalities for power relations in society, with work on the Chesapeake and New England still predominating.

Wulf shifted attention to the legal status of unmarried women in mid-Atlantic Philadelphia. A growing literature on Indigenous women has provided a much-needed corrective to the predominance of Anglo America. Even more importantly, this material has fundamentally altered the geographical scope of early American history. Similarly, the literature on enslaved and free women of color, both within and outside of British North America, has measurably deepened in recent years.

Jennifer L. In many cases, the laws and statutes for various imperial colonies across North America and the Caribbean have been published in multiple volume sets over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Many are now available electronically through Google Books, the Internet Archive, or legislative, state library, and university websites. Salinger, eds. To best view the law of race and gender in application and experience, early American scholars often turn to judicial records of local, provincial, notarial, and imperial jurisdictions across and outside of the United States.

Unlike the statute collections listed above, comparatively few court records have been published or made available digitally, but this is changing; some of the printed compilations are available via the Internet Archive or Google Books. However, students should bear in mind that printed compilations may exclude court papers that accompanied the cases, and so checking against unpublished archival materials still remains essential for in-depth legal history.

Students would also do well to consult the websites of state libraries or governments in order to see which of their collections have been digitized.

Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia
Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia
Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia
Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia
Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia

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