Slave Women in Caribbean Society 1650-1835
New titles on women and slavery.
- Slave Women in Caribbean Society 1650-1835
Barbara Bush (James Currey, 1990 xiii+190 pp.)
- Women & Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture
Jean Fagan Yellin (Yale University Press, 1989, xxi+226 pp.)
The evidence needed to rescue slave women from the iniquity of oblivion is not only lost or hidden but often distorted by men. Inspired by the 'strong polemical articles' of women activists, Barbara Bush set out to analyse myths and 'the fallacious assumptions upon which they were based'. The parti pris is not disguised.
Her book is a thesis converted to instruct the general reader, with substantial bibliography, guides for further reading and only 'major quotes... given detailed references'. This can mean that 'stereotypes' are defined by solemn use of the Journal of Social Psychology or 'the gaps between actual behaviour, the informants' description of such behaviour and the historical records themselves' cited from a learned article. Such simplicities are matched by nudging captions:
this cartoon suggests that the girl resisted the captain's sexual advances and is thus being punished. It alludes to the widespread sexual exploitation of female slaves.
(The unhelpful insistence upon portrait layout of illustrations, whatever their shape, is presumably the fault of the book designer.)
Matters improve when Barbara Bush concentrates upon her subject. Her initial discussion of class, gender and colour in European images and accounts of black women is based on clear evidence. She then tackles (with some repetition) the problems that arise when analytical models of any kind are applied to highly uneven source materials. 'Slave Society, Power and Law' and 'Plantation Labour Regimes' describe legal differences between British, French and Spanish colonies, British 'ameliorative legislation' and the diversity of women's work in various occupations, times and places. 'Plantocratic' witnesses are shown contradicting abolitionists, modern quantitative historians disputing. The text becomes even more interesting, and more problematic, when Barbara Bush evokes women slaves' resistance, their family and community life, motherhood, African culture and 'the spirit of freedom'. To write such history from within and deep below forces her to use external evidence of, for example, women's resistance to flogging in the American South, When fertility is the issue, however, the comparison is shown to break down.
It is unfortunate that so much reliance had to be placed on a work like John Stedman's Narrative (and that Thomas Thistlewood's Jamaica diary has only just been published), but the author deserves praise for her careful synthesis of material concerning a period when human agencies in the Caribbean clashed at the most fundamental level. Barbara Bush does not mention the ownership by Gladstone's father of estates with over a thousand slaves, but S.G. Checkland's family biography demonstrates how very difficult it was then and is now to establish the facts about one of history's darkest passages.
Jean Fagan Yellin has been less ambitious in scope but more original. Excellent illustrations are integral to her arguments, the key image being a slave woman chained and exposed – in a patriarchal culture that 'mandated women's public invisibility'. Many women, however, strove to play a full part in abolitionist movements, refused to be silent and fought for their cause in innumerable ways. Professor Yellin follows the transformations of their borrowed emblem and its motto ('Am I not a Woman and a Sister?') – found in texts, engravings, tokens, etc. – in the speeches and writings of Angelina Grimke, the journalism and polemic of L. Maria Child, Harriet Jacobs' narrative of a slave girl and Sojourner Truth's speeches, and finally in 'The Greek Slave', a sculpture by Hiram Powers, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Eetter and Henry James' The Bostonians. It is claimed that men not only appropriated a complex symbol but, because James based his foolish Miss Birdseye on the eccentric Elizabeth Peabody, destroyed the memory of nineteenth-century women acting in a great common cause despite handicaps of race, sex or class.
This is a fascinating interdisciplinary quest, pursued with an impressive range of iconographical, textual, social and ideological research. But at least one conclusion can be questioned. Professor Yellin supports her view that James should have based Miss Birdseye upon Maria Weston Chapman with John Jay Chapman's admiring description of his grandmother and a splendid daguerrotype of the abolitionist heroine. (A biography of her is sadly needed.) How close do they bring us to what James ironically called 'The Real Thing' in a short story of that title? The equivocal letters by and about Mrs Chapman printed in Clare Taylor's British and American Abolitionists soon prove that panegyrical evidenre should be treated with as much caution as satirical. Neither literature nor real life is so easily captured.
It should also be noted that Professor Yellin has voluntarily loaded herself with iron, or golden, fetters. Her beautifully produced book is structured as a tragic drama of opposing cultural 'discourses' and encrusted with terms of academic art: hegemony, subtext, semiotic, inscribed, encoded and so on. One wonders how a 'middle-aged white Boston Brahmin' or a 'free black antislavery feminist' of the time would react to such mind-forged manacles.
John Chapple is the author of Science and Literature in the Nineteenth Century (Macmillan, 1986).
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