Women of the Middle Passage: A Story of Resistance

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Annotated Bibliography | Other Topics | Syllabus

Women's Resistance in the Middle Passage: A Story Lost at Sea

by Molly Morgan

Human trafficking has a long and painful history spanning thousands of years.  The most atrocious chapter, however, may have been the 400 years in which European and New World economies fueled the capture and sale of millions of African men, women and children into slavery.  Their arduous journey across the Atlantic would eventually become known as the Middle Passage.  Over the centuries, harrowing tales of slave resistance – both aboard ships and on land – have been recorded and retold, and names like Joseph Cinque, Nat Turner, and Toussaint L’Ouverture have become synonymous with resistance.  The names of women, however, along with the roles they played in resisting their own subjugation are more difficult to find.  Women have largely been ignored by the historical record – women of color in particular - and the Middle Passage has all but washed away their personal histories along with their stories of resistance.  Only by scouring a sparse and often subjective historical record does it become clear that women actively resisted their oppression every step of the way.

The Middle Passage served not only to erase a slave’s sense of human dignity, but the journey also wiped away the collective knowledge and cultural history of those captured.  Before boarding a slave ship, captives were stripped of any physical connections to their past lives, their heads were shaved, and their clothing and adornments removed.  Denying captives these personal and cultural identifiers began the process by which slaves were systematically dehumanized.  Once aboard the slave ship, this practice continued.  Women in particular were subjected to brutal rapes and sexual abuse during their journey; many women arrived at the shores of the New World carrying the children of their abusers.  Although women were frequent victims of sexual abuse, we should be careful not to view them solely through the lens of victimization.  Women frequently resisted their sexual and reproductive oppression through the acts of abortion and infanticide.  There are also many instances of women using their sexual capital to improve their circumstances; this is particularly true in colonies with high Creole populations, such as Barbados.

Mutiny was not uncommon aboard slave ships and so to protect themselves against the threat of insurrection, ship captains typically kept male captives in chains and below deck at all times.  Women, on the other hand, were commonly provided more liberties; typically left unchained, they were often allowed to remain above deck, sometimes even permitted to move about freely.  This limited amount of freedom provided women opportunities to communicate and organize.  Some historians argue that it was actually women who planned, organized and facilitated many of the slave uprisings that occurred during the Middle Passage.

Because of the demand for field laborers, men constituted up to two-thirds of the captives taken from the African coast – although this ratio varied widely depending on geography.  In the Senegambia region, this high demand for male slaves meant that men and boys were taken from all over the region, their ethnicities, languages and cultures varying widely.  Conversely, a large majority of female slaves from the Senegambia region were plucked from easily accessed coastal towns; they were primarily of Wolof origins and would have been able to connect with each other through a shared language and culture.  These women would have been crucial in maintaining their community’s cultural identity and history.


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Annotated Bibliography

Burnside, Madeline. Spirits of the Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Rosemarie Robotham. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Spirits of the Passage provided us with general background knowledge of the slave trade but perhaps more importantly, it helped us to place the trade within a larger global context by exploring its origins.  Chapter 5, “The Americas: Tales of Resistance and Survival” featured a small section that focused on the ways in which women resisted or attempted to regain power over their lives.

McMillan, Beverly C., ed. Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas. Singapore: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Captive Passage, edited by Beverly McMillan, provided us with background information on the trans-atlantic slave trade.  Although the book did not specifically focus on women, chapters 3 and 5, “The Middle Passage” and “The African Diaspora: Resistance and Survival” were helpful in laying the foundation for our project and filling in any gaps in our basic knowledge.  This source also provided many images that we included in our video.

Morgan, Jennifer Lyle. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

In her book, Laboring Women, Jennifer Morgan explores the complex history of women in slavery.  Specifically in chapter 2, “The Number of Women Doeth Much Disparayes the Whole Cargoe: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and West African Gender Roles” Morgan explores the complicated and often forgotten experiences of women in the Middle Passage; their unique oppression and resistance, as well as their roles as community builders and custodians of culture and tradition.

Morgan, Jennifer Lyle. “Women in Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade” TransAtlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity. Ed. Tibbles, Anthony. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005.

In her chapter of Trans Atlantic Slavery entitled, “Women in Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade”, Jennifer Morgan provides us with a detailed account of how women experienced the Middle Passage.  She explains that women’s access to particular components of their society’s culture, their agricultural work, and their sexual and reproductive identities were some of the factors that contributed to a unique history when compared to that of their male counterparts.

Shepherd, Vern A., ed. Working Slavery, Pricing Freedom; Perspectives from the Caribbean, Africa and the African Diaspora. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2002.

This anthology not only provided us with a plethora of detailed information relating to the trans-atlantic slave trade but chapters 9 and 12 specifically focused on resistance (including the resistance of women) as well as women’s role as laborers once they reached the Americas.

Team Members: Jordan Hines, Christine Kennedy, and Molly Morgan.