Slave Trading and the “When” of Gender

In 1798, in the captaincy of Pernambuco in the northeast region of the Portuguese colony of Brazil, a young woman wound up in front of the High Court commission asking to be returned to her homeland. She was no native of Pernambuco. Nor, in fact, was she native to anywhere else in the land of Brazil. Yet like many enslaved Africans and their descendants, she knew that freedom was a precious commodity in the Americas, a legal status that could be bought and sold and not just a humanitarian sentiment. In fact, throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, enslaved peoples throughout Brazil were manumitted from slavery in record numbers, so that by the turn of the 1800s the free and freed population of African descent was higher than the enslaved population in many cities.

However, this woman had not petitioned the High Court to have them set her price for manumission. As far as can be discerned, she was not interested one bit in purchasing her freedom or committing one cent of her earnings to the man who owned her. Her request was of a different sort: to be released immediately from her bondage on account of the fact that she had been enslaved and brought to Brazil illegally by an unscrupulous merchant. The British abolition of the slave trade would not occur until 1807, and in Brazil the final death knoll to the slave trade would not come until even later, in 1830. The illegality of her bondage was thus not rooted in anti-slave trade legislation. Her situation, rather, was that she had been duped into taking passage on a ship from Portugal to Brazil under the auspices of landing a job as a domestic worker upon arrival in the New World. Consequently, her request to return home was a request to return to the Iberian Peninsula and not to West or West-Central Africa.

This story compelled the court to take action due to the particular circumstances surrounding it. In the first place, the merchant who was accused of leading the woman into slavery with promises of free labor on the other side of the ocean had previously been found guilty of doing the same thing three years earlier in 1795. On that occasion the merchant had brought his duped captive to the Brazilian province of Minas Gerais, a land renown for mineral wealth and the central source of Brazil’s gold boom from 1690-1750. This was not the sole reason that the court took her petition serious, however. In Pernambuco itself another case of a woman who was brought freely from Portugal only to be sold into slavery once arriving in Brazil had come before the High Court in 1786. In other words, it appears as if something like a clandestine market of duping African women into slavery through the promise of domestic labor was emerging in the Portuguese Atlantic. 1

Where should our critical engagement with such a phenomenon begin? On the one hand, given the central role that the notion of “the return” holds for Diaspora histories, I am intrigued by the prospect of unpacking what it may mean that the woman requested to go back to Portugal. Slavery had been abolished in Portugal since 1761, and it may very well be the case that the woman had resided in Portugal for long enough by 1798 to certainly think of that part of Iberia as “home.”  (In fact, I came across this case while reading an essay on the abolition of slavery in Portugal and what that abolition meant for the economy, demography, and politics of the Portuguese empire).  On the other hand, the fact that her case was evocative of similar cases- and that these cases point to the possibility of a market in female captives based on “labor-tricking”- also disrupts certain gender-dependent aspects of the middle passage narrative in ways that deserve some further understanding. I am thinking specifically here about the oft-repeated statement that the grand divergence between the slave trade to the US and the slave trade to Latin America and the Caribbean is that the former depended on natural increase to augment the enslaved population while the latter always depended on imports from Africa. Underneath this reading of slave trade demographics and statistics lies the assumption that women were never favored or targeted by traders who shipped enslaved people across the Atlantic.

There is certainly no doubt that the overwhelming bulk of Africans imported to the Americas were shipped to Latin American or Caribbean territories. There is also no doubt that men always formed the bulk of these imports. A cursory glance at any Atlantic slave trade database reveals this. In fact, knowing these two points at first hindered me from thinking that something like a clandestine market for trading women who were legally free into slavery could have existed in the late eighteenth-century Portuguese empire.  After all, if the most prized African body was always male, and if men were always more prized because of the amount of capital they could be expected to produce, what traders would go through the trouble of repeatedly tricking women to get on ships for what by all accounts should have been a fraction of the pay those same traders would have made if they focused their efforts on capturing free and freed men? And so I pushed the case aside for a time, marking it as something that had grabbed my interest but also as some anomaly that did not quite fit into any narrative that I could recognize.

It was only recently, in the context of looking into histories of rebellion and conspiracy in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Cuba, that I found an opportunity to return to the case, as I began to learn that around the close of the eighteenth century some prominent planters in the island in fact did advocate importing more women in order to safeguard the future of Cuban slavery. Thinking about how to replicate and “emulate Saint Domingue but to contain Haiti”- or in other words how to continue importing Africans and lead the world in sugar production without courting and creating the conditions for a massive slave rebellion- some elite planters suggested in the 1790s that if “owners were less focused on the question of immediate profit and more attuned to the questions of long-term viability, they would be more willing to purchase women, who would serve to limit violence and conspiracy.” 2 I thus had my first glimpse of a simple fact: that planters in Latin America and the Caribbean were not always inclined to prefer men over women. In moments when the future of slavery was up for debate, moments that existed prior to and outside of a British-led assault of the slave trade after 1807, assumptions about the gender balance of the trade were also fair grounds for political and economic discussion.

Not always. Temporality was thus an important factor if I hoped to get some understanding of what I was encountering in the Portuguese Atlantic of the 1780s and 90s. Michelle M. Wright’s recent work on thinking beyond the middle passage epistemology invites us to do just this: to move through the “what” of blackness to seek out the “when” (and the “where”) of diaspora. For if middle passage narratives are always potentially radical in the focal point they provide to liberationist and emancipatory politics, they are also often told as stories about a single (and not just singular) time in black history and black identity formation. Reference to the middle passage alone is thus too insufficient to encapsulate blackness in all of its space-time dimensions. 3 Yet middle passage narratives are perhaps also incomplete accounts of blackness because the trauma of dispersal that lies at the heart of these narratives is one that takes the force of white desire (i.e. for bodies, for capital, for prestige) as a given, but does not give full weight to the seduction that can attend that force and that desire. I am not invoking seduction here in a way that privileges the sexual in cases of duplicitous migration (though that may, of course, be an attendant aspect of seduction in many cases). 4 Instead, I am referencing the seduction of being offered a better life in another land, the seduction of taking passage on a ship to a world one knows nothing about in the hopes that the end of the journey will result in better circumstances than the circumstances that one is leaving behind. It is thus a matter of thinking about how and when forced relocations and “voluntary” relocations intertwine in the making of the middle passage, and how voluntarism and covert shipping perhaps hold keys to helping us rewrite the gendered dynamic of slave trades.

Could planters and officials in Brazil, who likewise experienced a resurgence of the sugar economy in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, and where likewise elites worried about the tensions inherent in trying to duplicate Saint Domingue, have similarly began advocating for more women to fill out the hold of slave ships at the end of the eighteenth century like planters in Cuba were doing? If so, it stands to reason that some merchants looking to make big bucks- but also looking for ways around expensive capital investment in human property- may have shunned sailing to Africa to pay for enslaved women in favor of tricking African women already residing in Portugal into boarding slave ships with offers of paid domestic work in Brazil. In any event, I will end by noting that sometime between 1810 and 1812, a ship carrying more than 400 Africans from Rio to Havana was seized by Henri Christophe’s Kingdom of Haiti and the captives were freed. 5 One wonders the gender ratio of the ship, the length of time in which Brazilian merchants had been sending such ships to Cuba, and how many on board had been duped into the middle passage with promises of free, domestic labor. For despite the fact that the number of men continued to out pace the number of women who were put into the bottoms of slave ships, without asking such questions we will continue to overlook those moments when women were preferred by some traders and how such temporally bound preferences informed the gender dynamics of slave trade histories.

  1. Fernando Novais, “A extinção da escravatura Africana em Portugal no quadro da política pombalina,” Aproximações: estudos de história e historiografia, (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2005), 98-9.
  2. Ada Ferrer, “Speaking of Haiti: Slavery, Revolution, and Freedom in Cuban Slave Testimony,” in David Patrick Geggus and Norman Fiering, eds., The World of the Haitian Revolution, (Indiana University Press, 2009), 227.
  3. Michelle M. Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology, (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)
  4. See for instance Verene Shepherd, Maharani’s Misery: Narratives of Passage from India to the Caribbean, (University of West Indies Press, 2002
  5. Ferrer, 240
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Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Comments on “Slave Trading and the “When” of Gender

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    Great post Greg! You’ve certainly convinced me to add a bit of nuance to how I teach the gender disparities of the slave trade.

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