Theorists, Strategists, and Histories of Slavery

Enslaved women filling bamboos with water at the well and pounding rice at Mr. Ellis House in 1854. Published by J. W. Bradley in 1859 (Courtesy of Schomburg Center)

In the 1640s in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, Maria Portogoys, a “half free,” formerly enslaved woman, arranged that her daughter be apprenticed as a household servant. Jennifer L. Morgan interprets this act as a strategic effort to break the matrilineally inherited commodification inherent in Atlantic racial slavery. Morgan’s wide-ranging Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic has women like Maria Portogoys at its heart. This “interdisciplinary examination of ideas” (23) asks readers to reorient our understanding of enslaved African and African-descended women, thinking of them as intellectual agents, as theorists and strategists, rather than primarily as people to whom history happened. 

Reckoning with Slavery develops and expands the concerns of Morgan’s influential earlier book, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004), which focused on the significance of African women’s presence and reproductive potential in early colonial Barbados and South Carolina. Reckoning with Slavery, however, is more explicitly indebted to work from disciplines other than history, building in particular on the work of Black feminist theorists and literary scholars such as Christina Sharpe, Hortense Spillers, and Sylvia Wynter. Morgan does more than translate and provide archival grounding for the work of these theorists. She also argues persuasively that enslaved women’s embodied experience of slavery enabled, indeed compelled, them to understand and challenge the system’s brutality in specific ways. In lingering on the brief moments in the historical record when individual women are brought into view, and in pausing to think about what it must have meant for women to recognize–to reckon with–the commercial implications of their potential and actual pregnancies, Morgan requires readers to sit with horror. This strategic move challenges the weight of centuries of denial of Africans’ social and familial relationships written into the sources historians use.

Reckoning with Slavery works on a broad canvas. Part One begins with an analysis of the proportion of women and girls among the captives on early slave ships (those that sailed before 1700) and the means historians have of knowing about them. Subsequent chapters discuss the development of political arithmetic and associated disciplines in early modern Europe, especially England, and early modern European writings about Africa. Here, Morgan seeks to show that European claims that Africans lacked appreciation of value worked to position Africans as enslavable. Part Two focuses more directly on enslaved women, ranging geographically across the English American mainland and Caribbean colonies as well as Dutch New York. Two chapters focus on the middle passage and the moment of sale in the Americas, respectively. The book culminates in an analysis of women’s disruption of the process of commodification through armed uprisings, marronage, and care for themselves and their families, as well as their refusal to reproduce. In working at such a scale, Morgan engages with multiple places, multiple fields of secondary literature, and multiple sets of primary sources. Her approach enables her to raise big questions and to juxtapose material that is more often separated in the fields of groups of specialists who usually look past one another.

Within a book that brims with ideas and insights, among its most significant contributions are its reinterpretation of the Black Radical Tradition and its analysis of the relationship between racial slavery and “numeracy.” Reckoning with Slavery revises Cedric Robinson’s implicitly masculinist construction of a Black Radical Tradition rooted in enslaved Africans’ refusal of and resistance to slavery specifically through armed insurgency. Morgan emphasizes that women participated in armed actions too. More profoundly, she situates the core of enslaved people’s opposition, and thus of the Black Radical Tradition, in what she speculates was women’s acute awareness of the contradictions of a system of slavery that depended on their physiological ability to reproduce while disavowing the connections they built with their children; a system that defined them as essentially kinless. 

Reckoning with Slavery challenges historians who have reckoned with slavery in the numerical sense without reckoning in the intellectual and moral sense with the subjectivity and intellectual work of enslaved people. Here, Morgan provides another important insight. Developing points made briefly in Stephanie Smallwood’s magisterial Saltwater Slavery, a book that anticipates many of Morgan’s arguments, she suggests that racial slavery developed alongside, contributed to the formation of, and was in turn sustained by, English intellectual developments that became demography and economics. “The economy that emerged as a mode of thought in seventeenth-century England,” she argues convincingly, “might be more enmeshed in ideas of racial slavery than economic historians’ peripheral treatment of slavery might suggest” (57). After this book, it should be impossible for narratives of the development in England of demography, of arithmetic, and of everyday numeracy to be written as if slavery was a mere footnote to English history. Even so, Morgan’s argument would have benefited from greater contextualization. In particular, she does not discuss earlier European forms of abstraction and accountancy such as those used by mercantile communities in Antwerp or Genoa, some of whom themselves contributed substantially to the development of racial slavery. She thus misses the opportunity to specify what was new in seventeenth-century English ideas and practice, and how that related to racial slavery and racial capitalism. 

Whether fundamentally novel during the era of racial slavery or building on earlier developments, it is undeniable that the practices of abstraction and patterns of thought developed in early modern numeracy are built into the source materials available to historians who write the history of slavery, including that of enslaved women. Morgan subtly and effectively critiques the language and underlying questions of scholars who, as she puts it, remove the “experience of being sold” (196) in their discussions of trajectories in prices of enslaved people. Still, she works with as well as against the products of aggregation. She uses quantitative data to emphasize the numerical importance of women in the early slave trade and of enslaved women in early English colonial societies, aiming to overturn the conventional wisdom that such women were seriously outnumbered by enslaved men. She is persuasive in arguing that historians must take African women’s presence in the Americas more seriously, particularly in the period prior to 1700, when the limited data available shows that a higher proportion of captives on slave ships were women and girls than at any other time. Yet even at this high point of female presence, women and girls were distinctly in a minority, constituting 42 percent of captives where sex data survives.1

Questions about the implications for women of being part of a gender minority risk being overshadowed by Morgan’s presentation of material from the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, which at times overstate the proportions of women present. Morgan claims that 53 percent of voyages between 1514 and 1700 carried more women and girls than men and boys (45). However, comparing the summed totals for men and boys with those for women and girls for each pre-1701 voyage where sex data survives shows that the latter were a majority in, at most, 28 percent of such voyages.2 My purpose is not to deny Morgan’s emphatic point that “the women are there” if we look for them in the historical record, nor is the difference especially consequential for Morgan’s overall, convincing, argument that women captives’ specific location within regimes of Atlantic slavery placed them at the heart of the development of racial capitalism. The discrepancy is nonetheless worth noting in case others take the figure to imply that women were in the majority among enslaved people in early American slave societies. Paying attention to the disparity in numbers of men and women on board slave ships pushes us to ask questions about the experience of being an enslaved woman in a society in which women were indeed outnumbered by men, and encourages us to attend to women’s experience in Africa as well as the Americas. 

In the end, the numbers are not the important thing about Reckoning with Slavery. Rather its importance lies in its drawing together of multiple threads, in many fields of scholarship generally assumed to be separate, and in its sustained use of historically informed imagination. Morgan draws and holds readers’ attention to the “actual women” (254) who must have recognized their own commodification and that of their childbearing, and who used that knowledge to recreate kinship, to “reclaim community for life outside of and opposed to the plantation and its attendant structures of domination and extraction” (253). The threads of this rich and powerful work will generate new scholarship for years to come. 

  1. Slave Voyages search: See also David Eltis and Stanley L. Engerman, “Was the Slave Trade Dominated by Men?,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23 (1993): 237–57. Morgan assumes that the availability of sex data depends on whether or not captains recorded it and thus tells us something about their values, but does not consider the possibility that the data may have been recorded and subsequently lost.
  2. 93 of 336 voyages on before 1701 with at least 1 percent captives recorded as men, or of 363 voyages before 1701 with at least 1 percent of captives recorded as male. The difference is due to the presence of 27 voyages where the database gives a percentage for male captives, but not for men, women, boys or girls.
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Diana Paton

Diana Paton works mainly on the former British colonies in the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica, but she is interested in the whole of the Greater Caribbean region, and its relationships with other parts of the world. Her current work is on the politics of maternity and reproduction in Atlantic Slave Societies and grows out of the 'Mothering Slaves' project, done in partnership Emily West, Maria Helena Machado, and Camillia Cowling.

Comments on “Theorists, Strategists, and Histories of Slavery

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    Very interesting and important.
    What about future research on African and descendant women in—
    1) maroon and kilombo liberated zones (+legally free San Basilio De Palenque, Colombia)
    2) free people of color communities in many countries?
    Hope that these help.
    Tyman, Ung

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