All Woman

'Petticoat Rebellion?'

All Woman writer

Monday, August 06, 2001    

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The role that women played in the emancipation movement in Jamaica is a story largely untold. Social historian, Dr Verene Lazarus-Shepherd, has dedicated much time and energy to unearthing this story which she shared with the large audience gathered for the Annual Emancipation Lecture, on Sunday, July 29 at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Anglican. Entitled, "Petticoat rebellion?": Women in Emancipation in Colonial Jamaica, Dr Shepherd explored women's involvement in the anti-slavery movement, outlining various forms of resistance which included anecdotal accounts of the day-to-day strategies employed by enslaved women to undermine the plantation system. Today, in modern Jamaica, women in many ways, are still struggling for freedom and justice. All Woman presents an edited version of Dr Shepherd's presentation.

I wish to congratulate the organisers of this event for singling out women's activism as the focus of this year's lecture which I have titled "Petticoat Rebellion?: Women and Emancipation in Colonial Jamaica". For one cannot speak about women in emancipation without detailing their activism that hastened emancipation. Activism and agency are particularly relevant when speaking about ex-colonial societies where issues of freedom, human rights, citizenship and self-determination had to be settled by rebel men and women before the issues of feminism and women's right could form a part of the national, anti-colonial discourse.

Indeed, modern-day women's movements and feminism cannot be understood without excavating the prior waves of activism dating back centuries. Long before the proclamation of International Women's Day, rebel women in the Caribbean used a variety of strategies to eradicate or at least destabilise and subvert, systems of domination. It was in recognition of the fundamental contribution of women to the anti-slavery movement in Jamaica, for example, that the maroon rebel woman, Nanny, was elevated to the status of a National Heroine. Today, Nanny does not simply reside in Maroon History; rather, she is the quintessential rebel woman and an embodiment of the spirit of Black women's resistance to systems of domination.

That women, in particular enslaved Black women, were a fundamental part of the struggle for freedom in colonial Jamaica, and that resistance to enslavement was not the sole domain of male rebels are no longer in doubt. Historical accounts testify to enslaved women's rebelliousness, some planters referring to them as female demons who thwarted the overseers in the field, and as devils who fomented "petticoat rebellions".

What Lewis trivialised as "petticoat rebellion", arguably a metaphor for enslaved women's resistance, was not confined to Cornwall estate but was a standard feature of the slave system in colonial Jamaica. While women were not always in the forefront of armed revolts, their day-to-day, non-violent strategies were effective and played a key role in the abolition of slavery, defying the suggestion of harmless "petticoat rebels".

But in any case, as historian Hilary Beckles asks in his book, Centering Woman, "what is the political significance of an argument which says that physical combat in war should be privileged above broad-based ideological preparation?" Why should non-violent day-to-day strategies be marginalised and men's leadership of armed revolts centred as being more important?

In addition to evidence of women's contribution to the freedom project in contemporary historical narratives, modern scholars like Mathurin Mair (to whom I would like to pay a special tribute for her pioneering role) and Linette Vassell have contributed much to our knowledge and understanding of women's participation in emancipation from systems of domination in the post-slavery and post-colonial periods. They and others have shown conclusively, that enslaved women did not accommodate themselves more easily than enslaved men to slavery, but were central to all aspects of the anti-slavery movement. As non-violent protestors, as strategists in armed revolts, as Maroons, as leaders in areas of social culture, and as mothers, Black women were not only critical to the forging of resistance strategies, but also to community survivalist culture.

Reasons for resistance:

Why did women like Nanny, Susan, Whaunica and the millions of other Akan and Igbo women captured from parts of West Africa such as the Bight of Biafra and the Gold Coast put their lives on the line in the struggle for freedom? The obvious reason of course is that slavery is the antithesis of freedom.

The abuse of women's bodies in the field:

Enslaved women were subjected to various forms of exploitation that caused them to launch an opposing struggle for liberation. For example, despite the sexual disparity in the illegal trade in African captives, with under 40 per cent of captives being female, women outnumbered men in the field gangs that did the most arduous work; and they hardly functioned among the skilled and supervisory workers who tended to be male. As field labourers, women's bodies became the site of power contestation. Plantation labour placed great physical strain on enslaved women; and drivers and overseers subjected bodies to severe beatings.

Sexploitation

Enslaved women were also open to what I term sexploitation -- to a far greater degree than enslaved men. No laws prevented male enslavers from claiming violent access to enslaved women's bodies, so white men not only raped them but, along with some female enslavers, sold their bodies for organised prostitution. Thomas Thistlewood, from Lincolnshire, who owned and managed properties in Western Jamaica, provides the best example so far of a slave-owning rapist. We know about him because he left detailed journals (over 10,000 pages) that reveal that he sexually abused practically every enslaved female located on Vineyard Pen, Breadnut Island Pen and Egypt sugar plantation during the years 1751-1786. Betty, Chrissey, Hago, Juba, Marina, Phibbah (his concubine for 33 years) and Sylvia were among those he raped.

Robert Wedderburn, a freed man from Jamaica who eventually emigrated to England, also underscored the abuse of enslaved domestic women owned by his Scottish father, James Wedderburn. He wrote: My father's house was full of female slaves, all objects of his lust; amongst whom he strutted like Solomon in his grand seraglio or like a bantam cock upon his own dunghill ... By him my mother [Rossanna] was made the object of his brutal lust.

The body in resistance:

Exploitation in the fields and factories and sexploitation in enslavers' households provided the context for women's emancipation struggles. Running away was a common form of removing the body from the site of oppression and the records are full of examples of Maroon women. Nanny, of course, is best known to Jamaicans. But there were others. Abigail, Mary and Congo Sally would not be confined to his property despite Thistlewood's attempts and severe punishment. Sally, in whom Thistlewood had a sexual interest, was a strong, survivalist character who ran away constantly despite the difficulty of the post -- 1739 Maroon Treaty environment in Western Jamaica.

As a result of the fact that their bodies were targets in the enslavers' efforts to control them, enslaved women used their bodies, in addition to their voices and minds, in the emancipation project. They did so despite the physical consequences of such actions.

Women used body language to register their discontent with slavery. Cynric Williams, who toured Jamaica in 1823, tells us that among a party of enslaved people who were brought before the magistrate for misdemeanour was "one damsel in particular who in her defence said she said she had been harshly used, on one occasion getting 230 lashings at one flogging". As the magistrate doubted her story, "the sable nymph without hesitation exposed her behind, whereupon there was no mark whatever; and it appearing that she had so done in derision and contempt, they ordered her a couple dozen."

The voice in resistance:

Enslaved women raised their voices in liberation songs and used their voices to curse those who brought them at slave auctions or oppressed them generally. We learned from Mary Gaunt, author of the novel Harmony, that Maria, wrongfully enslaved and shipped to Jamaica and brought by a St Ann enslaver, resisted both the Middle Passage and her sale. Gaunt writes of the way in which Maria used tongue and body language to abuse her purchaser and his colleague and register her views about the injustice of her capture, shipment and auction. Speaking for her, Gaunt writes that Maria "... faced the two men and called them every vile name she could lay her tongue to; looked them up and down, noted their weak points [baldness, for example and gave them the benefit of her observation aloud".

Women petitioned attorneys to get unpopular or particularly harsh overseers dismissed and they also went on strike in order to force compliance with their wishes. Strikes were also resorted to when customary allowances such as time to work provision grounds and go to the markets were reduced or withheld. Thus the enslaved clearly practised forms of collective bargaining traditionally only associated with the industrial wage workers. Domestic women also found various ways to harass and frustrate their female enslavers. Such activities were not confined to the large estates, but were equally noted on pens and coffee farms.

Gynaecological resistance:

Women practised gynaecological resistance, especially after 1807, when the slave trade was abolished. Armed with the knowledge that no new captives could be imported, and that only they could prolong slavery by bearing future workers, enslaved women sought to free their enchained wombs, using every herb at their disposal to abort pregnancies that despite their efforts, occurred. Mountain Lucy, for example, drank 'contrayerva' to abort her pregnancy. One proprietor was forced to concede that: "I really believe that the negresses can produce children at pleasure; and where they are barren, it is just as hens will frequently not lay eggs on ship-board, because they do not like their situation."

Bodies in Motion -- resisting sexual abuse

Women also resisted sexual abuse, even though there were no laws to protect them from sexploitation. A close reading of Thistlewood's journals reveals that even Phibbah, his so-called "wife", disregarded his overtures on occasions. On 2nd February 1754, he wrote: "Phibbah did not speak to me all day." On Friday of the same week he wrote: "Phibbah denied me."

In Busha's Mistress, (which is not as fictional as it might seem as the author at one time worked on Greenside estate in Trelawny on which the novel is set), Perkins tell us that overseer Jackson tried to punish Mary Ann because she refused his advances. His slave concubine, Catherine upped and left Jackson when she learnt of his interest in Mary Ann, affirming that "Busha caan mek I lib wid him against me wishes". Jackson's entreaties for her to return "home" were met with a philosophical retort from Catherine.

The Road to Emancipation: Armed Revolt:

Enslaved women in Jamaica played active, though, it would appear, gender-specific, roles in armed rebellions. Many of them were involved in the conspiracies and violent outbreaks in 1673, 1690, 1760 and 1824. Mary-Ann Reid is the most important female figure implicated in the 1824 slave conspiracy located in Hanover. She used her house as a regular dance venue; for while overt political meetings of the enslaved were banned, dances were not. So Mary-Ann used her dances as cover for political strategising. Whites attended such dances but black and white clearly danced to the beat of different drums. The plot was betrayed by an enslaved man; and those implicated were punished. Some of the men were deported (it's not a new thing though the direction is reversed); But, in: consideration of her sex:, according to Magistrate, Mary-Ann was imprisoned for four months at hard labour.

In the 1831 'Christmas Rebellion' -- the most decisive rebellion on the road to emancipation in Jamaica, women's roles have been recorded by contemporary observers.

What seems clear is that there was a gender-division of roles during some armed revolts. While enslaved men led the armed, military assaults in 1831-32, women played non-military, supportive roles. Strategic manoeuvring was assigned to the women: supplying water; acting as guides to provision grounds; helping to guard captives; poisoning; acting as look-outs; even as go between in the final stage of the rebellion. It was Colonel Gardiner's wife, for example, who was sent to approach the British lieutenant to inform him that Gardiner, Sam Sharpe's military commander, wanted to give himself up, once he could negotiate terms for his life. On livestock farms involved in the rebellion, women cooked food for the bands of rebels who stopped there for revictualling purposes.

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