Even more than being a Maroon leader of freed Jamaican slaves, Nanny was a woman; a Black woman under the egregious duress of enslavement.
How as a woman might she have coped? Against what and whom? Then and now?
What were the specific circumstances which delineated the lives of enslaved Black women?
For example, for a Black male, escaping slavery was a rite of passage to reclaiming his manhood. However, for an enslaved Black woman, caring for her children was what defined her womanhood. In many instances, “surrendering” herself to a master’s whims and controls was a “route to escape, to redefining her humanity”. Does this mean that enslaved Black women resisted slavery less than did Black men?
Dr. Bernard Moitt’s Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848, and Dr. Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique, are two examples of the stalwart resistance mounted against enslavement by Black women. These women, like Nanny and other enslaved Black women, were Maroons; “runaways” in heart and actions.
To return to the challenging circumstances of enslaved women compared to enslaved men, Dr. Jennifer Hallam, University of Pennsylvania, states:
“For enslaved men, escape to freedom was the most promising avenue for preserving masculine identity and individual humanity. For the slave woman (however), faced with the double onus of being Black and female, (in addition to) the added burden of (caring for and protecting) dependent children, womanhood and personhood were easier gained (sometimes by remaining) within the slave community (than in escaping from it).”
This conclusion is more than challenging to comprehend and accept. To think that a slave, because she was a woman, might generally choose to remain shackled to a plantation because her desires towards protecting her children superseded any personal desire to escape – possibly having to leave her children behind – meant that her children, in effect, further “shackled” her.
Thus, the enslavement of Black women was different than that of Black men.
As Dr. Hallam states:
“The slave owner’s exploitation of the Black woman’s sexuality was (another) of the most significant factors differentiating the experience of slavery for males and females. The White man’s claim to the slave’s body, male as well as female, was inherent in the Slave Codes and was tangibly realized perhaps nowhere more than on the auction block, where captive Africans were stripped of their clothing, oiled down, and poked and prodded by potential buyers. The erotic undertones of such scenes were particularly pronounced in the case of Black women.”
Black women, according to the expectations of White society, were “inherently lustful beings”, unlike the White woman who was innately “pure…modest to the degree of prudishness”, unlike the Black woman who was “hypersexual”, thus simultaneously making her “both the White man’s abhorrence and his fantasy”.
In this untenable situation of being temptress and captive; of being abominable competitor with the White mistress while being field hand and nursing mother, one can only with the greatest difficulty contemplate the vulnerability, the sorrows, the despair and the sacrifices enslaved Black women experienced keeping their children alive; subsequently ensuring the race of Black people in this hemisphere surviving to the present.
Referring to the impact of abolition in the article “Enslaved women and slavery before and after 1807,” Dr. Diana Paton of Newcastle University states:
“In order to understand the impact of abolition, we need to appreciate something of the context of enslaved women’s lives in the Caribbean before the end of the slave trade. For most women who endured it, the experience of the Atlantic slave trade was one of being outnumbered by men … (two to one).”
Dr. Paton’s research further shows that Black women arriving in this hemisphere were a minority because captains of slave ships valued men more since they brought higher prices.
Incidentally, this proportion of women versus men was reversed in the slave trade of Africans into Asia and Arabia. There, Black women, not Black men, were the traded majority. There, the women were acquired as concubines for harems and whores for sea ports.
Interestingly, why is the number of Black people living in Asia today so much less when compared with those in the West? Children born of this concubinage, especially males, were routinely killed. It was routine to castrate any Black male that was traded there.
Returning to Paton’s information:
“One study of 18th century Jamaican probate records found that on most plantations, even during the period of the slave trade, there were relatively equal numbers of men and women. From the late 17th to the late 18th century in Jamaica, 52 to 53 per cent of enslaved people listed at probate were men. All enslaved people suffered from very poor health and high levels of death, but it seems that men were even more vulnerable to death and disease than women.”
In addition, before abolition, slaveholders showed little interest in Black women as mothers. Because of the costs in time, lost labour and the like, slave owners preferred to import adult slaves rather than raise them as babies. This was despite the practice of forcing Black children to work between three and four years of age. The average span of a slave surviving on a sugar plantation was estimated at seven years.
Therefore, as Paton stated:
“Women who did have children, always struggled with the impossible conflict between, on the one hand, their own physical needs and their children’s need for care and, on the other, the requirements forced on them by plantation work regimes. Women’s inability to maintain the pace of work required by plantation managers during pregnancy, their need for recovery time after childbirth, and the needs of their young children to be fed, cleaned, loved and integrated spiritually and socially into the human community, all brought them into conflict with the demands of the owners and managers of the plantations on which they worked.”
Finally, what would Nanny, both fighting as a Maroon leader, and surviving as a woman think of today’s Black men? Of rape being a trophy of war? Of being called b_ _ _ h and w_ _ _ e?
As Black men, we must determine if, without the prescient fortitude of Black women then and now, would we as a people have survived?