Slavery: The ‘curse’ of being a woman

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THE story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who was paraded naked and put on exhibition for numerous years, will forever remind, mainly black people, of the pervasiveness of a certain character trait common in the whiteman.

For several years, in the 18th Century, after Baartman had been brought to Europe to provide entertainment to whites who had been amused by her steatopygia (accumulation of large amounts of fat on the buttocks), the poor woman was subjected to humiliation, ridicule and psychological torture.

When she was being exhibited, her rights, thoughts, feelings and self-respect were not considered because of her skin colour.

Unsurprisingly, in the eyes of those white men who frequented the exhibitions, Baartman was just like an animal put in a cage for people to scrutinise, poke at and make fun of.

This confirms the whiteman’s mentality which is displayed without restraint or remorse by Joseph Conrad in his widely discredited book, Heart of Darkness.

The book, which can arguably be regarded as an insult to the black race, describes blacks a savages.

It shamelessly presents blacks as cannibals who needed to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Writes Conrad: (When leaving the Inner Station with Kurtz): “In front of the first rank, along the river, three men, plastered with bright red earth from head to foot, strutted to and fro restlessly. When we came abreast again, they faced the river, stamped their feet, nodded their horned heads, swayed their scarlet bodies; they shook towards the fierce river-demon a bunch of black feathers, a mangy skin with a pendant tail—something that looked like a dried gourd; they shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language; and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted suddenly, were like the responses of some satanic litany,” writes Conrad (3:30)

Such sentiments therefore confirm the mentality of a number of whites in so far as racism is concerned.

That grouping is firmly steeped in the warped mentality that makes them liken blacks to baboons and monkeys.

Though a number of centuries have passed since the Baartman exhibitions, her story endorses the notion that white people consider themselves a superior race.

It is a story that highlights that whites discarded and blatantly disregarded all that was considered sacred and important in Africa and redefined it as evil or primitive.

Just like what Baartman experienced, African women, dragged to Europe as slaves, suffered the same fate, if not worse.

Without doubt, the Transatlantic Slave Trade that reached its peak centuries before Baartman’s exhibitions, took away and destroyed the dignity of African women.

Slavery stripped African women of their dignity

The history of Africa points out that, in most African societies, women were highly valued because they were the means of acquiring kinship and family.

However, such status of African women was destroyed the moment slavers chained them together with men to become slaves.

For those bought from turncoat African chiefs, they were thrown into slavery at a cheaper price than males.

This meant women were forced into slavery as ‘second class citizens’.

Just like Baartman, they were shipped to Europe to become ‘toys’ for grown men. 

One cannot talk about the harsh conditions of women in the Transatlantic Slave Trade without highlighting how the value of an African was reduced to a commodity at the auctions where they were sold like animals.

In his book The Slave Trade: The Story of Transatlantic Slavery, Oliver Ransford describes the condition of slaves as objects that were advertised before being sold and branded.

His description goes on to reflect that waiting to be sold meant a disguised show of being oiled ‘to enhance their appearance and fattening them up with island food’.

“When all was ready the slaves were rowed ashore and paraded through the island in a piteous straggling procession before being taken to the market-place where they were put on show naked,” writes Ransford.

The harrowing part about all this charade created for selling is that women slaves were also stripped naked; in the process, stripping them of their dignity.

Just like the innocent Baartman who could not air her grievances, women slaves kept quiet as their fate was decided at a market place where they were being paraded. Such incidents highlight that the whiteman’s claim to the slave body, be it male or female, and reflect a corrupted mind that wanted to use the concept of slave trade to sexually abuse black women.

Being bought and branded automatically meant that the slave woman became a property of a certain master — a chattel.

Without doubt, slavery killed what was left of them.

Ransford describes a process of ‘seasoning’, done to condition the slaves so that any memory connected to Africa was wiped away.

“At the end of the seasoning the usual result was that the slaves’ past had been annihilated and their tribal mores abrogated; all bonds of family and kinship had been severed; personal liberty, old tattoos, language and religious practices no longer carried any meaning; all were unimportant now; the only thing that mattered was the fear which everyday drove the slaves to regimented and protracted toil,” writes Ransford.

For women, this ‘seasoning’ meant that all connection that existed between them and their children and families was severed.

A number of historians also say some masters bought women slaves for various reasons — one of them being breeding purposes.

Ransford notes that: “The worst aspect of the compulsory concubinage was the masters’ deliberate breeding from successive generations of women slaves, a process which was jocularly referred to as ‘breeding (or washing) a blackamore white’.

The amorous intercourse of masters with black slaves is too well known to need explanation; the poor creatures dare not resist: and the horrible practice of ‘ washing a blackamore white’ has by some wretches been gloried; that is intriguing with the mother , daughter, grand –daughter etc., till the black colour disappear.”

This evidence provided by Ransford clearly highlights that the intention of the whiteman was to wipe off the black race.

Miscegenation and breeding created the coloured race, resulting in many of them suffering from identity crisis.

“And we must note here also that immorality on the West Indian plantations was by no means a Negro monopoly: miscegenation was common, brazen and sometimes calculated,” Ransford observes.

One memorialist writes sadly of the ‘unhappy females, who have leave to go out for prostitution and are obliged to bring their owners a certain payment per week’.

It is against this background that one can even conclude that the whiteman can be wholly blamed for the crime or violence in the Caribbeans and among cities dominated by blacks in the US.

Generations of this day inherited the hatred inflicted on their forefathers by the slave masters.

Women in these black and coloured societies do not appreciate the presence of a man as the head of the family because slavery did not entertain such an arrangement.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade also provides evidence of how conditions for women were worse; narrating that apart from prostituting for their masters, women also received the same treatment as their male counterparts.

Since they were regarded as mules, women were often flogged —even when pregnant.

The lash, which became a common weapon on the plantations, was harshly used on women to the extent many were left with permanent scars.

There were few instances in which slave women were released from fieldwork for extended periods during slavery.

Black women were seen as strong creatures who could survive any form of punishment such that even during the last week before childbirth, pregnant women, on average, picked three-quarters or more of the amount normal for women.

Herbert Klein in the book The Atlantic Slave Trade, says: “Women performed almost all the same manual tasks as men on the plantations of America and in fact made up the majority of most field gangs in sugar, coffee and cotton.”

Infant and child mortality rates were also high among slave children.

Half of all slave infants died in their first year of life.

A major contributor to the high infant and child mortality was chronic undernourishment.

Like their ancestors and counterparts in Africa, most slave women took their motherhood seriously but during slavery, most infants of enslaved mothers were weaned within three-to-four months.

“It is notorious,” runs one passage in a book of advice to inexperienced slave owners, “that a great many Negro children die within the first 12-to-14 days of their birth of what is called the ‘jawfall’.”

The plantations, which contributed to the whiteman becoming rich, were also a setting that reflected the brutality of slave masters or planters.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade history tells that, at the head of the field were men and women known as drivers, who were supposed to keep the field slaves hard at work, by use of the whip if necessary.

A witness named Dalyrympe quoted by Ransford horrified a Committee of the House of Commons by telling its members that: “The drivers in using the whip never seem to distinguish the sex… in some estates it is usual to dig a hole in the ground, in which they put the bellies of pregnant women, while they whip them, so that they may not excuse punishment, nor yet endanger the life of the woman or the child.”

Women slaves were also differentiated by status.

There were those slaves chosen to work in the house who were considered to be of higher status than the field slaves.

It would be a terrible punishment for a house servant to be put with a field gang to do heavy field work after the lighter duties in the house.

There was also a social order based on skin colour.Just as the skin colour of a blackman contributed to him being labelled an animal, women slaves who were darker received the punishment of the hardest work.

The lighter-skinned slaves, often the children of the owner or manager by a slave woman, were often given the better jobs, kept as house servants or trained in semi-skilled jobs.

Jobs that were meant for men back in Africa became the daily chores for black women under slavery.

Despite the fact that more men were brought from Africa as slaves than women, some plantation owners preferred women as the harder workers.

The so-called ‘great gang’ or first gang of slaves was made up of the strongest workers. 

Sadly, sometimes women outnumbered men in the so-called great gang.

They did all the heavy fieldwork, such as digging and cutting cane.

Those who were forced to work on plantations were considered chattel (items of property), commodities owned by others.

Slaveowners determined the nature of the enslaved’s daily working lives and even what happened to them when they were not at work.

Though slavery was abolished later, one can argue the system of the Transatlantic Slave Trade did much damage to the mental psyche of black people.

The abolitionists did not take into consideration that upcoming generations would be affected by certain actions and thoughts of previous generations.

Women slaves failed to bring up their children in a conducive environment because they were always prey to the sexual habits of their masters.

Women, young and old, sisters, daughters and wives, all found themselves subject to sexual assault.

The whiteman responsible for the assaults took little or no notice of the woman herself, her age, her menfolk or family.

It was a matter of satisfying his sexual desires.

It was a cause of deep hurt and humiliation for black women.

The slave owner’s exploitation of the black woman’s sexuality was one of the most significant factors differentiating the experience of slavery for males and females.

Throughout the period of slavery, white society believed black women to be innately lustful beings.

They believed the ideal white woman was pure and the perception of the African woman as hyper-sexual made her both the object of white man’s loathing and his fantasy.

Within the bounds of slavery, masters often felt it their right to engage in sexual activity with black women, a move that wold lead one to ask: What changed the perceptions of seeing a black woman as an animal?

Sometimes, female slaves submitted to advances in the hope that such relationships would increase the chances that they or their children would be liberated by the master.

The sad part was the inability of a slave husband to protect his wife from such violation.

Perhaps, this explains the way black women in most American societies do not submit to their husbands.

In spite of being regarded as second class citizens by the system of slavery, black women saw themselves as equal to their husbands as a result of the restrictions of slave law and circumstances of slave life. 

No doubt black women slaves were always at the receiving end.

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