In 2012, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) will focus attention on the role of women in African American history. With a scheduled conference in the fall, a call for papers has gone forth to scholars. We are especially looking forward to presentations related to the Middle Passage.

The role of African women in resisting enslavement and enabling emancipation leaves little doubt that their role was also crucial in surviving the Middle Passage, although those activities are not very well documented. Even so, Africans’ survival and resistance during the Middle Passage often depended upon them, according to several firsthand accounts by European naval officers. In these descriptions, the women were less restricted and had more access to crew and officers on slave ships, allowing them to assess the ship’s vulnerabilities. After a revolt it was frequently determined that the African women had readily assisted the uprising. They provided comfort to fellow captives, prepared and distributed the food, and led the songs of mourning and sorrow. They were the ones who endured the personal trauma of repeated rapes, separation, and death of children.

In The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Equiano observes events during the Middle Passage, and in one report, comments:

The Black women used broad sticks as spoons, which they turn around, licking them with their fingers, and calling out, “Sufie, Sufie, Grand;” then a man with a cat of nine tails gives them a scourge…they go forward with the food.

The adage, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” should be factored in as we study this history. Angela Davis in her work on female slavery stated that it was common practice on many vessels to permit crew access to females for rape and sexual coercion as part of a policy to create a new identity. Females were the most victimized group on the ship – they were repeatedly beaten and raped with impunity by the crew and officers. African captive Ottobah Cugoano stated:

It was common for the dirty filthy sailors to take the African women and lie upon their bodies.

By the end of the voyage African women had conceived, thus increasing their value to the New World buyer. They also performed abortion and infanticide rather than bring a child into enslavement.

Robert Hayden’s poem The Middle Passage describes lust as a means in describing rape as a tool of oppression and dominance:

That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest 

         of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins;

That there was one they called The Guinea Rose

         and they cast lots and fought to lie with her.

African women and girls were completely vulnerable and incapable of protecting themselves. Conversely this sexual coercion had a two-fold effect since it also targeted the African men who suffered from an inability to prevent or stop the abuse. The goal was to destroy the women’s will to resist and to demoralize the men. However, it created a form of equality because as acts of brutality, oppression and punishment were applied to men and women indiscriminately, the resistance and passion against enslavement  was equal for both sexes.

Some historians argue that because of the freedom of movement on ship it was actually women who planned, organized and facilitated many of the Middle Passage uprisings. Typically left unchained and above deck, they were allowed sometimes to move about freely. Cugoano in his account of a planned uprising on ship stated:

It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship…

In testimony to Parliament regarding the slave trade, descriptions of women’s reactions to capture and removal from their communities were the most poignant. In the Account of Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (1788):

A woman was dejected from the moment she came on board, and refused both food and medicine; being asked by the interpreter what she wanted, she replied, “nothing but to die,” and she did die.

The women most often exhibited mental breakdown from separation and enslavement.

It frequently happens that the negroes, on being purchased by the Europeans, become raving mad, and many of them die in that state, particularly the women. While I was one day ashore at Bonny [Sierra Leone], I saw a middle aged stout woman, who had been brought down from a fair the preceding day, chained to the post of a black trader’s door in a state of furious insanity.

On board a ship in Bonny River, I saw a young negro woman chained to the deck, who had lost her senses, soon after she was purchased and taken on board.

In a former voyage on board a ship to which I belonged, we were obliged to confine a female negroe, of about twenty-three years of age, on her becoming a lunatic. She was afterwards sold during one of her lucid intervals.

And, to conclude on this subject, I could not help being sensibly affected, on a former voyage, at observing with what apparent eagerness a black woman seized some dirt from off an African yam, and put it into her mouth; seeming to rejoice at the opportunity to possessing some of her native earth.”

Perhaps it was the women who most quickly realized what this slavery meant. They were the ones deliberately maintaining cultural identity and history, adapting as necessary to the changes that enslavement demanded, and preserving practices and customs as well as possible. Michael Gomez in Exchanging Our Country Marks writes, “The formation of a new black community took place on the grounds of joint humiliation and reflecting a movement away from previously defined, ethnically based identity, therefore becomes apparent even prior to arrival in the New World.”

For all who are New World creoles, there are traces of African ancestry in movement, cuisine, spiritual practices, names, appearance. These traits and practices were preserved and transmitted through women in the family and community. Remember and honor them.