Friday 5 December 2014

Enslaved women on ships

Adjua (June Carryl) and Dembi (Kimberly Scott) in 'The Liquid Plain'. Photo by Jenny Graham

Today in Britain there are estimated to be 10,000 to 13,000 slaves, mainly women ( We have a Modern Slavery Bill going through parliament and a Minister for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime, Karen Bradley (pictured)

In these days of increased trafficking (mainly by air) it's telling to look back and see the parallels with the 15-18C slave trade, in which 4-5 million women slaves were transported (about a third of the estimated 12-15 million.)
Not many experts have written about gender on slave ships, let alone written for popular audiences.

The Liquid Plain
But US playwright Naomi Wallace has, in The Liquid Plain, a play that won the 2012 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play. So far it has only been staged in the US, not here in the UK. (
It's about two runaway slaves, Adjua and Dembi, and the docklands community in late-18C Bristol, Rhode Island, which was a major slave marketplace. With sailors Adjua and Dembi make common cause and plan to return to Africa and 'freedom'.
The play's title comes from a poem by Phillis Wheatley (c1753-1784),who was herself transported from West Africa as a child but became the first African-American to have a book published, and at only twenty.
In her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral she writes:
While for Britannia's distant shore
We sweep the liquid plain,
And with astonished eyes explore
The wide-extended main

Naomi Wallace was inspired to write the play after reading Marcus Rediker’s book The Slave Ship. She refers to the 1791 indictment for murder of slave ship captain James D'Wolf.
He'd wanted the crew of the Polly to heave the nameless woman overboard because he thought she had small pox and would infect the whole crew and thereby cause him to lose his profitable cargo. The sailors refused so,according to seaman John Cranston:
D'Wolf 'himself ran up the Shrowds [he'd had the woman put high up in the mainmast two days earlier] ..then he lash'd her in a Chair & ty'd a mask round her Eyes & Mouth & there was a tackle hooked upon the Slings round the chair when we lowered her down on the larboard side of the Vessel.

That chair, that mask

I know about the story because I've just finished reading Rediker's book. For me the most potent of all many potent images in this history is that chair, and the idea of a captain who was so afraid to touch her skin that he tied her to a chair (presumably she was too ill to move unaided.The sailors themselves were quite keen to get exposure to smallpox and thereby gain immunity).
And then there's the mask, which Cranston said was tied onto the woman so that she could not see what was happening to her so that she would not struggle.
'It was [also]done to prevent her making any Noise that the other Slaves might not hear, lest they should rise.'

Comprehending the full horror of appalling histories, such as slavery and the holocaust, can be hard to do. But the chair and mask somehow helped me take in the horror of a trade that treated human beings in this way. It is similar to the impact on me of seeing the mountains of human hair at Auschwitz: just a commodity.
James D'Wolf (pictured) got away with it, just as so many slave captains got away with their appalling 'business practices' over 244 years. On ship the millions of kidnapped African women were the sexual targets of officers and sometimes crew too. There was rape and there were relationships too.

Regulating women on ships
I started grasping slave women' stories when researching the chapter in my forthcoming book that discusses the regulation - and entertainment - of women passengers in transit. Over the centuries there were matrons, conductresses, escorts, social hostesses - and always natural leaders among the 'human cargo' too.

Rediker retells the stories of two such natural leaders on slave ships: both nicknamed ‘The Boatswain’ they were on the Nightingale in 1769 and the Hudibras in 1787.
On the Hudibras there was also a cultural leader and griot of enslaved women, a ‘songstress ‘ and ‘orator’ who would stand or kneel at the centre of concentric circles of women on the quarterdeck, elders in the outermost circle.
She sang ‘slow airs of a pathetic nature’, and gave orations. Watchers who didn’t speak their language thought these were epic poetry as the women all responded with a chorus at the end of significant sentences.
Seaman William Butterworth, watching, was so moved that he ‘shed tears of involuntary sympathy.’ Rediker reports that at least one captain found the songs of resistance ‘very disagreeable’ and had the singing women flogged so badly their wounds took two to three weeks to heal.

For the women it was, Rediker explains, ‘an effort to retain historical identity in a situation of utter social upheaval … a central element of an active and growing culture of opposition aboard ship.’
It was solidarity and comforting company - something the poor masked murdered woman in the chair so needed.

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