“The women’s movement has made it possible to ask new questions of the past. In some ways our absence from so much of what is called history, is like the absence of other groups without power – workers, peasants, blacks, the colonized. Like these other oppressed people, women have demanded a history in which they are included. What gets into history is a highly political affair. Who gets in and who gets left out is not a matter of chance.”
The above quote is taken from a book published by two white feminists and shows that even some white women who identify as feminists are not inclusive of women from racialised communities. They write about the “women’s movement” and the absence of women from the history books but obviously they are lamenting the fact that white women’s history is absent. It is therefore important for us as African people to recognize and celebrate the women in our community and ensure that ourstory includes the achievement of all people from our community regardless of gender. This month as the country celebrates “Women’s History Month,” take the opportunity to recognize and celebrate African women who went before us and those who are making history now regardless of where they were born, when they lived, where they lived or are living. We know the names of many African women who sacrificed much to move us forward as a people. Sometimes we forget what they endured and how they resisted, thinking that the rights we have today were given to us. Whatever we have access to in 2007 did not come easily. We need to pause and think about those women who went before us and the sacrifices they made to get us to where we are today.
During this year as we commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade we need to remember that we owe much to those who went before us. Slavery was a brutal institution that sought to dehumanize an entire race of people. Female slave bondage was different from that of men. It was not less severe, but it was different. Sexual abuse, child bearing and child care responsibilities affected how enslaved females conducted their lives and their patterns of resistance. In her book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Harriet Jacobs documented some of the different roles that were forced on enslaved women and her struggles to cope with sexual abuse. Jacobs was constantly exposed to threats as she resisted her owner’s sexual abuse. The enslaved woman’s choices of seizing her freedom were limited compared to the males because she had to consider her children. As a mother she had different responsibilities. Women were less able to leave their chains and children behind. Deborah Gray White in her book "Aren't I a Woman?" wrote; "for those fugitive women who left children in slavery, the physical relief which freedom brought was limited compensation for the anguish they suffered."
The routine rape of enslaved African women is well documented by mostly white men who were the perpetrators. Thomas Thistlewood, an Englishman, went to Jamaica in 1750 as a manager for a plantation. He eventually bought his own plantation and in a 10,000 page diary documented his systematic abuse of the enslaved Africans on his plantation, especially the sexual abuse of the women, including the sexually transmitted diseases he brought with him. The book; “In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica 1750-1786” is not for the faint of heart.
Documented court cases also testify to the routine rape of African females, not only adult women but young girls. In the book “Celia A Slave” the author uses court documents to tell the story of a 14 year old enslaved African child, bought by a 56 year old white plantation owner who brutally raped her the day he bought her. Repeatedly raped over the next four years, she gives birth to two children sired by her rapist. In 1855 when the court case is documented she is pregnant with the third child and charged with murder of her owner. She was tried, found guilty and hanged after she gave birth to the child. The abuse of enslaved African women occurred wherever they were enslaved regardless of which group of white people practiced this criminal activity. In the book, “Caetano Says No: Women's Stories from a Brazilian Slave Society”; an eerily similar case is documented of the rape of an enslaved African female child by the much older Portuguese man, on the same night he bought her.
Enslaved women in Canada were also brutalized and even sold away from their families. In Dr Afua Cooper’s book “The hanging of Angelique” court documents are used to tell the story of Marie Joseph Angelique, an enslaved African woman who was hanged in Montreal on June 21st, 1734. Angelique was accused of setting fire to her owner’s home in an attempt to camouflage her escape after learning that she was being sold. A confession was tortured out of her and on June 4, 1734, Judge Pierre Raimbault handed down his sentence, "Marie Joseph Angelique, negress, slave woman of Thérèse de Couagne, widow of the late François Poulin de Francheville, you are condemned to die, to make honourable amends, to have your hand cut off, be burned alive, and your ashes cast to the winds."
Other examples of the abuse of enslaved African women in Canada include the story of Chloe Cooley who is responsible for the acclamation that John Graves Simcoe receives on the first weekend of August. When we celebrate Simcoe day we also need to remember Chloe Cooley whose valiant struggle to gain her freedom led to Simcoe’s effort to limit slavery in Upper Canada in 1793. On Wednesday, March 21st, 1793 Peter Martin, a free African man, appeared before members of the Executive Council of Upper Canada (Ontario). Present were Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, Chief Justice William Osgoode and Peter Russell, a prominent citizen who owned slaves. Martin informed the Council that a “violent outrage” had occurred to an enslaved African woman named Chloe Cooley. Martin had witnessed a resident of Queenston named William Vrooman trying to sell Cooley to someone in New York State. When she resisted being sold (she fought and screamed) Vrooman and two other white men violently subdued her, tied her with ropes and forcibly transported her across the Niagara River to her new owner. Cooley’s loud and vigorous resistance compelled Simcoe to make the effort to limit slavery in Ontario. His effort was unsuccessful which is not surprising since Peter Russell who became Lieutenant Governor when Simcoe returned to England, advertised in a Toronto newspaper dated February 10, 1806 that he was selling a 40 year old black woman named Peggy and her 15 year old son Jupiter. What is not part of that advertisement is the fact that even though Russell and his sister Elizabeth “owned” Peggy, she was married to a free African man Mr. Pompadour. Peggy Pompadour also had two young daughters. Even though their father was a free man, Peggy’s three children belonged to the Russells, since the law conferred the status of enslaved women on their children. The Russells could then sell Peggy Pompadour and her three children.
Harriet Jacobs, Celia, Peggy Pompadour, Chloe Cooley, Marie Joseph Angelique and many other nameless enslaved African women risked their lives in resisting their enslavement by any means necessary. The enslavement of Africans would have lasted for much longer than it did if women had not resisted in their own way. We must continue to tell their stories, keep their memory alive, lest we forget. The history of enslaved people in Canada is documented at a free exhibit located at 880 Bay Street (Bay and Grosvener.)
Written in October 2007