Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Slavery was a brutal institution that dehumanized a 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 enslaved females’ pattern of resistance and how they conducted their lives. 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. Harriet Jacobs' book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” documents the different role of female slaves and the trauma of having to cope with sexual abuse. Jacobs was constantly exposed to sexual abuse from her master. 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 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. Here is this 14 year old, traumatized by being separated from all that is familiar to her, family, friends and brutally raped on the same day. 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 a third child and charged with murder of her owner. She was tried, found guilty and hanged after she gave birth to the child. During the years of rape she had in vain sought help from the children (all older than her) of her owner, especially his daughters who she probably erroneously thought would come to her aid in some way. Not surprisingly there was no help, no sympathy. White people, especially the women blamed the enslaved Afrikan females when they were raped by white men. So it is not surprising that the women of the family that enslaved Celia ignored her pleas for help even though she was very sick during the third pregnancy.

This abuse of enslaved women took place everywhere African women were enslaved regardless of the European nation that perpetrated 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 white owner on the same night he bought her, complete with her beseeching other white people’s in hopes of stopping the abuse.

In recent years where the rape of an enslaved African woman by a prominent white politician, namely the third American president, has become public knowledge, there has been an attempt to make it a romance. How much romance is there when the female is fourteen and owned by the sexual predator who is in his 50s? The man had also owned Hemings’ entire family, when he demanded sex. With that much power in his hands, over her life and the life of her family, that must have been very romantic. The Jefferson family over the past century and more denied that the children Sally Hemings bore were fathered by Jefferson. When modern day science in the form of DNA test results of Sally Hemings descendants proved that Jefferson was the sire, suddenly the story was not about rape or at least coerced sex, instead it became a romance.

Incidentally, Sally Hemings was the result of Jefferson’s father in law’s sexual relationship with an enslaved woman. He gave this woman and the children he had sired on her to his daughter who was married to Jefferson, so Sally Hemings was his wife’s half sister. What moral upstanding people ruled the American nation.

Enslaved women in Canada were also brutalized and sold away from their families. In Dr Afua Cooper’s book “The hanging of Angelique” again court documents are used to tell the story of Marie Joseph Angelique, an enslaved African woman who was tortured and hanged in Montreal in 1734. 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 need to also 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 appeared before members of the Executive Council. Present were Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, Chief Justice William Osgoode and Hon. 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. Peter Martin was one of those few free Africans who lived in Ontario. Martin had witnessed a resident of Queenston named William Vrooman, who owned Chloe Cooley trying sell her to someone in New York State. When she resisted leaving the province (and she resisted, she fought, she screamed, it took three white men armed with ropes to get her into that boat) Vrooman forcibly transported her across the Niagara River to her new owner. Martin said he knew of other enslaved Africans who had suffered a similar fate and he reported hearing that several other slave owners in the area intended doing the same thing with their slaves. Simcoe resolved that steps would be taken immediately to prevent further acts of this nature. Council directed the attorney general to prosecute the man who had sold Chloe Cooley, however, Simcoe and his Attorney General, John White, knew that under the existing law Vrooman was acting within his rights and could not be prosecuted. This is not surprising because Peter Russell who became Lieutenant Governor when Simcoe returned to England has an ad in a Toronto newspaper dated February 10, 1806 where he advertises for sale a woman named Peggy and her son Jupiter. What the ad does not say is that even though Russell and his sister Elizabeth own Peggy, she is married to a free African man Mr. Pompadour and has two young daughters. The law says that even though their father is a free man, Peggy’s three children belong to the Russells, so they can sell her and her three children. The history of enslaved people in Canada is documented at a free exhibit located at 880 Bay Street, Bay and Grosvener, until December 31st 2007.

Written in October 2007

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