The role of women in a West African society was a jack-of-all trades, and that is represented throughout the antebellum South and Caribbean slave milieus. From agriculture, child-rearing (even of other upper class African women), weaving and business affairs, the women had a large role in every sector of the West African economy1, save for hunting and warring. Since these opportunities were not particularly available for male slaves on the plantation (the masters did the politics and hunting, meat was more of a commodified good) and exceeded the work output of women when they arrived on antebellum shores2, with data on sugar cane lacking.
In West Africa, women played a vital role in the economies, producing 65%-80% of the agricultural output, spearheading a naturally matrilineal society.3 Kinship slavery was widely endemic in Africa during the transatlantic slave trades peak, according to contemporaneous accounts. Slaves were the natural state of affairs in the Congo4, further up the coast in the Upper Guinea area5 and throughout Northern Africa6. They also acted as slave merchants, playing a role as middle-women for slave bartering. From Morgan’s chapter in Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity — “It is conceivable that women would have would have, rightly, been at the forefront of trading and economic exchanges with the newly arriving Europeans.”7
For African women, the Middle Passage was a well-documented test of endurance and at minimum, terrible. Many first-person accounts from crew members and slaves alike are available, and for purposes of brevity this paper will focus strictly on the differences between genders. Children regardless of gender were the most free — allowed to be above decks. Women were left unchained, unlike the men, but were subject to reported cases of rape. Pregnant women were subjected to beatings that protected fetus, with their protruding abdomen in a hole or indentation in the ship.8
In the hypothetical, women were then in a better place to act as agents of mutiny within the ship, although no accounts really stand out where this true. Equally as likely, they acted as information confederates for male insurrectors. Sometimes these assaults occurred in public, or when the woman victim had her husband on board. Some captains, in order to maintain an outward appearance of civility, allowed only consensual sex between a crewmate and their cargo, despite the imbalanced power dynamic.9 Briefly, one might expect that male slaves were assaulted or sodomized as well, but the record is sparse. A more frequent encounter is forced breeding of male slaves with women outside of their nuclear family.10
The slave prices at the beginning of recorded Barbados catalogs indicate parity between gender; this trend was at least partially due to the onerous conditions of the climate and the fact that slaves needed to be replenished. Over time, a new paradigm emerged. Instead of producing slaves on site, Barbadian plantation began to heavily import their desired workforce to replenish the ranks. Highly-performing male slaves brought a premium and were sold early at auction higher prices than women11, and at the mid-point prices crept towards equivalence, and towards the endpoints may have been less valuable, although the sample sizes become smaller.
Of note, the pricing trends are subject to a wide myriad of trends: the cost of transatlantic passage, the worldwide price of sugar, famine etc. As a caveat and given the volume of data, the results are not stratified by age, which the authors suggest (and is intuitively obvious) is a main factor in sale price.
It is difficult to ascertain any meaningful conclusions about the gender balance in manumission from will and testament in Barbados. Concubines might have been more likely to be manumitted, while the “boy I once ran with”12. All in all, it appears that mulattoes were more likely to be manumitted.
Literature on productivity for male and female slaves in terms of cotton is eerily reminiscent of the modern gap in peripubescent academic success. By 16, females were more productive at picking cotton than their less developed male counterparts. At that point, female slaves often became gravid but retained up to 90% proficiency as their male counterparts. During labor shortages, women stopped having children and were used in the fields. Not surprisingly, a report from three Jamaican plantations indicates those working in the house had a better fertility rate.13
Yet, men are overrepresented in slave populations more than that differential. After careful analysis, manifold reasons exist for this discrepancy; it is likely male slaves were more productive than numbers show. Very briefly, women may have been given acreage that was “easier” to pick and exceptionally talented men were plucked from the ranks and given alternate jobs at the gin.
A few key concepts emerge about Caribbean slave gender roles. Female slaves had lower mortality rates, and due to the absence of knowledge regarding reproduction at the time, were given cash bonuses for the child living over one month. In conjunction with the absolute agony of repeated childbirth, records show on one plantation that 15 out of 150 births made it to adulthood, although for various reasons this could be an underestimate.
Due to the massive attrition and tightening restrictions on the Atlantic Slave Trade, plantation owners had to ease up on poor living conditions for the slaves. At five months pregnant,women were supposed to stop the labor intensive sugar cane cultivation and do lighter work, continuing on through weaning the child. One such case convened in 1834 in the courts four pregnant slavewomen brought their pleas to the Jamaican courts for two weeks off and promptly lost.
1Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
2 Olmstead, Allen and Paul W. Rhode. 2017. “Slave Productivity In Cotton Production By Gender, Age, Season, And Scale”. Citeseerx.Ist.Psu.Edu. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/citations;jsessionid=8378470674A2F0242C181A0C43E0D95D?doi=10.1.1.210.5665.
3 Sheldon, Kathleen. “Women and African History.” Oxford University Press, October 25, 2012. http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/display/id/obo-9780199846733-0005.
5 Eltis, David, Keith Bradley, Stanley L. Engerman, and Paul Cartledge. The Cambridge World History of Slavery: Volume 3, AD 1420-AD 1804. Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 86
6 Ibid. p. 565
7 p. 57
8 Taylor, Eric Robert. If We Must Die: Shipboard Insurrections in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. LSU Press, 2009. pp. 33-35
13Morrissey, Marietta. “Women’s Work, Family Formation, and Reproduction among Caribbean Slaves.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 9, no. 3 (1986): 339-67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40241031.