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Women, resistance, truancy

In this video, UWI Lecturer and Historian Dr Tara Inniss explains 'passive' forms of resistance.
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TARA INNISS: Hi, I’m Tara Inniss from the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill campus in Barbados, and I’m here to talk to you today about women, resistance, and some of the gendered aspects of their resistance. I’m going to start with talking about reproductive resistance and how women exercise control over their reproduction. It’s really important, the first thing that you have to recognise about slavery and resistance is that just staying alive during slavery was an aspect of resistance, probably the most important aspect of resistance. And women controlled their reproduction. Unfortunately, even in that control, by the end of slavery, the enslaved population in almost every territory was not able to reproduce itself.
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But what that signifies is that women did want to control their reproduction. And they also did this and participated once they did want to have children and family, they wanted to care for their families in particular ways. And one of these ways was the extension of the breastfeeding period, which is a very significant part of maternal resistance as it came from Africa. So African traditions, West African traditions, women breastfeed their children for upwards of one to two, even more years, and women in the Caribbean tried to do the exact same thing, even though planters resisted the idea of them leaving the fields in order to take care of their children.
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Another aspect of resistance would have been sexual resistance, and there’s a little bit of controversy here. So how can you be an enslaved woman and exercise power over your body with your enslaver. But we do know that women were using within their power certain aspects of their sexuality in order to secure certain freedoms or privileges for their children. And this is, as I said, a very controversial area of discussions around women, enslaved women, and their sexual power, and you might want to discuss that a little bit more with your course leaders. But it is an aspect that we’ve looked at. And also the domestic intimacy.
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So when enslaved women worked so closely with families, and particularly white families, managers, et cetera, they were exercising certain power or power struggles in the home. And you would often hear planters and their wives, their mistresses, complaining about enslaved women and the kind of power that they had in the home, in the sense that they would exert their own dominance where they had it over how the home was cared for and managed. You also see a little bit of a struggle with this with some of the poisoning accusations around women, enslaved women, maybe having so much intimacy in these spaces that they might be accused of poisoning their masters.
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But again this is a bit of a controversial area where from the planters perspective, it was easy, women, enslaved women, where it was easy to target women as poisoners and scapegoats for any illness that happened in the family. But at the same time women did have– some enslaved women did have access to this knowledge. And then the other most important part of resistance was the cultural resistance that women– the roles that they played in cultural resistance.
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So women, being the caretakers of family and culture and the perpetuation of African culture, were sometimes the centres of foodways, the retention of certain foodways, the retention of certain religious ideas and spiritual approaches, how they looked after children, how they ensured that their families and their communities were cared for. They looked back to their African traditions and helped to perpetuate these in the community. So that’s why you see women at the centre of even grand acts of resistance like rebellions as being part of the plots, which were often centred in African religious rituals et cetera. So women were very critical to those plots.
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Now if we move on to the idea of petit marronage versus gran marronage, you will notice that, especially in Barbados, we have a number of cases where you’re seeing enslaved runaways being reported in the newspapers. It’s women who are either escaping slavery for temporary periods of time, so not forever but for short periods of time, to look after their families, or to take their families temporarily out of slavery. They may return, but it was very much known that they were escaping to their family networks. And that’s one of the surprising aspects of these slave runaway ads, is the knowledge of the family networks that are reported in the runaway ads, especially for women.
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Women are visiting their family members, maybe to take care of them, to take their children to see their fathers, to make sure that they’re just getting a little respite and escaping just temporarily just to escape some kind of management problems that might be on the estate. So I hope that’s given you some insight into the ways that women have resisted slavery. And I really hope that you continue to probe some of these questions in your readings and bring up these questions in your discussion. Thank you.

In this video, Dr Tara Inniss of the University of the West Indies explains how enslaved people could resist slavery by refusing to work, making themselves absent and ‘going-slow’. These seemingly minor or ‘passive’ forms of resistance were one way a community of enslaved people could work together to hinder the system of slavery in the British Caribbean.

Dr Tara Inniss is one of the leaders of a project examining the history of ‘Barbados Runaways’ through newspaper advertisements, community engagement workshops and artistic interventions. The project has digitised and made publicly available hundreds of pages of the newspapers, Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette (1783-1848) and The Barbadian (1822-1861) through a British Library Endangered Archives Grant.

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History of Slavery in the British Caribbean

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