General, Politics, Source, Women's History

Black & Asian women’s history: enslaved women on ships


Black and Asian women’s history, as we know, has been very wrongly neglected. For over 20 years until 2011 it was being usefully retrieved – and presented in short, accessible pieces – by publications such as the Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter. But I’ve just discovered this no longer exists. (For update see

Surely this WHN blog can be one of the e-places where the history of Black and Asian women is still, and increasingly, given the centrality it deserves.


Black women on slave ships

Women’s maritime historiography shows us several areas we can explore, including that of enslaved women, in transit. Perhaps 4-5 million African women being transported across the Atlantic in hell ships from the seventeenth century onwards.

Enslaved women tended to be outnumbered two to one.  Female/male ratios varied according to region, as well as period, argues Jennifer L Morgan in Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2004.


Gendered relations on board

From the evidence it seems that on many vessels over time generally women were doubly  victimised, and sexually abused.  Ships were hypersexualised spaces, crewed by men who might have close relationships only with each other or ship’s animals.

Male crew typically took women passengers – be they convicts, enslaved women, or unprotected emigrants – as sexual partners for the duration of a trip. Sometimes they even married them. There could be tenderness and gallant protectiveness. But women almost always had the less powerful position. In some cases women managed to turn men’s desire for them, or assumptions of women’s inferiority, for their own benefit, even on slave ships.

Shipboard practices varied. But on most slave ships women were usually left unshackled. They had more freedom to rove the ship than did men. Enslaved women were also tragic murder victims, as these two stories of voyages shows.


‘Enslaved women’: language.

First I want to make the practical point that browsing for this subject, can, ironically, be hindered by our new use of language. The Abolition of Slavery project points out that the word ‘slave’ means someone ‘owned by another person’.

‘A slave is a human being classed as property and who is forced to work for nothing. An enslaved person is a human being who is made to be a slave. This language is often used instead of the word slave, to refer to the person and their experiences and to avoid the use of dehumanising language.’(

But in internet searches using the search term, ‘enslaved women’ not ‘slave’ doesn’t bring  anything like as many hits.

Dramatic stories of two enslaved  women on ships reveal something about the realities of the long cooped-up and traumatic voyages and gendered relations.


Murdering a New Calabar fifteen-year old on the slave ship Recovery

The un-named young woman was on Captain John Kimber’s Recovery from New Calabar. They were  headed for Grenada in October 1791. Isaac Cruikshank graphically pictured the terrible situation of the fifteen-year old African ‘virjen’ who refused to exercise.  Her refusal was normal.  Many did, not least because they were too saddened by their plight to dance, that is, to be complicit in the process of making themselves into commodities that could be sold as ‘healthy and fit’ on arrival.

But in this case Kimber allegedly flogged her, repeatedly . He was said to have several times made the crew suspend her by one leg and then drop her to the deck of the ship. She died, one of the twenty seven of the 300 slaves died on the fifty-seven-day trip.  In 1792 Kimber was tried for her murder, but acquitted.

William Wilberforce used this Cruikshank image in his struggle to bring the abolition of slavery, 1800. It’s an effective image as propaganda, but it also needs discussion. For example, was Cruikshank using her nakedness in a purient way?


Ditching an ‘infected’ woman from the slave ship Polly.

That same year,1791, Captain James D’Wolf was indicted for murdering a woman, also un-named. He had her put  overboard because he thought she had small pox and would infect everyone on board the Polly.

Caring? No. He just didn’t want to lose his potentially profitable cargo.

Captain James D’Wolf first had the sick woman put high up in the mainmast two days earlier. Then he ordered she be put overboard. The sailors refused, according to seaman John Cranston. Scared to touch her? No, they were actually quite keen to get exposure to smallpox and thereby gain immunity. On their refusal D’Wolf: ‘himself ran up the Shrowds  … 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.’

Cranston said the mask was tied onto the woman so that she could not see what was happening to her so that she would not struggle and ‘to prevent her making any Noise that the other Slaves might not hear, lest they should rise.’ She drowned. They didn’t rise.


Gender brings extra abuse

Marcus Rediker writes of the D’Wolf case in The Slave Ship: A human history, John Murray, London, 2007. I started looking at enslaved women’s conditions as part of studying their regulation on ships. Convicts and emigrants had (white) shipboard matrons and conductresses to ‘look after’ but also marshall them. They were like wardresses albeit not very authoritative ones, and could almost be seen as akin to WW1 ‘lady patrollers’. Enslaved women had no such protectors on their ships.

One of the jobs of gender-aware historians is to examine, where we can, how much men’s terrible femiphobia played a part in different voyages, and how women negotiated agency where they could. Black and Asian women’s struggle was, of course, especially challenging.


Jo Stanley (c) July 2015



Dr Jo Stanley, FRHistS, has just written  From Cabin ‘ Boys’ to Captains: Women seafarers from 1750 to the present.  History Press are bringing it out in April 2016. It includes a chapter on matrons and conductresses. Her blog on the gendered seas discusses enslaved women in this post:



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