Slavery, Subversion and Subalternity: Gender and Violent Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Bahia

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sat Oct 14 18:46:09 PDT 2000

Slavery, Subversion and Subalternity: Gender and Violent Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Bahia

By Jane-Marie Collins The University of Nottingham

Published in: Brazilian Feminisms, edited by Judith Still and Solange Ribeiro (Edwin Mellor,2000).

'By any means necessary' Malcolm X (1925-1965)

'The slave that kills his master practices an act of legitimate self-defence' Luis Gama (1830-1882)

'mata tudo,Š.era bom' Quintiliano ( ? )

When Deborah Gray White wrote Ar'nt I a Woman? in 1985 it was in response to the glaring hole in the historiography which demanded that 'a book on slave women was needed and could be done.'1 Three years later in Brazil, Sonia Maria Giacomini made a similar attempt to incorporate slave women into the history of slavery and the history of slave women into feminist and black studies in Brazil: 'é fundamental o reconhecimento da pertinência de um discurso específico da e sobre a negra no interior dos discursos feministas, bem como de um discurso da e sobre a mulher no interior dos discursos emergentes do movimento negro.' (it is essential that we recognise the relevance of a discourse specifically about and by black women within feminist discourse, as well as a discourse about and by black women in the emerging discourses of the Black Movement.')2

In the United States, the subsequent studies which have addressed the position of slave women in both the context of slavery and black feminist writing are almost too numerous to mention3. The study of slave women is no longer confined to the margins of history or reduced to a footnote as an 'also ran', but is acknowledged as a valid category of historical analysis alongside slave men, white men and women, as part of slave society in particular and American History in general4. It is now impossible to enter into the discourse of women's history in the United States, or more specifically feminist discourse, without referring to the centrality of black women in the fight for civil rights and in the formation of feminist ideas5.

A similar trend is apparent in the historiography of slavery and women studies in the Caribbean. In the early eighties, the myth of marginality was finally laid to rest in studies of plantation labour by, among others, Barry Higman and Michael Craton, which showed that female slaves formed the majority of field hands because the more specialised jobs were allocated to men.6 The results of such empirical work have led Hillary Beckles to conclude that '[t]hese levels of participation in the plantation economy suggest that attempts to locate their [slave women's] labor experiences in the periphery of historical analysis should encounter severe empirical difficulties.'7 In his study of slave women and resistance in Barbados he emphasises how 'the tripartite structure of race, class and gender oppression located most black women in positions of greatest material deprivation'8. Consequently the slave women's productive role, in addition to her reproductive one, has been examined as a central function of the slave labour plantation system and provided a new conceptual framework in which to study the historical role of women in Caribbean society9.

The patterns observable in the United States and the Caribbean are not evident, however, in Brazil. Giacomini's self-acknowledged beginning, that first inquiry into the double burden of productivity and reproductivity, or the tripartite oppression of race, sex and class, has not triggered a comparable response. While Giacomini recognises the difficulty of the task in the sense of a paucity of sources, the invisibility of slave women in Brazilian history has all too often been accepted as a fait accompli, in the same way that the study of slavery was some thirty years ago in Brazil, under the convenient misconception that Rui Barbosa quemou tudo (burnt everything)10.

This essay will not claim to recover any lost ground, but an acknowledgement that the gap has yet to be bridged is, I feel, appropriate in a collection of this type that addresses questions of Brazilian feminism. On the whole, intellectual feminists have yet to theorise issues of race, class and gender in the same way as other former slave societies in the Americas11. It is of no surprise then that in terms of scholarship, the history of black women in Brazil has not kept pace with the outstanding production of literature in the field of Brazilian slave studies12. Therefore, any study of slave women's resistance must be cognisant of the fragmented nature of the discourse of black women's history in Brazil. This study, then, is aken from a larger work in progress on slave women and resistance in nineteenth-century Bahia that attempts to valorizar13 slave women's contribution to resistance against captivity, this essay will address the issue of slave women and violent resistance.

In North American and Caribbean literature on slave women the focus has been on day to day resistance, usually non-violent and committed individually but as part of a continuum that undermined the system of slavery from within14. Slave women's reproductive capacity, sexual vulnerability, and the sexual division of labour shaped the way they resisted captivity. These conditions created unique opportunities for oppression that slave men did not experience and conversely created special opportunities for resistance. In summary, slave resistance in slavery historiography is generally considered gender specific.

However, within the subject of slave women and resistance, certain paradigms have emerged which at times overlap, at times contradict each other15. A major part of the slave woman's day-to-day resistance was devoted to avoiding the sexual aggression of a master. The main tactics included sexual abstinence, abortion, infanticide, and feigned pregnancies which have been categorised as a form of 'gynaecological' or 'reproductive' resistance, again gender specific16. In contrast, the role of the slave woman in family formation has often been interpreted as her key contribution to resistance, in the sense that the family provided the slave community with its greatest source of strength17. The slave woman as rebel has been discussed from two viewpoints. First, like their male counterparts, slave women participated in revolts and uprisings, as queens or spiritual leaders and as warriors18. Second, that slave women were 'natural rebels', that is that slave resistance was universal and slave women could be found in all its forms19. These last two arguments shift away from the notion of gender specificity; the first emphasises the fact that women were capable of taking what has often been interpreted as male roles in resistance, and the second that resistance was as instinctive to slave women as it was men. Finally, the Africanist or cross-cultural approach (which is frequently incorporated into all of the above) stresses how enslaved African women 'adopted strategies and values rooted in African cosmology' reflecting a tradition of identity with Africa and providing an extension of African Diaspora history20.

Collectively, these approaches have opened up new areas of meaning and provided valuable conceptual frameworks in which to explore the multiple forms of slave women's resistance, from psychological warfare to maroon leaders21. However, one area that appears to have been under explored is the nature of gender and violent resistance. Cases of attacks against owners and their families are frequently cited but to my knowledge there is no systematic study of this type of resistance in the same way there is, for example, of gender and flight22. Both quantitative and qualitative questions need to be addressed; not just how many (or how few) but why and how? When slave women did resort to murder and who did they kill? Under what conditions and with what weapons? Do these conditions suggest the possibility of gender specificity in slave resistance that merits further discussion?

The two cases presented in this study will be examined in light of the approaches outlined above. They originate from nineteenth-century Bahia and illustrate two apparently different examples of murder committed by slave women against their mistresses and their mistresses children. The first, a case of poisoning, premeditated and well planned, and the other a violent physical attack with a mão de pilhão (large pestle used for grinding corn) that could be described as a moment of madness. However, further examination will show how such distinctions are not only simplistic but counterproductive to analysis of slave women and resistance.

Details of the murders committed by the slave women Faustina and Benta are taken from the court proceedings against them23. Although the law did not permit slaves to take the oath and testify directly before the courts, if they were accused of a criminal act, it would normally be necessary to question them directly and on these occasions the spoken words of slaves could be recorded by the court scribe. While it is unlikely that the way in which the scribe recorded the testimonies is a faithful and authentic representation of how these women spoke, they do provide rare opportunities in which slave women actually had a public voice....

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