Atlantic History Female Slave Owners
by
Christine Walker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0321

Introduction

While scholarship on female slave ownership in the Atlantic world pales in comparison with the extensive literature on men’s activities as slaveholders, recent work on the topic has transformed our understanding of who the “typical” slaveholder was, and in turn, how European imperial regimes perpetuated chattel slavery throughout the Americas. Rather than being marginalized or passive, women acted as key agents of colonialism and chattel slavery. They actively participated as buyers and sellers of human beings in local and Atlantic markets; they managed, coerced, and abused enslaved people; and they derived material wealth and social capital from their participation in slavery. The women who acted as slave owners comprised a remarkably diverse group. Christian and Jewish women who migrated to the Americas readily participated in slavery. Women of African, Euro-African, and Amerindian descent living throughout the Atlantic basin were slave owners. Even women who had spent part of their own lives in bondage acquired captives. There were, of course, regional and chronological variations which shaped a woman’s ability to procure slaves, and more work needs to be done which investigates these differences. We still know relatively little about how status, ethnicity, race, and religion shaped female slaveholding patterns in various parts of the Atlantic world. This bibliography has been organized geographically rather than thematically or chronologically, which is a reflection of the relative paucity of literature on the subject. However, geographic boundaries themselves were porous and contested during the era of Atlantic slavery, and female slave owners moved within and between imperial zones—another subject which is in need of further study. The formal abolition of the slave trade with Africa by European empires and the United States in the early 19th century forms the rough chronological end point for this bibliography (Britain, 1807; United States, 1808; Portugal, 1810; Sweden, 1813; France, 1814; Netherlands, 1814; Spain, 1820). The abolition of the slave trade, of course, did not end slavery in the Americas, nor did it limit women’s engagement in slaveholding. However, the abolition of the slave trade officially constricted the Atlantic dimensions of the trade, and hence, the transportation of African captives to the Americas. Female slave owners continued to benefit from unfree labor until, and even after, the abolition of slavery, which occurred at various points in time in different nations and colonies. Female slave owners living in the British empire, for instance, received monetary compensation in return for emancipating their captives. More regional needs to be done which investigates both the differences and similarities in patterns of female slaveholding across imperial and national boundaries. Likewise, we need to understand how the abolition of the slave trade and then the abolition of slavery influenced the lives and the fortunes of female slave owners living throughout the Atlantic world.

General Overviews

Because the topic of female slave owners is relatively new, no general collections which focus specifically on this subject have been published. While the majority of the volumes which have been included in general overviews focus on enslaved women, a few of the collections include essays which refer to female slave owners. Some of the essays in Gaspar and Hine 2004, for instance, explore the lives of free women of color, including their participation in slavery. Likewise, the edited collection Campbell, et al. 2007, which focuses primarily on enslaved women, also includes evidence of women’s activities as slave owners in its introduction and in one essay. The remaining selections, Brereton 2013 and Byfield, et al. 2010, do not investigate women’s activities as slave owners. However, Brereton’s overview of the Anglophone Caribbean archives, which have been used in relation to the study of women and gender, is a useful starting point for future research on the topic. The collection of essays in Byfield, et al. 2010 relate to gender and slavery and cover a wide range of subjects and time periods. A few of the pieces in Part 2 of the volume may refer to female slaveholders.

  • Brereton, Bridget. “Women and Gender in Caribbean (English-speaking) Historiography: Sources and Methods.” Caribbean Review of Gender Studies 7 (2013): 1–18.

    E-mail Citation »

    An overview of scholarship that has been produced on the British West Indies, including Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados, and Guyana, over the past thirty years. Anyone interested in conducting historical research on women and gender in the Anglophone Atlantic will find descriptions of the variety of archival sources to be useful.

  • Byfield, Judith A., LaRay Denzer, and Anthea Morrison. Gendering the African Diaspora: Women, Culture, and Historical Change in the Caribbean and Nigerian Hinterland. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

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    This collection uses gender as a lens to explore the connections between the Caribbean, Africa, and Britain. The essays in Section 2, including the ones by Linda Sturtz and Antonia MacDonald-Smythe, may be of particular interest to scholars who are interested in female slave ownership.

  • Campbell, Gwyn, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph C. Miller, eds. Women and Slavery: Africa, the Indian Ocean World, and the Medieval North Atlantic. Vol. 1. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    While the essays in this edited collection primarily study the lives of enslaved women, the introduction and a piece by Philip j. Havik entitled “From Pariahs to Patriots: Women Slavers in Nineteenth-Century ‘Portuguese’ Guinea,” both refer to female participation in slave ownership.

  • Gaspar, David Barry, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds. Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection explores how race and gender shaped the lives of free women of color who lived throughout the Americas. While female slaveholding is not the focus of the work, several of the essays refer to free and freed women of African descent who were slaveholders.

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