Their daily chores often began before dawn and included carrying water from communal wells to meet the drinking, eating, and bathing needs of the entire household; preserving and preparing food; performing housework and laundering clothes; participating in the process of clothing manufacture by spinning, weaving, and sewing; and caring for children.6 The isolation of the women in these households, relative to men, left them with fewer outlets by which to vent their frustrations and counter their exploitation. Far from being docile, compliant creatures, however, the actions of some women defied attempts to relegate them to the status of mere chattel.

     In her discussion of enslaved women’s resistance in the Caribbean, Barbara Bush argued that the "spirit of revolt" was not a spontaneous occurrence, but rather reflected a "continuum of resistance which linked Africa and the West Indies."7 In Africa, women learned to defend themselves and their villages against invasion; and during the middle passage, they participated in revolts aboard ship.8 Constantly tested by the brutal regime of "new world" slavery, their resistance and efforts toward self-determination took the form of arson, theft, infanticide, maroonage, and open revolt, such as the one at Antigua in 1736.9

     If the nature and volume of court cases are any indication, enslaved women in New York City continued the tradition of resistance that found expression in Africa and the Caribbean. Like their sisters in the Caribbean, Black women in New York employed a variety of methods to subvert the laws and customs that attempted to keep them perpetually obedient. One of the most common was theft, especially of clothing and household items that could be exchanged for money or bartered. In 1719, enslaved woman Betty was charged with and pled guilty to stealing a brass kettle from the home of a local merchant. Her alleged accomplice, another woman, maintained her innocence, but was convicted nonetheless. As was the custom of the day, the women were sentenced to be tied at the back of a cart, which was then driven about the city. At designated corners, the cart was stopped and the women endured a series of lashes, totaling 39 each.10

     Thievery sometimes developed out of necessity, as in the case of eighteen-year-old Hannah, who confessed to stealing "as much Bristol Stuff as would make her a Gown and Pettycoat."11 By way of explanation for her actions, Hannah charged that her owner had failed to supply the enslaved woman with sufficient clothing.

     In some instances, women joined fellow enslaved persons in theft rings that fenced stolen property to free Blacks and cooperative whites. In 1819, for example, Rose Butler was convicted and sentenced to be hanged for setting fire to the home of the man who held her indenture.12


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August 2000