Slavery, Labor, and Gender
Ulrike Strasser and Heidi Tinsman
University of California, Irvine
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The History of Mary Prince

This case study was developed for a lower-division lecture class on “World History 1400-1870” with the goal of creating an opportunity for students to “discover” gender. We used a central primary source, “The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave Related by Herself.”1 This first-person account was written by British abolitionists and disseminated through the London Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1831. We chose “The History of Mary Prince” because the types of labor that Prince performed as a slave cover the three areas of slave work that we specifically ask students to explore: plantation work; housework; and work for other slaves.

We departed from the traditional lecture format and pursued a pedagogical method known as “problem-based learning” (PBL). PBL takes a particular “problem” (instead of the more conventional “topic”) as its point of departure, and asks students to generate a collective “solution” by working in research teams. Students develop the skills and acquire the content knowledge needed to solve the issue at hand.

Our PBL asked students to produce a mock “script” for a documentary film to be shown on HBO during women’s history month. The film explains how and why male and female slaves in the Americas and/or Africa come to have distinct (or similar) labor responsibilities within local economies and what impact such gender divisions of labor have on women’s and men’s experience of slavery. Students were divided into collaborative teams and presented with a timetable for the completion of the task as well as guidelines for group work.

The actual process included the following steps: brain-storming research questions and ranking the questions in order of importance; dividing up the questions; carrying out the research and reporting the findings back to the group; reviewing all findings and generating larger arguments as a group; and finally, writing up project reports and preparing an oral presentation. Students were graded on the basis of their individual project component (submitted in essay form), their collaborative work (such as intermittent electronic reports), and their group participation (including peer evaluation). We provided students with a list of primary and secondary sources for their research and a set of questions to focus their efforts.2

A. Different Types of Work Involved in Producing An Export Commodity

Under this rubric we asked students to consider how and why labor for the production of an export commodity was distributed among men and women, female and male children and how authority was maintained at the work site. Mary Prince is mainly involved in making salt on behalf of an owner. Both men and women (as well as young children) are indiscriminately used in gangs that bail water, turn a press, and shovel the end product. The slave-owner directly supervises his slaves and cruelly disciplines them.

Students are encouraged to explore how this scenario contrasts with the broader secondary literature about frequent division between the labor performed by men’s gangs and women’s gangs on plantations producing sugar, cotton, and tobacco. To what extent do differences in divisions of labor reflect the requirements or social meanings of specific commodities (salt versus cotton), the size of a property or slave-holdings (Prince’s owner has relatively few slaves for money-making), and/or ideas about what is appropriate male and female work?

Finally, students were encouraged to think about how slave women (like Prince) and white abolitionists (like those who sponsored the publication of her history) might have had different investments in constructing women as being “naturally” unsuited for certain types of labor. “The History of Mary Prince” repeatedly bemoans the inhumanity of Mary being forced to do hard labor, the same labor as men. This condemnation is often inseparable from the narrative’s broader condemnation of extraordinarily cruel labor practices, such as whippings or maimings. The absence of gender divisions in labor was, paradoxically, the crux of how slave labor was gendered: slave women were denied qualification as “real (white) women” who might deserve “protection” as “the fairer sex.”

B. Different Types of Work Performed by Household-Based Slaves

Here we asked students to explore why specific male and female slaves were assigned to particular tasks, and how this division of labor impacted a slave’s relationship to the authority of a master or mistress. If so-called “fieldwork” often blurred distinctions between men and women’s labor, domestic service was more rigidly gender divided, especially when a slave’s work involved proximity to white women’s bodies. Mary Prince worked mostly in arrangements of domestic service, at one point as a chief housekeeper. She was involved in cooking, nursing children, cleaning, washing laundry, and ministering to her owners’ personal needs.

In particular, she relates her shame at being forced to bathe her master’s naked body, indicating that female slaves were frequently obliged to perform personal service for white men in an often sexualized, if not explicitly sexually exploitative manner. Prince’s narrative suggests that the oppression that women slaves suffered in arrangements of domestic service was often more arbitrary, violent, and deadly than that they encountered working in commodity production such as in the salt ponds (or tobacco fields). How does Prince’s narrative contribute to ongoing debates about the extent to which “fieldwork” or “housework” were more exploitative and/or enabling of slaves’ ability to resist dehumanization and slavery as an institution?

C. Slaves Working For Themselves and the Question of Resistance

In this third segment, students were instructed to think about the kind of work slaves perform on their own behalf and how it contributed to forming slave communities and resisting slavery. Prince used her position as head housekeeper to sell coffee, pork products, and yams in local markets in an (ultimately futile) effort to save money to purchase her freedom. Some of the money for manumission came from a certain “Captain Abbott”—a white man with whom Prince had a sexual relationship, although this is not explicit from the text (see Natalie Zemon Davis, below). Prince also mentions various forms of barter, exchange, and charity between slaves that helped sustain crucial friendships and material alliances among slaves, including those with different masters.

Here we posed the question why, in the case of “labor on their own behalf,” slaves often observed strict gender divisions of labor, with women at the forefront of agricultural subsistence and marketing activities. How were these divisions similar to/different from assignments by masters in the fields and household?

Last, we ask students to consider what sorts of “labor on one’s own behalf” constituted “resistance” to slavery. Prince’s own survival strategies and attempts to escape slavery were highly individualized, involving multiple attempts to save money and broker deals with whites in order to purchase her freedom. She is reportedly most successful when she converts to Christianity, marries, repents past sins, and seeks out an alliance with white abolitionists. Beyond encouraging students to recognize this sequence as reflecting the moral agenda of white abolitionists, we also urge them to think about the differences between collective and more individualized forms of “labor on one’s own behalf” and to make explicit arguments about where they see work connected to “resistance.”

Our PBL exercise was an experiment, and we were very pleased with its results. Although students at first expressed some skepticism about the place of collaborative work in a large lecture course, their presentations and papers indicated that we had won them over by the end of the term. Many presentations involved dramatic enactments, multimedia displays or mock pitches to the HBO film board. We apparently struck a real chord with these students and inspired them to be creative. A sizeable group produced some of the best historical writing either one of us had ever seen in an undergraduate setting. Their analysis was simply superb, and the presentation of the material highly imaginative. They had come to understand the meaning of gender as a “category of historical analysis” without us ever introducing the term. This was particularly gratifying.

1 “The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself,” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed. Six Women’s Slave Narratives, (Oxford, 1988).
Full text available online as part of the “Documenting the American South” project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

2 In order to explore these questions and prepare the final movie script, students read Mary Prince’s story alongside the following secondary sources. Secondary historical literature allows students to generate answers. Claire Robertson and Martin Klein, for example, argue that American plantation slavery’s preference for employing men in agricultural labor represented a sharp reversal of many West African societies’ custom of entrusting agriculture and marketing exclusively to women. Hilary Beckles and Jacqueline Jones contend in their work on life in the slave barracks that strict sexual divisions of labor were employed as a counter to white efforts to dehumanize slaves by treating men and women as interchangeable. Beckles’ work, which also has chapters on slave women obtaining freedom through their sexual relationships with men, is also of use in getting students to consider Mary Prince’s mention of her connection to “Captain Abbot.” To what extent did “sex” constitute a realm of work that (largely) slave women performed? Could these relationships afford some women limited forms of bargaining power along with heightened vulnerability?

Beckles, Hilary Mc D. Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Black Women in Barbados, (Rutgers, 1989).

Davis, Natalie Zemon.” Non-European Stories. European Literature,” in Berichten, Erzaehlen, Beherrschen: Wahrnehmung und Repraesentation in der fruehen Kolonialgeschichte Europas, edited by Susanna Burghartz et al. (Frankfurt a. M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 2003), 200-219.

Guy, Jeff. “Gender Oppression in Southern Africa’s Precapitalist Societies” in Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945, edited by Cherryl Walker (Cape Town: D. Philip 1990), 33-47.

Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present, (Basic Books, 1985).

Karasch, Mary. “Slave Women on the Brazilian Frontier in the Nineteenth Century,” in More Than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, edited by David Gaspar and Darlene Hine (Indiana University Press, 1996), 79-96.

Klein, Herbert “African Women in the Atlantic Slave Trade,” in Women and Slavery in Africa, edited by C. Robertson and M. Klein (Madison, 1983), 29-39.

Klein, Martin A. “Women in Slavery in the Western Sudan,” in Women and Slavery, 67-94.

MacCormack, Carol. “Slaves, Slave Owners, and Slave Dealers: Sherbo Coast and Hinterland,” in Women and Slavery, 271-294.

Moitt, Bernard, “Women, Work and Resistance in the French Caribbean,” in Verene Shepard, Bridget Brereton, Barbara Bailey, eds., Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective, (St. Martins, 1995), 155-175.

Robertson, Claire and Martin Klein, “Women’s Importance in African Slave Systems,” in Women and Slavery, 3-28.

Thornton, John. “Sexual Demography: The Impact of the Slave Trade on Family Structure,” in Women and Slavery, 39-48.