Hollywood has not exactly covered itself in glory when it comes to the subject of slavery. An exception is the 2019 film Harriet, the true story of the remarkable Harriet Tubman who rescued scores of slaves from the US Deep South after managing to escape from bondage herself. Not only did it underline the point that slaves themselves were frequently agents of their own emancipation, its protagonist was a woman on that very mission.
According to author Stella Dadzie, most popular media depictions of slavery reflect a long tradition of academic misogyny that largely leaves women out of the picture, fuelling skewed depictions of female slaves as either exotic mistresses or meek matriarchs. Her book, A Kick in the Belly, serves to set the record straight by telling the story of how they played a key role in resistance and rebellion.
“Women in slavery are largely conspicuous by their absence,” she says. “Until recently the majority of historians have been white males who view history through the lens of misogyny and racism. It is little wonder that the nameless casualties of plantation violence come across as little more than passive onlookers.”
Over 200 or so pages of impassioned prose, Stella delves into the many stories of female freedom fighters, from Jamaica’s Queen Nanny of the Maroons who used guerrilla warfare against the British, to those who murdered their masters with poisoned draughts like Baby of St Kitts, or became runaways like Betty, Charlotte and Molly who took flight as a trio from their Barbados plantation.
Then there is the widely documented outrage about how unmanageable so many female slaves were, defiantly downing tools and staging go-slows despite the risk of brutal punishment. “With nothing to lose, even the threat of death lost its power,” states Stella, co-author of Heart of the Race, which won the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize in 1985 for its groundbreaking exploration of black women’s lives in Britain. Hitherto she’d made a name for herself as a grassroots activist who would go on to become a founder member of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent that blazed a trail in the late ‘70s.
The seeds for Kick in the Belly were planted more than 30 years ago when she took time off from teaching to study at SOAS, London University: “It all started out as an MA thesis whose focus was on Jamaica and what life was like for women living on the plantation.”
During her studies, she discovered a number of historians who were carrying out pioneering research into the lives of enslaved women: “By the mid-80s an alternative narrative had started to creep into academic debate but, as so often is the case, it remained in those realms. At the time, I was thinking about how I could expand on it to get it over to a wider audience.”
Written in a clear and precise style, the book achieves that aim and has enjoyed critical and commercial success since its publication in the autumn, selling out on Amazon over Christmas. Academically, though, the material covers familiar ground. “This isn’t original research,” she acknowledges. “A lot of work has already been done by other historians. What I tried to do is write in language that was more accessible and to bring my own thoughts and analysis to the table.”
She was also keen to divert the traditional historical gaze from the American Deep South to the West Indies in order to drive home how Britain directly benefitted from the blood, sweat and tears of slavery.
“One of the challenges was to try and make the story more uplifting. It is a challenge because it’s a horror story,” continues Stella. From the time they embarked on the Middle Passage to be worked as beats of burden on the plantations, women were not spared the sadism that came with forced labour, and the book’s title is taken from a remark made by visiting absentee planter Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, who observed in 1817 that black women were being “kick[ed] in the belly from one end of Jamaica to the other”.
“Enslaved women found ways of fighting back that beggar belief,” states Stella. One of these ways may have been to control the number of children they had through plant-induced abortion. She writes that alarm over the abnormally low birthrates on plantations became the subject of parliamentary debate, prompting a whole raft of measures to reverse the situation, from better food to financial perks. However, the reforms were ineffective, posing a real threat to slave stocks, particularly after the supply of fresh slaves from Africa was outlawed in 1807.
It was only when Emancipation was declared in 1833 that there was an upsurge in births. Whether it was part of the culture of resistance that permeated the plantations one cannot say for sure, says Stella, although in 1790 MPs were told that declining slave numbers were down to the “frequent abortions which Negro women designedly bring on the themselves”.
Abortion would have been a way of ensuring that fewer children would have to suffer the degradation of slavery, a measure of self-determination that the plantocracy had no control of, she concludes. “Basically you would not do anything that assisted this heinous project.”
A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance by Stella Dadzie is published by Verso in hardback, £14.99
This article appeared in The Review on January 21 2021