Women and Slavery in Africa
- Mariana P. CandidoMariana P. CandidoDepartment of History, University of Notre Dame
Kidnapping, warfare, seizure, and enslavement were gendered experiences in the sense that men, women, and children did not necessarily face the same process. Each enslaved woman and man was an individual who navigated bondage, resistance, dependency, and violence with different degrees of success within specific contexts. Recognizing their complexities and the variations regarding their enslavement and bondage is vital to avoiding essentialization of African slavery as a monolithic or an ahistorical institution. Women composed most of the enslaved population within the African continent, due in part to the operation of internal markets and local demands. The internal demand for enslaved women affected prices, values, and flows of the external slave trades, as well as gender imbalance.
Women in bondage played major economic roles in the domestic and public spheres as farmers, skilled craftspersons, street vendors, miners, healers, and cooks, performing tasks that respectable and honorable free women would not do. They were valued as producers and reproducers who could attend to sexual demands and be incorporated into lineages as unfree people. In different societies within and outside of Africa, enslaved women in bondage were sexually objectified and exploited. There is thus nothing “African” about this violence, since one of the premises of enslaving girls and women was the ability to abuse their bodies. The sexual dimension of the use of women’s bodies explains the higher value for female captives in internal African markets, as well as the silence surrounding the enslavement of women. It is important to recognize that in Africa, as elsewhere, the institution of slavery was not monolithic. Detailed regional studies indicate variations across time and space. Women experienced capture, enslavement, and bondage in different ways. One cannot make general assumptions when analyzing exceptional lives.