Enslaved Women's Militancy and Strategy in Black and Native Communities of Resistance

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) and Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples; Slavery


By telling the stories of individual women, this panel desires to both narrate and complicate the divergent and shared histories of Native and African slavery in the long eighteenth century. Two papers layer histories of resistance in Tidewater Virginia. The first accounts for the land-based defense strategies of Cockacoeske, an Algonquian Chieftainess who resisted the enslaving troops of Nathanial Bacon in 1676. Cockacoeske’s radical assertions of Algonquian sovereignty threatened the burgeoning racialized concepts of ownership that Bacon represented. The second paper examines the culture of insurgency developed by maroon and enslaved women in attempted insurrections in the Tidewater region between 1800 and 1831. Black women’s contributions to and organization of conspiracies in this period remain underexplored. How might landscape as a lens of analysis help us think about these two histories together while also distinguishing between the ways their modes of resistance troubled patriarchal understandings of land and enslavement? Two other papers turn southward to colonial Jamaica and New Orleans and examine the everyday strategies of women who negotiated forms of bondage in response to quotidian aspects of colonial military power. One considers the strategies of testimony used by women captured and imprisoned for living as maroons by Spanish troops in Louisiana from 17831784. As in the panel’s considerations of Virginia, this paper argues for a reconsideration of this maroon community in light of both the 1729 Natchez Revolt and ongoing maroon and Native resistance in Florida. The final paper argues for how enslaved women participated in Jamaica’s eighteenth-century informal economy and found measures of personal autonomy by accumulating funds and forging personal and patronage relationships with military men. Despite the fact that, in Jamaica, the British Navy, Infantry, and the local West India Regiments made colonial slavery possible by policing the enslaved black majority and constituting the most significant bulwark against slave revolts, entanglements between “black market women” and troops trouble neat narratives of resistance and compliance. By centering the actions of women in each of these contexts, this panel encourages reading for additional “plots” within familiar histories of resistance, those that feature the leadership and particular strategic choices of women. Rather than think of this as an exercise in having black studies and native studies “speak” to each other, we see the individuals considered here as already in conversation through the ways their histories mutually shaped their responses to racial slavery.

Papers Presented

“De su Propia Voluntad”: Maroon Women Testify in Spanish Louisiana

This paper examines the heavily mediated interrogations and testimonies of women imprisoned for living as maroons in the New Orleans prison between 1783 and 1784. Their accounts, when taken in consideration with the larger archive of this campaign against maroons, offer a new perspective for understanding this particular maroon community that tormented the Spanish colonial military’s efforts to control the Louisiana Territory in the wake of the Natchez Revolt and military conflicts against maroon and native communities in Florida. Reading the archive so as to center women who lived as maroons in this conflict, as opposed to reading solely for armed male leaders, reveals the strategic testimonies and witnessing of these women in criminal trials. We can therefore begin thinking through both the choices they made about their families and collaborators in relation to the maroon community’s close proximity to plantations and the developing city of New Orleans.

Presented By
Sarah Jessica Johnson, University of Chicago

“To Redeem her Indians”: Indigenous Slavery and Women’s Resistance during Bacon’s Rebellion

When Nathaniel Bacon launched his rebellion against elite tidewater planters in Virginia in 1676 he immediately embarked on slave raids against several Indigenous nations across the region, focusing on capturing women and children in particular. This paper follows the story of Cockacoeske, a female Algonquian chieftainess who led Bacon on a chase deep into the swamplands of the York River and narrowly escaped enslavement. Using an Indigenous feminist lens it re-considers the rebellion as a contest between Native women’s land-based defense strategies and the expansion of racial slavery in the Chesapeake. It considers how Cockacoeske’s radical assertions of Algonquian sovereignty threatened the patriarchal ideal of slave and land ownership that Bacon represented.

Presented By
Hayley Negrin, University of Illinois at Chicago

Market-Women and the Military: The West Indies Regiments and the Informal Economy in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica

In Jamaica, the British Navy, Infantry, and the local West India Regiments made colonial slavery possible by policing the enslaved black majority and constituting the most significant bulwark against slave revolts. Yet, British military forces suffered profound and prolonged deficits of food, water, and other provisions throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Jamaica’s strategic geo-political location and economic significance, therefore, made quotidian questions of sustenance inseparable from imperial strategy. If, as Napoleon once said, ‘an army marches on its stomach,’ then Jamaica’s illicit economy was the kitchen for the British military in the West Indies. This paper will examine the connections between Jamaica’s eighteenth-century informal economy, especially market women, and the British Empire. In particular, it will analyze the intersection between enslaved market women and imperial troops in Kingston, Spanish Town, and Port Royal. Black market women, whose trading activities brought them to local garrisons and harbors, were uniquely positioned to sell provisions and other goods to sailors, soldiers, and units. The 1795 raising of the West India Regimentsblack militia units established in the midst of the Haitian Revolution to police slave disturbances, capture runaways, and, later, conduct military operations in the Caribbean basinonly further strengthened the commercial and social bonds linking black market women and the military.

Presented By
Shauna Sweeney, University of Toronto

“They Bid Defiance to Any Force Whatever”: Enslaved Women’s Insurgency in Tidewater, VA

Taking into consideration the social and economic forces that limited the opportunities enslaved women had to practice overt forms of resistance, this paper reimagines Black women’s unseen and underexplored contributions to several insurrectionary attempts in the Tidewater between 1800 and 1831. Of primary focus are the ways enslaved women creatively supported and inventively instigated organized resistance. Looking closely at several conspiracies to rebel, including violent incidents involving maroon women, this paper makes visible the ways Black women helped build a culture of insurgency, despite their limitations, as they worked to undermine slavery in this revolutionary age.

Presented By
Kathryn Benjamin Golden, University of Delaware

Session Participants

Chair: Julie Saville, University of Chicago

Presenter: Kathryn Benjamin Golden, University of Delaware

Commentator: Jessica Marie Johnson, Michigan State University

Presenter: Sarah Jessica Johnson, University of Chicago

Presenter: Hayley Negrin, University of Illinois at Chicago

Presenter: Shauna Sweeney, University of Toronto