Crime, Punishment and Gender in the Colonial Caribbean

Among the most infamous of the historical cases featuring the intersection of race, gender, punishment, and the early Atlantic is that of Captain Kimber and the two female slaves that he gruesomely murdered on his ship Recovery in 1792. One slave was tied upside down with the ship’s rope and “bounded up and down, or in other words, lifted up, and let fall again” five times on the ship’s deck. During each time she was lifted, she was severely beaten and was finally left to hang for about thirty minutes. By the time that she was let down, she was swollen, disfigured, and “welted in several parts of the body.” She died from her wounds two days later. (1) Venus, the second female slave murdered, has been erased from history. (2) The case against Captain Kimber, and his highly publicized crimes committed against the young slave generate a number of questions about the black woman’s body and the limits of her corporeality within the imperial legacies of the transatlantic slave trade.

African and Afro-Caribbean women were, at the surface, not as publicly targeted as their male counterparts. Indeed, since many were domestic servants in planters’ households, the enslaved woman was more a representative subject of lasciviousness and sexual temptation than a physical threat to the plantocratic social order. (3) The perceived threat that domestic slaves presented was a domestic one, where wives would jealously guard their husbands from black and mixed-race women in the household. Leonora Sansay wrote in her Secret History (1808) that a French wife became so jealous of her husband’s longing after the domestic servant Coombah, that she had the slave decapitated and put her head on a platter for dinner.

400px-Blake_after_John_Gabriel_Stedman_Narrative_of_a_Five_Years_copy_2_object_8William Blake’s “Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave,” 1796

In a paper that I gave a few months back, I described the execution of the Barbecian slave Willem, who was tried and condemned for performing obeah as well as damaging the property of a planter. His crime of “damaging property” was his execution of the slave Madalon, who was supposedly a malignant spiritual force on the plantation, responsible for the deaths of other slaves. Willem systematically tortured Madalon before his actions led to her death. The deaths of both Madalon and Willem, symbolic of the distinct forms of justice that existed within the planter and slave communities, also led to questions about crime, gender and punishment in situations where the woman appears to be demonstrating some kind of agency. Were women punished less or more severely than their male counterparts in moments of rebellion or expressed autonomy?

My gut instinct is to say “no.” There are simply too many depictions of men being castrated, hooked by their ribs, quartered, and disemboweled while fully conscious to believe that women were treated with the same kind of violent public spectacle. Women were definitively punished for expressing autonomy in the colonial sphere–Mary Prince’s History could feasibly read like a catalog of such moments of crime and punishment. But in representations of rebellion, women’s punishments consistently appear to be more “gentle” than when any male slave rebels against the colonial system. A woman may simply be burned at the stake, but a man may be castrated first, with his member thrown into the fire where he can watch it slowly burn. A gruesome and violent colonial history no doubt–a reminder of the legacies that we carry into the present-day.

Independent of whether women were less severely punished than men in crimes of rebellion or mutiny, it would still appear that women were repeatedly punished for simply the crime of their sex. Madalon was too old to biologically reproduce; the young women on the Recovery had just entered into adulthood (supposedly that is why they were selected out of the group for this kind of sexual torture). Women may have had a softer execution during times of rebellion, but were possibly more frequently punished, both sexually and in more private circumstances than men; certainly more than the record indicates. A woman had the additional burden of being a woman, and the “good deed” of her being both a reproductive and productive labor force on the plantation was did not likely go unpunished. (4)

(1) “The Trial of Captain John Kimber, for the Murder of Two Female Negro Slaves, on Board the Recovery, African Slave Ship” (London: C. Stalker, 1792), 4-7.

(2) Saidya Hartman’s powerful article, “Venus in Two Acts” meditates on the historical erasure of the second girl, Venus.

(3) See Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring WomenReproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004).

(4) See Thomas Thistlewood’s diary entries.

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