Secret history: the warrior women who fought their enslavers

·7 min read

Growing up in New York in the 1970s Rebecca Hall craved heroes she could relate to – powerful women who could take care of themselves and protect others. But pickings were slim. The famed feminists of the time, Charlie’s Angels and The Bionic Woman, didn’t cut it for her.

But every night when she went to sleep, her father would recount stories of her grandmother’s life. Harriet Thorpe was born into slavery 100 years earlier, in 1860, and was the “property”, she was told, of one Squire Sweeney in Howard County, Missouri.

“He told me about her struggles and how she still thrived in the face of them – she became a role model for me,” says Hall. “I wished I could go back in time and meet her.”

She couldn’t, but Hall was so inspired by Thorpe’s bravery that years later she found herself delving back in time, determined to uncover the untold stories of enslaved African women, just like Harriet, who fought their oppressors on slave ships, in plantations and across the Americas. The women warriors, she calls them, who had been written out of history. What began as a personal research project has culminated in a book, Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, which is published next month unusually in the form of a graphic memoir.

“It’s not like dumbing down. You look at the picture, the art, and you can see what’s happening,” Hall says.

The characters – including herself as narrator – are brought to comic-strip life with black and white illustrations and speech bubbles in the work of New Orleans artist Hugo Martínez. “The combination provides a way to look almost simultaneously into the past and the present, which was crucial for this story because it’s about haunting and the relationship between slavery, the United States and the current issues that we have today.

“It’s also about growing up in the wake of slavery – which is traumatic,” she says.

Hence the title of the book – Wake – which Hall says is intended to play on the meaning of a wake at a funeral, or the wake of a slave ship.

Before becoming a historian, Hall says her life was like living in that wake. Now 58, she worked as a tenants’ rights lawyer in Berkeley, California. But toward the end of the 1990s she became disillusioned. Racism and sexism were everywhere in the justice system, she says.

Sometimes she would walk into a courtroom and be directed to the defendant’s chair. “I’m not the defendant. I’m the attorney for the plaintiff,” she would bellow.

She felt the need to get to the root of what she saw as the racial issues “warping the world” – and made the life-changing decision to quit her job and dedicate herself to the study of chattel slavery. So it was back to college and Hall attained a PhD in 2004. “It was something I had to do – to understand my experience as a black woman in America today,” she says.

More than anything, having heard her grandmother’s story, Hall wanted to learn about female resistance to slavery – because so little was ever taught about it at school.

“If you’re a black child, you learn about slavery but you don’t learn about slave resistance or slave revolt in America,” Hall says.

“But if you’re taught the history of resistance, that our people fought every step of the way, that is a recovery that is crucial to our pride in our humanity and our strength and struggle. So the issue of slave resistance is something I think everyone should know about.”

She drew a blank though. Every book about slave revolts said more or less the same thing, that men led the resistance while enslaved women took a back seat. “I was like, what’s going on, I don’t believe it’s true,” says Hall.

So she started the painstaking process of sifting through the captain’s logs of slave ships, old court records in London and New York, letters between colonial governors and the British monarchy, newspaper cuttings, even forensic examinations from the bones of enslaved women uncovered in Manhattan.

Much of it made for difficult reading – human beings described time and time again in documents and insurance books as “cargo” with footnotes describing “woman slave number one and woman slave number two”. “Seeing them writing about my people as objects – It was horrific,” she says.

She learned that Lloyd’s of London was at the centre of the insurance market at the time, providing cover for slave ships, a “shameful” legacy for which it apologised last year. “They were insuring against the insurrection of cargo – I think that completely sums it up. How can cargo insurrect?” asks Hall.

As hard as this was to digest, it started to open new windows into the past – and as Hall pieced the information together she began to find women warriors everywhere, not only resisting their enslavers but planning and leading slave revolts.

In one example, Hall discovered that four women were involved in the 1712 revolt in New York, an uprising by enslaved Africans who killed nine of their captors before being, in some cases, burned at the stake. One pregnant woman was kept alive until she gave birth and then put to death (the execution was delayed, says the report, because the baby was “someone’s property”). Until now, it was assumed only men took part in this revolt.

Details are sparse – and many of the female rebels are nameless in the reports, or referred to with derogatory terms such as “Negro Wench” or “Negro Fiend” – so Hall had to fill in the blanks for her book, reworking the scenes in two of the chapters using what she calls “methodical use of historical imagination”.

She created names for some of the characters, such as Adobo and Alele – who fought for freedom in the Middle Passage, the terrifying journey from African slave ports to the New World slave markets.

“It was a real challenge for me because all of my writing before was academic,” she says. “Learning how to write visual script for a graphic novel was such a steep learning curve but it’s not like making up a story. It’s all historically grounded.”

Hall discovered that out of the 35,000 slave ship voyages documented, there were revolts in a tenth of them. And when she analysed the difference between ships that had revolts and those that didn’t, she discovered there were more women on the ships with uprisings.

“Historians literally say that this must be a fluke as we know that women didn’t revolt,” she says.

But closer examination of slave ship records showed key new facts.

There were procedures for running these ships, Hall explains – and right at the top was the instruction to keep everyone below deck and chained while you were on the coast of Africa.

“But once you got into the Atlantic, you unchained the women and children and brought them on deck,” she says.

That’s when Hall began to find stories of women accessing the weapons chests and finding ways to unchain the men below. “They used their mobility and access,” she says.

The conservative estimate is that 16 million Africans were brought to the Americas as enslaved people and while we don’t know exactly how many were women, we do know there were huge numbers, Hall says.

She hopes, now, that people will begin to realise how important these women were to resistance.

For graphic artist Martínez – who specialises in issues of struggle and resistance – illustrating the stories was particularly painful.

He highlights the image of the Brookes slave ship as the most “emotionally charged” he had to draw. It’s a sketch depicting how enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas – with 454 people crammed into the hold. “There are lots of moments that are intense but there’s something about that picture where you can maybe feel the weight of what it is to be a human who’s been turned into cargo,” he says. “It was extremely difficult for me to draw”

Related: Barry Jenkins: ‘Maybe America has never been great’

The book, Hall says, was only ever intended as a passion project – if not to heal then at least to come to terms with the trauma of slavery in her own past.

But after a small kickstarter project, it became the target of a bidding war among multiple publishers, with Simon & Schuster offering the highest ever advance for this type of illustrated novel.

It’s a measure of the importance of the theme – though Hall says she was gobsmacked.

“I felt like I was stumbling backwards – into everything that happened,” she says.

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts is published on 1 June. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com

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