Liberating the Family? Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the Rural Western Cape, South Africa, 1823-1853. – Review

Liberating the Family? Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the Rural Western Cape, South Africa, 1823-1853. – Review – book review

Elizabeth Schmidt

Liberating the Family? Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the Rural Western Cape, South Africa, 1823-1853. By Pamela Scully (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997. xiii plus 210pp. $60.00/cloth $23.95/paperback).

Examining the transition from slavery to free wage-labor in the British Cape Colony (South Africa), Scully argues that both slavery and emancipation were fundamentally gendered experiences. Chronologically, her study begins in 1823, with the legislative “amelioration” of slaves’ conditions. This is followed by an examination of the period of “apprenticeship,” from 1834 until slavery was legally abolished in December 1838. The remainder of the book considers the post-emancipation period until 1853, when Cape colonists were granted limited self-rule.

Scully argues that slave owners, abolitionists, and slaves themselves “conceptualized the meanings of both slavery and freedom in part through the language of family and gender relations” (p. 15). Hierarchical gender relations were perceived–by men–to be part of the natural order. Only a free man could be a real man, for only he controlled his wife’s person and labor. Only a free man had legal authority over his children.

Cape slavery, however, turned these “natural” roles on their head. The slave or free status of children was determined by the status of their mother. Calculation through the female line denied the rights and stature of paternity to slave men. Because they had no recognized authority over their children, and could not control access to the bodies and labor of their wives, slave men were emasculated. European anti-slavery forces decried this subversion of “natural” gender roles.

If Cape slavery was gendered, so too was the type of emancipation it fostered. Determined to reverse inverted gender roles, missionaries and colonial officials promoted notions of freedom that entailed male domination over subordinate females. Entering a society primarily shaped by these European interests, black women were emancipated from slavery into legally sanctioned inequality. Released from the patriarchy of slave holders, they were embraced by that of husbands.

Formidable as these forces were, Scully argues, slave and freed women were not merely acted upon. Within the constraints of laws and institutions that circumscribed their freedoms, they sought to give life to their own ideas about gender identity, family, work, and sexuality. After 1823, women took cases to the official protector of slaves, seeking reunion with separated spouses and children. During the apprenticeship period, they sought control over their own and their children’s labor, challenging former owners’ claims in the court of law. Whenever possible, they refused to engage in agricultural and domestic work, withdrawing their labor from these sexually perilous spheres, despite the complaints of European farmers. Instead, they helped to maintain their families through informal sector activities, selling produce or clothing or taking in laundry, which permitted them to work for cash while caring for their own households and children. Seeking to legitimize their conjugal relationships and the children they produced, freed women sought legal marriages, even though the 1839 marriage law confirmed their minor status. Stressing that emancipation meant ownership of their own bodies, freed women took men to court, charging them with rape and other forms of violent abuse, challenging the view that the bodies of black women belonged to any and every man.

Giving voice to the voiceless of the mid-nineteenth century is not an easy task. By their very nature, archival sources–missionary and government documents, court records, and diaries–privilege the voices and views of European settlers, missionaries, and colonial officials. Black women rarely appear in these records. When they do, it is usually in times of crisis, most often in court cases. In order to gain access to slave and freed people’s perspectives, Scully was forced to read these sources “against the grain” (p. 13). Filtering through biases and distortions, she has pieced together remnants of women’s lives, thoughts, and values.

Considering the enormity of the task, Scully has done an admirable job. Her reconstruction of black Cape society in the waning years of slavery and the early years of emancipation dramatically portrays tensions over gender hierarchy, family, and sexuality. The weak link in her study is the portrayal of black men. While Scully ably demonstrates the historical agency of missionaries, settlers, colonial officials–and of slave and freed women–slave and freed men appear to have had little will of their own. Rather, they seem to have appropriated and transformed European patriarchy without contributing to it. Unfortunately absent from this study is the consideration of indigenous forms of patriarchy and the ways in which they interacted with and influenced post-emancipation forms. How did Malagasy, Malay, East African, and Khoi ideas about gender enter into slave and post-emancipation society? Cape patriarchy was not a purely European construction. Given the diversity of slave origins, a cross-cultural examinati on of patriarchy would have deepened our understanding of Scully’s findings.

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