Library Exhibits

Venus in Chains: Representations of Sex and Slavery in the Caribbean Basin

This exhibit was mounted February 9 - March 15, 2007. For further information contact

The Caribbean slave woman has long been a figure of mystique and misrepresentation, from the works of 18th-19th-century European authors to recent historical texts about Caribbean slavery. Where she does appear, she is often shrouded in degrading stereotypes, the victim of projected fantasies and anxieties. While the most ground-breaking historical work on slave women has begun to uncover their quotidian realities, the sources utilized require significant decoding to move beyond the ideological constructs that governed the representation of African women during the period of Caribbean slavery. This exhibit will present such texts and images from the 18th-19th-century Caribbean basin, especially the Caribbean islands and the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch holdings on the northeast coast of South America. Many generalizations about the lives of slave women can be drawn about the countries in question because of their nearly universal development of sugar-based economies and the resulting implementation of a very specific regime of Caribbean slavery. Nevertheless, diverging legal codes and European cultures fostered different conditions for slave women and textual and pictorial representations of them. The John Hay and the John Carter Brown libraries have few illustrated sources on slave women in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and this exhibit thus focuses chiefly on the British, French, and Dutch possessions in the region.

What do we know about the lives of slave women in the Caribbean basin? Most were field slaves, involved in grueling manual labor on plantations. A smaller group worked as domestic slaves, which entailed a separate set of risks, including the wrath and jealousy of white mistresses. Almost universally, slave men were preferred to slave women for difficult physical labor on sugar plantations, but European views of the African woman as more accustomed to hard work--a sort of "passive drudge" whom African men forced to perform manual labor--made her suitable for the arduous, back-breaking tasks of the plantation. Slave women were valued beyond their "economic" function for their "reproductive" one: that is, their capacity to procreate and produce future slaves, though slave fertility was troublesomely low in many areas of the Caribbean. Recent work by historians of women slaves in the Caribbean stresses their vital role in maintaining African (and later creolized) cultural forms during the traumatic transition to life in the Americas. Contrary to the view that they were assimilators to and allies of white culture, slave women have also been shown to have been instrumental in slave resistance, from "shirking work, shamming illness, lying, stealing and even openly defying and abusing overseers" to participating in and occasionally leading slave rebellions (notably in Saint-Domingue). The image of a defiant slave woman, what British historian Barbara Bush identifies as the "she-devil," also dominated European representations

But perhaps most central in historical portrayals of slave women in the Caribbean has been the question of their sexuality, particularly the relationships they sustained with white overseers, planters, and masters. The importance of concubinage for black women in slave society cannot be underestimated. For the women involved, these relationships were often coerced, but historians of slave women have cautioned us not to assume that all participants were unwilling. Some have emphasized the material and positional benefits of concubinage with white men, including the possibility of receiving goods, property, and even freedom in a will. Current work further encourages us to allow for the possibility that some of these relationships may have been mutual and amorous, a venue of pleasure for all involved.

Nevertheless, to ignore the violence often underpinning sexual unions between slave women and white men is dangerous. The ideology of African female sexuality that white men used to justify the coerced initiation of these relationships invoked an animalistic, sensual, promiscuous object of desire, and this characterization in many cases was the proffered justification for the rape and mistreatment of African women in the Caribbean world. Even purportedly "naturalistic" texts grouped African slave women with other creatures and plants from the natural world, a characterization grounded in their supposedly bestial and sub-human identity. This is the realm of the exotic "Sable Venus," who, in the sexual fantasies of European men, was their primitive, irresistible, and always sexually available property. Even abolitionists operated within this ideology when they chastised slave-owners for corrupting the morals of African women and turning them into promiscuous and immoral sexual servants of white men. The representation of naked, boundlessly fertile, and licentious slave women dominated many works about slavery in both high and low culture, including multi-volume histories, daily life prints, abolitionist propaganda, and grotesque cartoons and caricatures. This exhibit will feature such diverse texts and images from the John Hay and John Carter Brown libraries to explore the political, social, and ideological projects--conscious and unconscious--behind these portrayals of slave women. In deconstructing these depictions, it aims to understand the persistence of the stereotypes that emerge in these texts to the present day.

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