Stella Dadzie’s new book A Kick in the Belly explores the “forgotten history of women slaves and their struggle for liberation.” The book discusses the numerous ways that enslaved women in the West Indies resisted subordination, thus undermining the entire system of slavery. It examines various aspects of their experiences as enslaved people, including the middle passage, control and punishment, reproduction, labour and more.
The book is divided into seven chapters and opens by looking at the development of the transatlantic slave trade and the roles of women in the Africa trade. This opening chapter provides context into the slave trade and sets readers up nicely for the chapters that follow.
Dadzie doesn’t spare readers the horrors and nightmarish reality of the slave trade for Africans. I felt quite emotional when she discussed the middle passage and what it often meant for female captives. The horrendous conditions of slave ships are well documented. However, according to the book, women were twice as likely than men to survive the voyage and often perceived to be less of a threat. In the minds of crews and captains, female captives were believed to be less likely to instigate revolt and retaliate against them. As Dadzie explains, this assumption would turn out to be inaccurate and naive at times.
In addition to enslaved people facing savagely cruel punishments for “misbehaviour”, the sexual abuse and rape of female captives were rife. Dadzie’s discussion of topics like menstruation and pregnancy opened my eyes to the numerous challenges faced by enslaved women. For the first time, I considered at length how the trauma of being kidnapped and sold into slavery would have impacted their periods and reproductive health.
Traditionally regarded as the weaker sex, why would women be expected to perform so much of the hardest labour? As mentioned, one explanation is that men had access to a wider range of options. Enslaved men could be blacksmiths, carpenters, coach drivers, coopers, masons, distillers or sugar boilers, whereas for most women the only choice, if it can be called that, was between ‘the house with its… supposed indulgencies, or the field with its exaggerated labours’. – From Chapter 3, Labour Pains
Dadzie dissects a host of gynaecological and fertility problems that would have been triggered and exacerbated by the brutal regime of the transatlantic slave trade, including delayed menstruation, high rates of unsuccessful pregnancies and maternal and infant deaths. I found the chapter on slave women and reproduction highly enlightening. It discusses the ways that maternity offered a form of resistance for some enslaved women and delves into the ways that they exercised autonomy by controlling or limiting their fertility.
Enslaved women found ways to limit the number of children they bore via contraception and abortion. They also resorted to infanticide as a means to avoid the enslavement of their own children, which is understandable given the unimaginably cruel and dehumanising system those children would have entered. On the other hand, enslaved women also ensured they maintained and nurtured bonds with children–biological or otherwise–caring for them and teaching them, despite how common it was for families to be torn apart, especially the forced separation of mother and child. I find it so interesting how maternity could be a form of resistance for enslaved women. Controlling their fertility when the maintenance of enslaved populations would have rested largely on (the reproductive labour of) enslaved women is a powerful thing to do.
The book is upsetting and difficult to read. Dadzie’s writing is accessible and relatively easy to digest. I found myself flying through it, even when I didn’t want to. Throughout the book, Dadzie refers to several records from that period and first-hand accounts by Africans and Europeans. Two of those accounts are from abolitionists and former slaves Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince. Prince’s words help readers to understand the magnitude of suffering that black women experienced on West Indian plantations. I like that Dadzie addresses common misconceptions about the experiences of enslaved women and never sugarcoats the horror of their realities.
When outright rebellion was not possible, women found other ways to disrupt or undermine their owners’ intent. Some were even prepared to kill their tomerntors and pay the ultimate price. – From Chapter 5, Enslaved Women and Subversion
A Kick in the Belly dispels the misconception that enslaved women had an easier time of it due to their gender. Dadzie also interrogates the idea that house servants didn’t have it as bad as field workers. The first-person accounts in the book show that women were not spared brutality and viciousness just because they were women. They were expected to perform the most back-breaking tasks in poor conditions, even when pregnant and breast-feeding. They were also punished just as harshly as their male counterparts.
While reading A Kick in the Belly, my mind kept returning to the “strong black woman” stereotype and how that undeniably impacted the treatment of enslaved women, further contributing to their exploitation and dehumanisation. The stark contrast in attitudes towards black women and white women during the slave trade cannot be understated. The idea that black women feel less pain, can be worked into the ground and handle whatever abuse and violence are inflicted upon them exists in opposition to the delicateness of white women, who by contrast must be protected at all costs. These ideas are as prevalent today as they were hundreds of years ago.
The book touches on the astounding amount of British wealth generated by the slave trade as well as the complex relations between white planters and enslaved women. This was yet another area in which women were able to undermine West Indian slavery and resist total subordination. A Kick in the Belly celebrates women like Jamaican hero Queen Nanny and Angolan Queen Ana Nzingha. Dadzie’s book shows that for enslaved women, resistance took many forms and their race and gender shaped their unique experiences of oppression. From organising uprisings to the more subtle acts of defiance, these women found ways to fight back and resist complete subordination. They pursued their freedom and preserved their cultures while their oppressors desperately tried to destroy their spirit.
I wholeheartedly recommend A Kick in the Belly. It’s a hugely important book that highlights the experiences of enslaved women and much-needed addition to discussions surrounding black history. Everyone should read this book, especially those who enjoyed The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe.
A Kick in the Belly by Stella Dadzie is out now and published by Verso Books.
*Thank you to Verso Books for sending me an early copy of A Kick in the Belly.