Why was slavery particularly devastating to African women?
For black women, slavery was a devastating experience. Slaves were torn from their homeland and family, forced to perform grueling labor, subjected to mental and physical degradation, and denied their most basic rights. Slaves were beaten mercilessly, separated from loved ones, and, regardless of sex, treated as property in the eyes of the law.
Despite common factors, however, the circumstances of enslavement were different for black women and black men. When the Dutch brought African and Creole women into New Amsterdam in the late 1620s, they did so not to supplement their workforce, but to provide company for their black male slaves. Early on, slave buyers in the colonies turned to purchasing female field hands, who were not only more readily available, but also cheaper. In fact, because skilled labor, such as carpentry and blacksmithing, was assigned only to male slaves, the pool of black men available for agricultural work was further reduced. As a result, female slaves eventually outnumbered men in field forces.
In Africa, woman's primary social role was that of mother. In slavery, this aspect of African womanhood was debased. Whereas childbirth in Africa was a rite of passage for women that earned them increased respect, within the American plantation system that developed by the mid-eighteenth century, it was an economic advantage for the master, who multiplied his labor force through slave pregnancy. The average enslaved woman at this time gave birth to her first child at nineteen years old, and thereafter, bore one child every two and a half years. This cycle, encouraged by the master, was not without benefits to the mother. While pregnant, she could usually expect more food and fewer working hours. Because proven fertility made her more valuable to her owner, she was also less likely to be sold away from friends and family.
Of course, the burdens, physical as well as psychological, that came...