Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez

Second frame of third chapter:

One of my impulse purchases at Shakespeare and Company in July, this is a graphic story presentation of Rebecca Hall's research into a particularly obscure bit of American and British history: the role of women in leading revolts of enslaved Africans, in the 18th century. The first part of the book looks at New York, not usually remembered as the hotbed of the slave trade that it actually was at one time, where enslaved women have been more or less erased from the narrative even when they were the instigators of local (usually very local) attempts to overthrow white oppression. She then goes on to England, where she is abruptly blocked from looking at the records of Lloyd's (a shameful act from the venerable insurance company) but finds enough to keep her going at the role the women had in the shipboard revolts of slave transports – basically, while the men were chained below decks, women were allowed some freedom to sit above, where they served the needs of the white sailors, including their sexual demands, but also had relatively easy access to weapons and the motivation to use them. She finishes up by imagining the environment that slaves would have come from in West Africa, where the tradition of enslavement after a military defeat by your neighbours, lasting a few years and then you went home, was completely disrupted by the Atlantic slave trade.

The whole book is presented as Hall's research process, which anyone who's ever done historical research will deeply sympathise with, against the dynamic of leaving her partner and young child behind while she heads off to New York and England to find answers. And of course it's also rooted against the continuing discrimination against women and people of colour in the USA especially, though also in Europe. The title refers both to the wake of the history of the slave ships, and I think to the need to become woke. It's a really good book and you can get it here.

I'm going to annoyingly divert for a moment to an odd bit of slaving history, the fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá, in Ouidah, Benin, which remained a Portuguese possession until 1961 though it was only 70m square and had a population of less than a dozen; it was probably the smallest territory ever recognised as a separate polity, albeit a Portuguese colony. (The Turkish exclave of the tomb of Suleyman Shah isn't a separate polity from Turkey, and has only one inhabitant, who has been dead since 1236.)

This was my top unread comic in English. Next on that pile is The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots, by Philippe Brenot and Laetitia Coryn.

book cover

One thought on “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez

  1. Yeah, The Sands of Mars hit the British Empire vibe pretty hard. Find an indigenous life form and immediately put to work for you…

Comments are closed.