The Longue Durée of Women’s Slavery: Comparing the Slave Experience across Time and Place
Slavery includes migration, a forced migration over long distances to prevent recapture or flight by new captives. The global reach of slavery is evident in this panel with scholars describing the lives of slave women in India, Arabia, the Mediterranean, North and South America. Understanding the longue durée of the institution of slavery is assisted by the range of these papers over more than two millenniums from the 5th century BC to the 19th century AD. Scholars of women’s slavery usually focus on specific regions in definitive eras with little cross pollination. The basic premise for forming this panel is that by bringing multiple scholars of slavery together, we could compare women’s experience of slavery across time and place.
Our first paper examines the roles of Greek slave women in Indian harems, victims of Persian, Greek and Roman slave traders. The Indian sources describe the elite roles that these women held, not just as concubines, but also as courtesans, entertainers, attendants, and armed body guards. The slavery of women made exotic by distance brought prestige to those who possessed them.
The second paper contrasts the lives and moral choices of two slave-prostitutes who lived in Arabia at the advent of Islam. One converted to Islam and affirmed control over her body. The second is presented as a lascivious woman who "does not repel a groping hand." The narrative histories taken together paint a nuanced picture of slavery. While some of the sources champion the agency of the individual slave-prostitute, giving remarkable voice to a lowly element of society, they also show fears of confused paternity and hopes of forging connections.
The third paper targets Muslim slavery much later in the Mamluk era in the late medieval period, particularly in Jerusalem. The Mamluks were unique in that their political oligarchy was made up of slaves who had been brought from Asia or Europe to Egypt, trained for the military, and then manumitted. While the elites are well studied, this paper asks to what extent “commoners” attempted to establish or strengthen multi-generational households through buying slave women.
The last two papers turn to the slavery of the Atlantic world. Our fourth paper, looks at the lives of slave women in West Africa, the West Indies, and the US South to analyze issues of intra-racial violence and sexual abuse in the slave quarters. Enslaved men, seeking to claim some semblance of masculinity in their condition, committed wife-battering, assault, and sexual violence upon enslaved women. While enslaved women endured such abuses, this paper details how they resisted.
The fifth and last panel explores the unfreedom of women freed by the anti-slave trade treaties with Britain in 19th century Cuba and Brazil. The apprenticeships established for these emancipados differed little from slavery but these women fought, despite their limited resources, to assure the freedom of their children.
Our desire as a panel is have audience and panel members together formulate comparative issues through discussion.