In Atlas Obscura’s Q&A series She Was There, we talk to female scholars who are writing long-forgotten women back into history.
IN SCRAWLING CURSIVE, AN ENGLISH enslaver named Robert Norris, captain of the slave ship The Unity, wrote an entry in his log marked June 6, 1770: “The slaves made an Insurrection which was soon quelled…with the loss of two woman slaves.” On June 22, “the slaves attempted another Insurrection after the death of a girl slave.” Then again, four days later on June 26, “a few of the slaves got off their Handcuffs but were detected in Time.” That’s three uprisings on one ship, in less than a month, all involving female African captives. Historian Rebecca Hall, author of the graphic novel Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, says that’s not an anomaly; enslaved women and female captives led numerous uprisings, such as those onboard The Unity.
In her new book, Hall opens with a “measured use of historical imagination,” working with her illustrator, Hugo Martínez, to visualize how the women on board The Unity fought back in 1770. It wasn’t hard to do, considering that 227 of the African captives on board were sold to Norris in Abomey, the capital of Dahomey, where women were trained as skilled warriors. “There were constant revolts,” says Hall. Atlas Obscura spoke with Hall about why she’s drawn to these women, such as “the Negro Wench” who led a 1708 slave revolt in New York City, and their enduring legacy.
What is it about female warriors that have drawn you to their stories?
Since I was a little kid, I remember watching women who fought back on TV. I watched Charlie’s Angels and The Bionic Woman. I’ve always been drawn to women warriors because I find the idea of women fighting back in that way very inspiring.
I’m interested in women warriors also as a historical category of analysis. I’m fascinated by the ways in which women warriors are valorized and disavowed at the same time. There are women warriors throughout history, but what happens is that the history is erased or the women become some kind of exception: She became this way because her husband died and she had to take over leadership. It’s always tied to a woman’s role. She ends up becoming the exception that proves the rule over and over again that women aren’t warriors. In my own research in recovering the women who led slave revolts and participated in slave revolts, there was such pushback because people couldn’t even imagine the concept.
What’s the first woman-led slave revolt you uncovered?
A woman led a revolt in what’s now Queens [in New York City]. It was in the city of Newtown, which is [now] Elmhurst. She led a revolt and she was captured. She was burned at the stake and the men who were involved in the revolt were hanged. And I would love to tell you her name, but it’s not preserved. She was referred to as the “Negro Fiend,” so that’s what I call her.