Historian Rebecca Hall's New Graphic Novel Highlights Women's Role in Slave RevoltsHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, books, slave revolts, womens history, graphic novels
When Rebecca Hall began researching the roles of enslaved African women in leading revolts against their enslavers while she was pursuing her doctorate in history at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the early 2000s, she found a recurring argument in many of her sources: Enslaved women didn’t revolt.
The narrative persisted among historians even as evidence proved it to be false. Around the time Hall was conducting her research, a group of historians analyzed more than 27,000 slave ship voyages that took place over centuries and discovered that there were revolts on at least 1 in 10 of the voyages they analyzed — and that the more enslaved women who were on a ship, the more likely a revolt was to have occurred.
But the researchers questioned their own findings about the role women played in revolts, calling them “counterintuitive” and noting that “women are rarely mentioned as leading violent resistance” in historical documents.
Hall’s research unearthed a different conclusion: “I was finding women all over the sources,” she said.
With her debut graphic novel, “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” illustrated by Hugo Martínez and published in June, Hall has translated her academic research to a medium meant to reach the masses. She resurrects the stories of enslaved women whose resistance has long been excluded from history with the goal of inspiring activists fighting anti-Black racism today.
“When you create a situation where a people’s history is erased, then that is an extreme form of violence,” Hall said. “That history of resistance is a threat to existing political order, and so it needs to be actively reclaimed.”
The book tells the previously untold stories of female leaders of slave revolts — which occurred in West African villages before people were kidnapped and enslaved, on slave ships traveling from Africa to the Americas, and on plantations in the Americas, Hall said. Revolts included physical fights — in which enslaved people sometimes killed their enslavers — and other forms of resistance; sometimes people jumped off slave ships to drown themselves before the ships reached land.
On slave ships, enslaved women were kept “mostly unchained, on-deck, and near the weapons,” Hall writes in “Wake.” While this proximity to the crew allowed for sexual abuse, it also created opportunities for women to initiate revolts. Hall says “the slave ship crews remained oblivious to the agency of the enslaved women,” who they didn’t believe would fight back against their enslavement. But “the women used their relative mobility and access to weapons to plan and initiate revolt after revolt after revolt,” Hall writes.
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