“Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feelings is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone… For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history.” ~Ta-Nehisi Coates
In his essay “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery,” Vincent Brown, author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the Atlantic World, relates an hauntingly evocative tale of “an oracle of literature.” He wrote:
“Aboard the Hudibras in 1786, in the course of a harrowing journey from Africa to America, a popular woman died in slavery. Although she was universally esteemed among her fellow captives as an oracle of literature, an orator, and a songstress, she is anonymous to historians because the sailor on the slave ship who described her death…did not record her name. Yet, he did note that her passing caused a minor political tumult when the crew herded the other enslaved women below decks before they could see the body of their fallen shipmate consigned to the water. This woman was no alienate isolate to be hurled over the side of the ship without ceremony. She had been…the soul of sociality when the women were on the quarterdeck. There she knelt nearly prostrate, with hands stretched forth and placed upon the deck, and her head resting on her hands. Then, in order, to render more easy the hours of her sisters in exile, the woman would sing slow airs of a pathetic nature and recite such pieces as moved the passions; exciting joy or grief, pleasure or pain, as fancy or inclination led. Around her the other women were arranged in concentric circles, with the innermost ring comprising the youngest girls and the elderly on the perimeter–a fleeting makeshift community amid the chaos of the slave trade.”
This unknown ancestress, whose life journey took her to the realm of Olókun rather than the labour camps of the so-called “New World”, was a holder of the Word and the inner vital force of harmony for Black women on the Hudibras. She was perhaps a doma or soma, as the knowers and makers of knowledge are called in Bambara. Through her the women on the Hudibras had created a ritual of healing, protection and community. Unfortunately, she was the first to die, and her body was given to the waters of the Atlantic.
There are millions of unknown women from the Maafa/Atlantic slavery; but there are those whose names still live with us. Some are legendary, such as Queen Nanny and Harriet Tubman. These women played a central role in the ourstory of the Black Atlantic experience, as they struggled to humanized the inhumane world around them. Some gave their lives in battles, such as Dandara of Brazil; Carlota of Cuba; Solitude of Guadeloupe; Maria of Curacao; and Sanite Belair of Haiti. While Marie Joseph Angelique of Canada and Sally Bassett of Bermuda were executed for attempting to destroy a few of the perpetrators of the “damnation.”
Dido Elizabeth Belle of Britain may be a “surprise” choice of the ten women featured, because she was not a warrior heroine, or is known to have tried in any way to destroy the oppressors. Dido live an aristocratic life and was part of the top 5 percent of British society at the time even though she was enslaved. However, would the Maafa/Atlantic slavery followed a different path had she not been born? Would William Murray made the ruling that he did, if Dido had not been his niece? I believe her presence in the Black Atlantic world created a radical change to the “never-ending night.” A lesson I have learned looking at Dido’s life is that the universe can make revolutionary changes in very subtle ways. There are times when fire can only be stopped by fire, and other times by water. Therefore, her birth was a call to the earth, to challenge the “damnation,” in a different way, compared to the other nine ancestresses.
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” ~Maya Angelou
Personally, if I am looking for the bravest and the most courageous people on earth, I find them during this dark period of ourstory, known to our ancestors as the “Time of Sorrow”. I believe it is the reason the Maafa/Atlantic slavery is my favourite part of ourstory. I cannot find a woman more courageous than Queen Nanny (the powerful warrior-priestess), or Harriet Tubman (who journeyed many dark nights following the north star to liberate others), or Carlota (who fought knowing how severe the punishment would be if she did not overcome the odds against her). I cannot find a woman braver than, Sanite (who ordered the firing squad at her execution), or Solitude (who fought while pregnant), or Dandara (who chose death over bondage). Their unconquerable spirits, made these ancestresses, real life heroines, not fantasy warriors. They faced the worst oppression in ‘hystory’ and yet had the presence of mind to fight back. They are shining examples of the Ashanti proverb: “Fight prior to your death, if death cannot be avoided.”
Overall, these ten women make looking back at the Maafa, a source of pride.
1. Dandara of Brazil (died 6 February 1694)
A painting depicting Dandara; and actress Zezé Motta as Dandara in the 1984 film ‘Quilombo’ -Image taken from, Black Women of Brazil
Dandara was the last Queen of the Quilombo dos Palmares. She was the wife of Zumbi dos Palmares, the last king of the Quilombo dos Palmares, and also the mother of his three children. A master of capoeira, she fought alongside her husband in many battles to defend Palmares, leading the female phalanx of the Palmares army. After being captured, she took her own life on February 6, 1694. According to many accounts, Dandara and several other quilombolas threw themselves from the highest quarry in order to not to submit themselves to enslavement. She died as the heroine that she was in life.
Not much is known about Dandara’s life. It is unknown if she was born in Brazil or in Africa. Folk stories say she helped create strategies to protect Palmares, and although a warrior, she knew how to hunt, and was a planter, as women would have been responsible for nearly all the agricultural output of Palmares. She planted corn, mandioca, beans, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and bananas. She also played an important role in making her husband cut ties with his uncle Ganga-Zumba, who was the first leader of Quilombo dos Palmares. In 1678, Ganga-Zumba signed a peace treaty with the government of the state of Permambuco. Dandara and Zumbi dos Palmares are said to have opposed the deal because it did not end the Maafa/Atlantic slavery.
The video game Dandara, developed by Long Hat House and published by Raw Fury, is inspired by Dandara’s history.
2. Queen Nanny of Jamaica (c. 1686 – c. 1755)
Queen Nanny by Uchenna Edeh
Queen Nanny was the military leader and priestess of the Windward People (Portland, Jamaica). However, “she was more than a mere leader or queen, in keeping with Ashanti tradition, she has become what is known as a “first mother”, an ancestral queen who is seen as the mother of all her people.” Unlike other Kromanti/Maroon leaders, she has numerous objects and sites named in her honor: the Nanny bird, Nanny Thatch (a particular kind of house), Nanny Pot as well as the Nanny River and of course, Nanny Town.
Much of Queen Nanny’s life is wrapped up in myths and legends. However, both legends and documents refer to her as having exceptional leadership qualities. Although she never fought in any battles herself, she was the overseeing strategist for all the Windward People’s battles against the Buckra/British (Buckra in its West African usage means “demon”). She was a small, wiry woman with piercing eyes, who trained her warriors in the use of the abeng – a cow horn – an instrument that served as a form of long distance communication; and also in the art of camouflage. These strategies formed the backbone of a new type of warfare – guerrilla warfare. She is known for having an hatred for the Buckra/British and was unrelenting and dispassionate towards her enemies. She refused to sign the peace treaty, and instead allowed her brother, Quao to sign it, because she did not believe the Buckra/British were honest.
Queen Nanny is believed to be from the Ashanti people in Ghana. She and her four brothers (all of whom became
Kromanti leaders) were sold into the Maafa/Atlantic slavery and later escaped from their labor camps/plantations into the mountains of Jamaica. Nanny and one brother, Quao, founded a village in the Blue Mountains that became known as Nanny Town. Queen Nanny was well-known for encouraging the continuation of African rituals and traditions among the Windward People. Legends also relate that she had supernatural powers and was said to be an obeah woman in close communication with the ancestors.
Nanny’s life and accomplishments have been recognized by the Jamaican government. Of Jamaica’s seven national heroes, she is the only woman honored as a National Hero. A modern portrait of Nanny, based on her description, appears on the Jamaican $500 note, the largest banknote in circulation in Jamaica.
3. Maria of Curacao (died 9 November 1716)
No image of Maria exists. This painting entitled ‘In your own hands’, is by Curacao artist, Didi Dometilie.
Maria was the leader of an uprising in late 1716 Curacao. At the time, the country was a Dutch colony in the Caribbean. It is unknown when and where Maria was born but it is known that she worked as a cook at the plantation St. Maria, owned by the Dutch West India Company, where she prepared the newly captured Africans to be sold into slavery. The uprising which began on September 15 was born from Maria’s anger and grief for the murder of her husband by an overseer. Under torture from the Dutch militia, her partner Tromp revealed that Maria was the leader of the uprising.
Maria was captured in November and sentenced to death. She was executed by burning on 9 November 1716.
It would take almost 80 years for another major uprising in Curacao. In 1795, on August 17, Tula, led 1000 warriors in a month-long conflict on the island.
4. Sally Bassett of Bermuda (died 21 June 1730)
Sarah Bassett, popularly known as Sally Bassett, was a bondwoman in Bermuda during the 18th century. Sally, an elderly mixed-race woman had brought up several children of her own and even grandchildren. Sally was enslaved by the estate of Francis Dickinson of Southampton in the 18th century. She became the ”property” of Thomas Forster [who also enslaved her grandaughter Beck] after Dickinson’s death in 1727. When the enslaver and his wife/enslavress fell seriously ill, Sally was suspected of poisoning them. During interrogation, Beck revealed that her Grandmother Sally had asked her to mix poison in the food. The poison was said to be ratsbane and manchioneel root, which was discovered in the wall of the kitchen. Sally Bassett was judged guilty and sentenced to death and to be burnt alive.
On the day of her execution, a large crowd gathered to watch. It is said that when Sally was taken to the execution, looking at the large crowd following her, she said “There’ll be no fun ’til I get there”. The folk story of Bermudia say that after Sally’s death, Bermuda’s national flowers known as Bermudiana grew from her ashes. Also the day Sally was executed was an extremely hot day, and hence a hot day in the island has become known as ‘Sally Bassett Day’.
In 2008, a 10-ft tall statue of Sally Bassett was built in the grounds of Cabinet Office in Hamilton City. The statue depicts Sally standing on a stake with her hands tied behind. This was the first statue and memorial created for an enslaved/bondperson of Bermuda.
5. Marie Joseph Angelique of Canada (died 21 June 1734)
Marie-Joseph Angélique by Uchenna Edeh
Marie-Joseph Angélique was a Portuguese-born Black woman who endured enslavement possibly in Portugal, and other parts of Europe before she was brought to Montréal, Canada, where she endured enslavement for nine years from 1725 to 1734. She was enslaved by a Montreal merchant and his widow, who baptized her in the Catholic faith. Marie had three children, and was very vocal in expressing her hatred for enslavement. She detested the French and all Europeans in general although she had an affair with a whyte male indentured labourer (most likely this affair was because of her desire to be free, as she did attempt to runaway with the labourer).
In 1734, Marie was charged with arson. She was found guilty of setting fire to her enslavress’ house and the subsequent burning of forty-five other buildings (the fire leveled Montréal’s merchants’ quarter). It was alleged that Marie committed the act while attempting to flee her bondage. She was convicted, tortured and hanged. She was twenty-nine years old.
While it remains unknown whether or not she set the fire, Marie’s story has come to symbolize Black resistance and freedom in Canada.
6. Dido Elizabeth Belle of Britain (1761 – July 1804)
Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761 – July 1804) was raised as part of an aristocratic family in Georgian Britain at the height of the Maafa/Atlantic slavery. She was the daughter of Maria Belle, an African woman, and Sir John Lindsay, a British career naval officer who was later knighted and promoted to admiral. Lindsay took Belle with him when he returned to England in 1765. She was raised by her father’s uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Mansfield. The Murrays educated Dido, bringing her up at their Kenwood House, together with another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. Belle lived there for 30 years. In his will of 1793, Murray confirmed her freedom and provided an outright sum and an annuity to her, making her an heiress.
Although little is known about Dido, the evidence suggests that she was brought up as a lady rather than as a servant. She was taught to read, write, play music and practice other social skills. She also received an annual allowance. It seems that she also enjoyed a close relationship with her uncle, who from 1756 to 1788 was Lord Chief Justice, the most powerful judge in England. A visitor wrote that “she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said”. Mansfield sometimes dictated letters to Belle (who had beautiful handwriting) so it’s entirely possible she would have been aware of his cases.
Murray presided in two significant Maafa/Atlantic slavery cases, as Lord Chief Justice. In his summing up at the trial in 1772 he is recorded as describing the Maafa/Atlantic slavery as ‘odious’, and ruled that slavery had no precedent in common law in England, and had never been authorised under positive law. This was seen as the beginning of the end of official slavery in Britain. It was believed at the time that his affection for Dido influenced his opinions on the Maafa/Atlantic slavery.
Dido’s presence in the Murray’s household significantly influenced the Black Atlantic world.
7. Solitude of Guadeloupe (1771 – 29 November 1802)
Solitude by Uchenna Edeh
Solitude was the daughter of an African woman, who was probably raped on the slave ship, which transported her to the Americas, by a French trafficker/sailor. She was born in the Maafa in Guadeloupe in 1772. Solitude, immortalized by André Schwarz-Bart’s eponymous novel (1972), was a brown-skinned woman of legendary beauty. Each of her eyes was of a different coloration. It is alleged that her exquisite good looks led powerful békés (a Antillean creole term to describe French invaders/settlers) to fight one another with the hope of getting Solitude. Her mother fled the plantation where she was enslaved, leaving Solitude with her enslavers.
The Haitian revolution forced France to legally abolish the Maafa in its colonies. However, by 1802, Napoléon’s forces sought to resurrect the sugar-based economies by reenslaving freed people who had been living as French citizens for eight years. The Afrikan people fought back. Solitude was know to be a fierce and fearless warrior, expertly wielding a machete against the French. During an attack she became the leader of a small group that escaped to the hills of Guadeloupe. She was with Delgrès and his warriors who chose to died in an explosion, but survived with serious injuries. She was captured and sentenced to death but because she was pregnant, she could not be put to death. She was executed after she gave birth on November 29, 1802.
8. Sanité Bélair of Haiti (1781 – 5 October 1802),
Sanité Bélair was a Haitian freedom fighter and revolutionary, whom Dessalines described as “a tigress.” She is formally recognized by the Haitian Government as a National Heroine of Haiti. In 2004, she was featured on the 10 gourde banknote of the Haitian gourde for the “Bicentennial of Haiti” Commemorative series. She was the only woman depicted in the series, and the second woman ever (after Catherine Flon) to be depicted on a Haitian banknote.
Sanité became a sergeant and later a lieutenant during the Haitian Revolution. She and her husband, Charles Belair, executed many military campaigns and were responsible for the uprising of almost the entire enslaved population of L’Artibonite. When she was captured, her husband gave himself up and they were both executed. According to Haitian historian, Bayyinah Bello, Sanité gave the orders for the French soldiers to shoot as they were reluctant to do so because she was a woman. Sanité had refused to be decapitated and demanded to be “murdered” by a firing squad.
9. Carlota of Cuba (died March 1844)
Carlota Leading the People” by Lili Bernard
In 1843, Carlota, an enslaved woman, led a Maafa/Atlantic slavery uprising in Cuba. So inspirational was her courage that her name was given to Cuba’s 1980′s operation Black Carlota in Southern Africa, which culminated in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale and the defeat of the South African army in pitch battle.
Carlota led the uprising, which went on for a year, wielding a machete. Her success in freeing bondpeople first at Triumvirato labor camp/plantation and then at Acana labor camp had a major impact on the enslaved population, resulting in further uprising in the area. At least five large sugar labor camps in Matanzas, as well as coffee and cattle labor camps of the area, were attacked.
Carlota was eventually captured and executed by being tied to horses sent in different direction.
The Triunvirato uprising shaped the course of Cuban history — and Castro’s ideology of the oppressed rising up to defeat their oppressor. Today, people can visit the remains of the Triumvirato sugar mill and see a towering statue of Carlota, machete in hand.
10. Harriet Tubman of the USA (1820 -10 March 1913)
Harriet Tubman was born into Maafa/Atlantic slavery as Araminta Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, the fifth child of Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross. In 1849 she escaped to freedom in the North to become the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Called “Minty” by her parents, she risked her life to lead hundreds of bondpeople including her family from the labor camps/plantations to freedom.
Harriet became a leading abolitionist, and during the American Civil War she helped the Union Army by working as a spy among other roles. After the Civil War ended, Tubman dedicated her life to helping impoverished former bondpeople and the elderly. In honor of her life and by popular demand, in 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the center of a new $20 bill.
The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper
The Mother of Us All by Karla Gottlieb