On the 10th January 1859 a court in Charleston, South Carolina, advertised the sale of Betty, a twenty-five-year-old enslaved woman. Betty was a ‘breeding woman,’ meaning that slaveholders valued Betty for being young, strong, healthy and, crucially, fertile. Advertised as a family unit with her two-year-old son, Plymouth, Betty had already proven herself to be a financial asset for any future buyer. As a woman, Betty provided sexual labour which resulted in the birth of children that slaveholders exploited for profit.
After the ban on the international slave trade in 1808, slaveholders relied on enslaved women to reproduce to contribute to the expansion and survival of slavery. Enslavers desired women that were strong, healthy, or particularly ‘good looking’ to procreate with enslaved men that were equally as strong and healthy. This was not always consensual. Slaveholders often coerced enslaved men and women into sexual intercourse – sometimes violently. Slaveholders then generated a profit from the fruits of this sexual labour by either forcing enslaved children to work or by selling them away from their loved ones. Enslavers and enslaved alike labelled these men and women, like Betty, ‘breeders.’
The inscription of ‘breeding’ next to Betty’s name in this powerful image tells us much about her life. First, having had Plymouth at around the age of twenty-three, it suggests that her enslaver may have forced her to marry relatively young (though most enslaved women married in their late teens). Whether she married someone of her choosing, or whether they even ‘married’ at all, is unclear. The absence of a male in this family unit suggests that the father of the child either lived on a separate plantation, was dead, had fled slavery, or their enslaver/the court had already sold him away.
Secondly, this advertisement is for a court-mandated sale of enslaved people. Auctions such as this usually took place because the owners had died without their affairs in order, because they had fallen into debt, or they were liquidating their assets. The mention of ‘Under Decree in Equity’ and ‘Master in Equity’ suggests that this sale was a result of foreclosure. This court-ordered sale does tell us, however, that Betty was not sold because she was a ‘bad breeder.’ In fact, the inscription of ‘breeding’ suggests that this was Betty’s key selling point. She is the only enslaved woman in this list who is emphasised for her fertility. Furthermore, by actively writing the word ‘breeding’ next to her name, the prospective buyer tells us that a woman’s fecundity was incredibly important to them. Alternatively, this list may not have been held by a prospective buyer, but by the seller (the court). The inscriptions next to the names of the enslaved people are the key advantages – or in some cases disadvantages – of individuals: perhaps these were used by the seller so they knew what to stress to attendees. Either way, an enslaved woman’s ability to produce children was valuable to both seller and buyer.
What we do not know from this image is how many other children Betty gave birth to. It is not clear whether Plymouth was her only child, or whether she had more children that the slaveholders had already sold away. We also do not know the relationship she had with the father of the child. However, it is clear that for potential buyers of enslaved people, Betty, and other women like her, were valued as ‘two-legged wombs’(1) – enslaved women whose primary role was to bear children for the profit of white slaveholding men and women.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (McElland and Stewart, 1985), 176. Atwood describes the handmaids, who act as forced surrogate mothers, as “two-legged wombs”.
Aisha Djelid is a doctoral researcher at Reading. You can find her on twitter @aishadjelid
For Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, whose death was announced as I wrote this blog (1941–2020)
I first heard Reggae as a child, the rhythms sending me to sleep as a I lay on a camp-bed in Nottingham. My Grandma lived on Berridge Road in Forest Fields. Dad had moved to Norwich, so we used to go and visit her at Easter or over the summer. Her house was an old-school two-up two-down, with interwinding back alleys and a front room only ever used for best. Mum and Dad slept in one bedroom; my sister and I would be on camp-beds in Gran’s. Norwich had no Afro-Caribbean or Black British community at the time. This was the 1970s, so I may have seen a Rasta on TV … maybe. But in Forest Fields, Nottingham’s Black community provided much of the life that enlivened the battered streets and chimney stacks. Pleasing for me, this came with a soundtrack.
Back then, the bass and drums were the main appeal. The space between the sounds. Accompanying the rhythms was a language that, to my ears, sounded both impenetrable and alluring. I’d be lying if I said I was knowingly tuning my pre-teen consciousness into Tappa Zukie’s ‘MPLA’ or The Abyssinians’ ‘Satta Massagana’ . I knew neither the song titles nor the artists. But the drawn-out dubs enveloped my mind and the rhymes of the toasting deejays planted seeds that would flower once I became ever-more obsessed with all things musical and (sub)cultural. In 1979–80, the sounds that drifted down Berridge Road at night or around Hyson Green as my Gran and I wandered to the shops began to make more sense. Two-tone brought punk and ska together, with cover versions played by bands such as The Specials and Selecter helping me trace who-did-what-and-when . I also found punk in 1980, meaning the Clash’s cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ and Toots’ ‘Pressure Drop’went onto my mental list. In the books I read, Don Letts’ picture appeared regularly – his playing of reggae between punk acts at London’s Roxy club in 1977 making the punky-reggae connection complete; his dreadlocked image part of the iconography. Over the 1980s, I tuned into John Peel and the Ranking Miss P. From Backs Records in Norwich, a Greensleeves 12” would be oft-purchased alongside my favoured post-punk fare. One of my first ever gigs was Burning Spear at the UEA. Reggae music, be it from Jamaica or home-grown in the UK, was part of the cultural tapestry, connecting and communicating and transmitting.
Fast forward to the 2010s and I’m researching and writing about Britain’s post-war cultural history, especially all things youth cultural and/or subcultural. Through our Subcultures Network (http://www.reading.ac.uk/history/research/Subcultures/) I meet Lez Henry, deejay and professor. We collaborate on a special issue of a journal, with Lez exploring the alternative public arenes opened up by Reggae’s sound system culture. Crossing paths regularly thereafter, we plot a book on British Reggae with the objective of bringing together academics, writers, musicians, deejays and poets to trace at least a part of the history and influence. We get Paul Gilroy to write on the ‘vexed history’ of the ‘heart-i-cal’ philosophy. Lez links up with Les Back to psychogeographically map the Reggae beat of southeast London. Martyn Glynn and Tim Wells connect the dub poets with the ranters. Lucy Robinson brings Smiley Culture forward as a hybrid voice for the Commonwealth. The woman’s contribution to sound system culture is demonstrated by Lynda Rosenior-Patten and June Reid , while Kenny Monrose presents lo-fi dancehall cassette-tapes as a vector of cultural transmission. Lisa Palmer discusses pirate radio in Birmingham; Tim Kew excavates the blues parties that soundtracked the Nottingham streets I remember from childhood; Peter Hughes Jachimiak revisits the records shops and labels that produced the sounds; Melissa Chemam celebrates Bristol’s reggae legacies, before Joy White traces Reggae’s bass transmission through all things Grime. The religious belief systems integral to much Reggae are explored by Carl Tracey and Robert Beckford.
As for me, I moved from listening-in to editing – absorbing and appreciating the sounds and words evoked in the chapters. The System is Sound: Narratives from Beyond the UK Reggae Bassline will be published by Palgrave in late 2020 or early 2021. Where Reggae both infused and invigorated British culture, so may it now help crack open the academy. Personally, I’d tend to choose a Big Youth single over a record by The Beatles most days of the week; I’m more ‘Satan’s Side’ than Their Satanic Majesty’s. As Lez always says, ‘Anything that is learned can be unlearned’. By shifting the focus, we can do more than understand the world. We may also help to change it.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), hundreds of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children fled farms and plantations across the South to secure their freedom. Frequently, this flight was towards the camps of soldiers fighting for the US Army, the force who had been rallied to quash the rebellion of the slave south. The relationship between these enslaved refugees and the forces they camped alongside remains shrouded in romance and myth, tied to notions of a ‘liberating’ army and an enslaved population who greeted them with gratitude and joy.
In ‘the sanctuary,’ Edwin Forbes depicted the end of one perilous journey from slavery to freedom. Working as a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the conflict, Forbes spent the war years travelling around camps and pickets sketching scenes of daily life, skirmishes, and battles. In this illustration, completed in 1876, Forbes reflected on the experiences of the non-combatants who he had been in contact with a decade before.
Unlike many of Forbes’ other illustrations, this scene was clearly imagined. Reflecting back on the war and its outcomes – which included the abolition of slavery – Forbes conjured an idealistic vista of the moment an enslaved family reached Army lines. Centred in Forbes’ image and imagination was the enslaved woman, mother of a young child, whose experience sighting freedom is akin to a religious awakening. Constructions of gender, informed by Forbes’ anti-slavery politics and loyalty to the cause of the Army he followed, were central to his reflections upon emancipation.
In this simple image, emotion is key. The elderly man, coming to the end of a long life characterised by the hardships of enslavement, is not the most overjoyed to see his suffering end. The young child, whose life course has just been radically altered by the actions of his elders, remains fairly unmoved upon his arrival at the gates of freedom. But the enslaved woman in Forbes’ imagination is so overwhelmed by emotion that she has fallen to her knees, raising her hands to God in thanks, in praise, deeply moved by the change in her circumstances that sighting the stars and stripes signifies. Drawing upon abolitionist narratives about the realities of enslavement for women, Forbes invites the viewer to speculate about the life this woman has escaped. Had she witnessed the sale of her children? Faced sexual abuse at the hands of her enslaver? Been coerced into a ‘marriage’ not of her choosing? Of course she would be floored by triumph, relief, and gratitude.
Strikingly absent from this illustration is the figure of a young black man, upright and strong, entering army lines ready to fight for his freedom. While Forbes was generally respectful in his depictions of black people, avoiding the racist stylistic tendencies practised by many of his peers, the limits of his progressive thinking are exposed through his failure to draw black combatants. Either through a racist paternalistic attitude towards black Americans or through a calculated attempt to endear formerly enslaved people to his white audience, Forbes rarely depicted black men in US Army uniform, armed and ready to fight the men who would see him re-enslaved.  Almost 200,000 black men enlisted and fought for the US Army during the Civil War; they were a very present reality of the conflict, not an obscure token force. Forbes’ choice not to depict them was deliberate and played into white anxieties about the race relations after emancipation.
Forbes’ group of imagined African Americans are at their least threatening. They are dependents of the Army, rather than members of it. Dependency is traditionally associated with the feminine, and the group that Forbes depicted here is feminised: poorly provisioned, in need of government aid, absent a male provider and protector. For Forbes, the US Army and nation fills this void, offering shelter, safety, and ‘sanctuary’ to the incomplete family. Even at a distance, the flag seems to fulfil this promise. While war is present in the form of felled trees and scarred earth, it is also strikingly absent: there are no combatants clearly depicted here, no weapons are in sight, and the figures do not seem to be in any immediate danger. The flag points the way to safety, peace, and freedom. While the woman lifts her arms to embrace the flag it flies overhead, welcoming these new citizens into the nation under the umbrella of its protection.
The idea of the war that this image represents is a powerful one, but it is nevertheless a fiction. While their victory secured the end of slavery, the US Army was not a bastion of anti-racist or even anti-slavery thought. Enlisted men and officers both neglected the needs of black refugees and in some cases callously disregarded them. Enslaved people frequently did not find ‘sanctuary’ behind Union lines, but rather squalor, disease, and violence. Some were separated from loved ones. Many were returned to their enslavers. Women faced dire conditions, starving and suffering while also facing that horrors that countless women embroiled in conflicts have faced across history: sexual violence and exploitation. Although at her moment of deliverance she may have been overjoyed, had Forbes’ returned to his imagined woman weeks, or even days, later, he may have envisioned a radically different experience.
On a rainy June morning in the summer of 1948 a British troopship, itself requisitioned from the German navy during the Second World War, arrived at Tilbury docks in Essex, carrying a number of Polish ex-soldiers, some Jamaican pilots who had fought the RAF returning to duty after a period of rest in their home country, and a number of other passengers. There was nothing remarkable about this in of itself – the war has led to men and women in the various combatant armed forces being scattered across the globe, and ships like the HMT Empire Windrush were busy transporting them from one country to another. But the reception awaiting the Windrush, and the panic it had caused in Whitehall while it was still in the mid-Atlantic, was. Curious crowds were there at Tilbury, along with film crews. Meanwhile, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, and the Ministry of Labour were attempting to pass both blame and responsibility for the passengers disembarking onto the dockside to each other. The interest, and the anxiety, was occasioned by those passengers who were neither Polish volunteers or Jamaican airmen. These were several hundred economic migrants from the Caribbean, there to start a new life in Britain.
‘Windrush’ has come to take on a number of meanings in the discourse on post-war Black British history. Firstly, there is the ship itself, its initial reception, the contemporary media coverage, and what happened to the thousand passengers who arrived in Essex on June 21 1948. But more broadly, ‘Windrush’ has become a shorthand for the Caribbean experience in Britain up to the 1960s, the hopes, the disappointments and the struggles of the men, women and children who made that journey, and the period of time between the British Nationality Act of 1948 and the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962. ‘Windrush’, with its evocation of ocean spray, difficult travel, dangerous tempest and exhilaration, became imbued with positive associations, and it is no surprise that one of the pioneering television documentary series on the history of modern Caribbean settlement in Britain took the name of the transport ship for its title.
But during the last two and a half years, ‘Windrush’ as a term has acquired a new meaning, bound up with suffering, callousness, borderline governmental illegality, exile and dislocation. Here ‘Windrush’ is juxtaposed with the term ‘scandal’. This is the forced removal of large numbers of people of Caribbean heritage from Britain by the State, sometimes acting outside the law, and the prevention of Black people who had made short journeys from Britain to the Caribbean from returning home to the United Kingdom. However, the Windrush scandal of recent times is only the latest manifestation of a belief and a policy that Black people should be removed from Britain, should be forced to ‘go home’, and that that ‘home’ is by definition somewhere else, whether they had been born in Britain, or had spent decades living and working in that country. And this discourse of repatriation has a history stretching back decades, indeed centuries. This discourse is not based around place of birth, but rather the belief that certain groups are inherently ‘foreign’, outsiders, and will always be sojourners.
Black British history does not of course start in 1948, and neither did the discourse of repatriation. At the end of the eighteenth century, London and Bristol both had significant populations of African heritage, at every class strata of society, from aristocracy to underclass. Britain’s Black communities were joined at the end of the American Revolution by several thousand African-American former slaves who had fought on the British side during the war of independence. That Black people in Britain, in particular London, should be relocated to a more ‘suitable’ location was already being suggested at the beginning of the nineteenth century, although the intended destination varied in this polemic.
During the First World War hundreds of thousands of men and women from across the Caribbean, the African continent and South Asia, fought in the British army in multiple theatres of the conflict, sailed on British ships, and took part in the economic war effort. Rather than celebrating this, as soon as the war had concluded campaigns were initiated demanding that all Black and Asian soldiers, sailors and workers in Britain be speedily repatriated. The culmination of this, in the summer of 1919, was some of the worst ethnically-motivated violence witnessed in Britain in the twentieth century, with gangs attacking Caribbean, African, South Asian and Arab communities across the country. This led to hundreds of injuries and a number of deaths. Magistrates notoriously punished those who had been attacked and had resisted this violence with heavier sentences than the attackers themselves. The state responded by deporting or encouraging the repatriation of thousands of Black and Asian British citizens. In response, on June 14 1919, the Society of People of African Origin held a rally in Hyde Park, declaring their solidarity with those who had been removed from Britain, and resistance to the racist policies of the British government.
Repatriation discourse gathered pace after the Windrush disembarked at Tilbury. Indeed, even before the migrants arrived, Whitehall was debating how to get them to return to the Caribbean. From the end of the 1950s demands for forcible removal of Black and Asian people increasingly became associated with the rhetoric of the far-right, but it continued to permeate the consciousness of the political mainstream. This became apparent in the aftermath of the Notting Hill unrest of 1958, when various fascist figures, including Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, descended on the area attempting to make political capital out of the situation. Forced repatriation became one of the key policies of the neo-fascist National Front from the late-1960s onwards, and was carried partially into the centre of British politics by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, who advocated mass removal of Black and Asian communities over the course of the 1970s and into the 1980s. Post-war governments, both Conservative and Labour, at times attempted to pander to this sentiment, especially when General Elections were looming. As in 1919, minority communities actively resisted both fascist incursions and official prejudice. The language of forced removal did not fade away in the 1990s and 2000s, although the term ‘repatriation’ was not used as much in political discourse as it had been in the 1970s. The Windrush scandal of the twenty-first century has proved, if proof was needed, that the rhetoric and the policy of forced removal have not been consigned to the past, but remain with us today, influencing policy and perceptions.
 Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
 ‘Windrush’ was first broadcast as a four part series on BBC2 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Windrush arriving at Tilbury.
 Maya Goodfellow, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Become Scapegoats, London: Verso, 2019, and Amelia Gentleman, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment, London: Guardian Faber, 2019.
 R.W Hayes, ‘The Black Atlantic and Georgian Britain’ in Mrinalini Rajagopalan and Madhuri Desai (eds.), Colonial Frames, Nationalist Histories: Imperial Legacies, Architecture and Modernity, Farnham, Ashgate, 2012.
 Jacqueline Jenkinson, Black 1919: Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009.
 Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Post-Colonial Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Email link to my book, The Discourse of Repatriation in Britain 1845-2016, due to be published early spring 2021 here
On 12th September 2015, a memorial in honour of Kenya’s freedom fighters was unveiled in Uhuru Park, Nairobi. The memorial was part of an out-of-court settlement reached between the British government and a group of Kenyans who had fought through the 1950s in an armed conflict against their colonial rulers. This group is now popularly referred to as the Mau Mau. The statue, at the heart of the memorial site, depicts a man and a woman. The woman is passing the man a basket filled with what we can assume to be food from the accounts gathered of those who fought in this war. Both figures are looking away from one another. This was a method used by men and women to avoid recognising each other should they be captured and expected to identify other insurgents. In contrast to previous memorials for the conflict, and unlike many war-focused statues, this structure equally represents men and women who fought in the struggle. The statue signifies a vital feature of this conflict – ‘the backbone of the Mau Mau’, ie. Kenyan women’s contributions to the cause.[i]
The unprecedented High Court hearing in London (2011-2013) signified a huge turning point in this shared history, with Britain finally acknowledging the horrors of this period in Kenya. This group of Kenyans had sued the British government for compensation for the torture and ill-treatment they suffered between 1952-1960 in the detention camps, work camps and fortified villages that made up the colonial government’s punitive counter-insurgency infrastructure. Along with the £19.9 million of compensation paid and the forced release of the colonial records which corroborated the testimonies of the claimants, the British government commissioned a memorial to commemorate the Kenyans who had been tortured or killed during the Mau Mau insurgency.
While it has been all too common in military scholarship to centre men as agents in war, recent research has worked to re-evaluate the key roles women have played in liberation struggles. Kenya is a particularly unique case study for this. As this statue would suggest, Britain recognised women’s contributions in the conflict. They recognised very early on that Kenyan women were quite literally keeping the movement alive. This can be determined by Britain’s response to Kenyan women. Not only did they establish two detention camps – Kamiti and Gitamayu – to specifically house suspected Mau Mau women, they extended the forced resettlement of the remaining population assumed to be supporting the forest fighters. Using this villagisation process to separate the ‘fish from the water’, the British hoped to drain insurgent fighters of key resources.
The statue depicts a Kenyan woman in her role in feeding the male forest fighters. Women were perceived to be the guardians of their local communities: nurturers and mothers. In the testimonies of women who were forcibly resettled, stories are shared of the ways in which they subverted the barriers put in place to separate them from the forest fighters. Women cut the wires of the surrounding village fence to sneak out at night to leave supplies at a designated spot. Women found ways to hide food outside of the village when they were taken out during the day to complete forced labour tasks for the colonial government. For many women in the villages, they continued to risk the extreme punishments to feed their male family members on the other side of the fence.
Women did not, however, provide just a supporting role in this conflict. While the statue does not depict women in this way, women were leaders in this fight too. One example of this is Field Marshal Muthoni. Muthoni wa Kirima was a top-ranking female fighter in the insurgency. She was the only woman to gain the rank of field marshal and fought in the forest for the entire duration of the Emergency Period. Muthoni was never captured, was never detained, and emerged from the forest in 1963 when Kenya attained independence from their colonial oppressors. During her time in the forest, she worked as a spy on the lookout for opposition activity. In her reflections on the contributions women made in this conflict, she said, ‘and let me tell you, women are something of substance indeed! Women! They should be honoured!’[ii]
As we have seen through the events of the last few weeks, statues and memorials are never apolitical. As the debate continues regarding the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, a ruling to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford, and for so many more, statues rarely tell us the full story. In ways, the memorial constructed in Uhuru Park has been successful in acknowledging the all-encompassing horrors of the 1950s conflict. There are several large labels of comprehensive text that reflect this in both of Kenya’s national languages, Swahili and English. It does, however, fail to address the generational aspects of the Mau Mau and how the British responded to this. Only recently is scholarship turning to explore the roles children played in the armed struggle, and the measures with which Britain attempted to ‘rehabilitate’ these children. The statue of Robert Baden-Powell in Dorset, founder of the scout movement, has been targeted by campaigners for his ruthless military actions in Africa during the colonial period. While the scout movement is celebrated by many, it was an aspect of the British colonial government’s counter-insurgency in Kenya to reinvigorate British ‘masculinity, militarism, imperial purpose, and racial superiority’.[iii] In comparison to the Boys Scouts re-establishing respect and discipline among young boys, young girls received training in domestic science which readied them for a Christian marriage and as custodians of the community.
[i] Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, ‘Reconsidering Women’s Roles in the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, 1952-60’, in: Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds). Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Legacies (London, 2017), 160.
[iii] Paul Ocobock, An Uncertain Age: The Politics of Manhood in Kenya (Ohio, 2017), 37.
For more information and additional reading, Beth would suggest:
@museumofbc – Museum of British Colonialism (Beth is part of a Kenya/UK joint initiative as a volunteer, she conducted an interview with Field Marshal Muthoni (who is discussed in the blog post) for MBC. The full interview and interviews with others are fantastic resources for students/researchers and are available online here
@CurriculumBlack – The Black Curriculum – social enterprise that delivers Black British history through the arts, in schools and out of schools to all young people in the UK
@BlackInArtsHums – Black in Arts & Humanities – A global community of Black people in the Arts & Humanities
@diversehistory – Diverse Histories – providing research & learning resources
@africanarchives -African and Black History – Black and African History Archives which is an amazing resource for primary sources
First posted on the Reading Gender History Research Cluster blog here
Beth Rebisz is a doctoral research at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @BRebisz