African Studies Quarterly

Liberating the Family? Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the Rural Western Cape, South Africa, 1823-1853. Pamela Scully. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1997. 210 pp. Paper: $23.95.


In the last two decades there has been a burgeoning of literature on the social history of the Cape. Scully's book augments this body of knowledge by focussing on the gendered dynamics of the post-emancipation period. The book begins by posing the questions "How widespread was the twinning of freedom and masculine authority, of freedom and feminine subordination, in the ideologies of abolition which led to the ending of Cape slavery? Did slave men and women share this gendered vision of freedom?" (p.1). Given the abundance of scholarly interrogation of patriarchy and slavery the answers are well known. It is the methodology employed to prove the thesis of the subordination of ex-slave women in the construction of post-emancipation familial relations however, that makes the book a valuable read.

Scully excavates archival material, primarily the criminal records, to capture the views and actions of ex-slaves and reads against the grain of official documentation to tease out the emerging representations of ex-slaves and the consolidation of a patriarchal ideology. She uses "experience as evidence" and attempts to "negotiate the tensions between experience and text through attending to both political economy and representation" (p.12). The book's larger project is to demonstrate that "slave emancipation is as much a story about culture and identity as it is a narrative of the emergence of free wage labour" (p.176). The work is divided into three sections, which detail chronologically the tensions around the constructions of family, race and sexuality. The third segment contains empirical data such as recorded instances of marriage, infanticide and rape, through which Scully attempts to highlight the struggles over the meanings of masculinity and femininity and their relationship with the meaning of freedom.

Scully argues that the "ideas held by different participants [missionaries, slaveholders, colonial officials] about the capacities and roles of men and women crucially shaped the world of freedom into which ex-slave women and men were liberated in 1838" (p.3). She also contends "that the political, juridical and economic context of colonial slavery in the Western Cape as well as the class, racial and gendered assumptions within antislavery thought helped to initiate new forms of control over black women's behaviour and limited their participation in the waged labour force" (p.10) and that ex-slaves continually contested their ascribed roles. In particular, women attempted to exert control over their bodies and also sought new forms of employment.

The book successfully weaves together the role of the different agents in subordinating women's experiences of freedom, but it is not as convincing in its attempts to highlight the "emotional lives" of slaves and their alternative conceptions of freedom and femininity. In addition, the interconnections between race, gender and sexuality could be further explored and theorized and the emerging cultures and identities more fully examined, that is, the racial and class dimensions thereof. Although she cites Ballachet and Stoler, she could have drawn more on their analyses of the mechanisms for policing racial boundaries. The work would also have been enriched through drawing on the theoretical insights of Young, McClintock and Pratt. On completing the reading of the book one is left to wonder about the implications and significance of Scully's insights. There are few connections made with the period prior to emancipation and none to the present context where the racialized Coloured identity has taken on increased political significance. Nor is there an attempt to link present gendered and familial relations and constructions of culture within the Coloured community to their experiences of the past.

Scully's work is impeded by a lack of data, which illuminates the views of slaves and therefore she often has to make assertions without having sufficient corroborating evidence. This is particularly noticeable in her discussions on marriage, infanticide and rape. For example, she claims that marriage was a signifier of freedom for the ex-slaves and that people "got married both to signify their inclusion in a religious and social community and to enhance their stature in the eyes of the missionaries, so as to receive more benefits, such as access to land" (p.121). However, the evidence she provides hardly substantiates the claim. For example, in her analysis of the Stellenbosch district there were only 400 marriages recorded in 1840 and less than 300 in 1841. The numbers continued to drop in subsequent years and therefore, many freed people did not marry, leading one to question her conclusion that marriage was a significant social practice. Scully's discussion of the Raithby mission is also dubious, as she notes that the number of marriages increased from three in 1845 to six in 1846 and then declined to one in 1847. This hardly indicates a rush to form part of a social community or to gain access to land.

Similarly, an assertion is made that the colonial state focussed on infanticide because it was an act which was at the heart of different cultural understandings of morality and autonomy and that in "killing her child, a woman declared sovereign power over both her body and the body of her child" (p.147). Here the evidence is based on six cases in the rural areas of the Western Cape. However, excluding a reference to Schapera on the use of infanticide by the Khoi and San as a means of child spacing, we are not provided with any evidence of differing cultural perspectives on the issue nor, through the voices of the women accused of infanticide, do we hear any claims to power or rights over their bodies. Instead, the narratives reveal the desperation and powerlessness of the women for it was the threat of being removed from the mission stations which motivated their actions, rather than cultural differences or the negation of motherhood -- a point she concedes at the end of the chapter

Despite the thin evidence, Scully's innovative attempt to voice the perspectives of the ex-slaves and to construct an alternative narrative is admirable. Indeed, the book paves the way for further research on issues of identity construction at the Cape. For this reason, the volume should be of interest to those studying slavery, the social history of the Cape, gender or critical race theory.


Cheryl Hendricks
Toronto, Canada