This article is part of a series on Global Feminisms. Articles in this series explore how feminists have acted beyond the nation. How have global events, ideas and tactics impacted feminism, and vice versa? How have feminists worked across difference – for example, of race, nation, politics – more and less successfully? Read an introduction to the series here.
Historians have long recognized that early modern English women, as child-bearers and domestic servants, were crucial to how colonists conceptualized and executed colonial expansion in the Atlantic. Colonists viewed women as crucial care-givers and labourers, and they also believed that women were key to the preservation of English customs and language. As married women and young indentured servants, they emigrated to seventeenth-century English colonies in their thousands. Much less attention has been given to these same women’s independent navigation of trading companies, or their roles as merchants, plantation owners, and economic and political players in the broader business of empire. This vein of research has also developed much more slowly, and often distinct from, histories of women and gender in domestic society.
What do we do with the insight that women played a crucial role in empire? How does it challenge the feminist project of ‘recovery’, of wanting to salvage the experiences of ordinary/extraordinary women in the past, from what were once the margins of history?
Projects such as UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database and the National Trust’s 2020 report have shown that confronting women’s active participation in the social and economic practices associated with overseas trade and colonisation are crucial to our understanding of the extent of Britain’s ties with colonialism and slavery. These projects also reveal the intimacy of these ties; Britain was not just bound to empire through trade and politics, but through the kinship, bonds, and affection of families and individuals. Partly, this realisation has come about through recognition that these developments are just as relevant for our understanding of British domestic history, either social, economic, or political, as they are for global imperial histories. By turning our attention towards ‘the empire at home’ that is, the way that imperialism structured everyday life in Britain, the ways women were implicated become more obvious. But these strides in scholarship to understand women’s role in colonisation are also the product of decades of feminist scholarly production. The serious study of previously overlooked archives and reinterpretation of others, has revealed the significance of early modern women’s participation in the political sphere and economic life, including those areas directly and indirectly associated with colonialism.
For some feminist scholars, developments in global colonial and imperial histories have forced us to interrogate our subjects in new ways. Early modern women demonstrated behaviours—independence, agency, control—which historians now appreciate were largely expected of them. Simultaneously, we recognise the limits of women’s power and the ways in which it was curbed by, and contingent upon, patriarchy. Some women sought, acquired, and expressed authority in ways that we would now recognise as patriarchal. These findings complicate how we view women in the past, who were not just ‘victims’ of patriarchy. Rather they could be the ones who were directly pursuing and gaining from colonial expansion and enslavement. This issue is vexed even further by the recognition that White European women’s authority could be contingent upon the oppression of Black and Indigenous populations.
Take, for example, the sisters Sara Kirke and Frances Hopkins, who were the largest property-owners in the seventeenth-century English colony of Ferryland in Newfoundland, a province in Atlantic Canada. The two sisters made their livelihood in the Atlantic fishery, catching, processing, and trading cod. They began independently navigating this world after experiencing several personal catastrophes, including loss, exile, and displacement. Although Sara and Frances disappear from the written record around 1680, their decades-long dominance of the Newfoundland fishery has been preserved in the artefacts and remains of buildings which survive at the site today.
Objects including sugar tongs and tobacco pipes speak to their consumption of colonial goods produced by enslaved Africans, and they also collected ceramics decorated with Asian motifs—plumed birds and oranges, goods which also made their way to Newfoundland—in ways which displayed their feminine articulation of an imperial selfhood, or how they imagined their role in English global trade and expansion, including into Asia.
Sara and Frances endured the regime change which followed the British Civil Wars and came out the other side relatively unscathed, with their lives and most of their family intact. Sara was married to Newfoundland’s Royalist governor, Sir David Kirke, who was taken by Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers from Newfoundland to England, languished in prison, and died in 1654. Frances was also married to a Royalist, the Isle of Wight soldier Sir William Hopkins. They hosted Charles I following the outbreak of the war, and it was their hospitality and Williams’s continued service to the king, including playing a part in his conspiracy to escape from Carisbrook Castle, which forced Frances to join her sister’s family in Ferryland. Whilst living under the cloud of exile, which forced new opportunities, Sara and Frances thrived as merchants, establishing themselves as leaders, both economically and politically, in the colony. In 1660, when Charles II ascended to the throne, Sara was quick to remind the new king of her family’s unwaning loyalty.
Are Sara and Frances interesting figures, deserving of recognition, as powerful women, perhaps even as feminists? They outlived their husbands and survived the dangers of childbirth many times; they did not perish during several Atlantic crossings to and from England and Newfoundland; they endured the political tumult of the 1640s and 1650s; and they managed households and large numbers of servants and boats in a competitive, male-dominated industry. Yet they were also complicit in, and cognizant of, English settler colonialism and plantation slavery. Although there is no known recorded proof of Sara’s and Frances’s involvement in plantation slavery, it was all around them. In 1629 David Kirke, before he was governor of Newfoundland, trafficked an enslaved African boy named Olivier le Jeune to New France, which was just nine years before his wife Sara and their children arrived in Ferryland. It was also a reality that the Newfoundland fisheries traded their lower-grade ‘red fish’ to plantation societies for consumption by enslaved Africans. It seems unlikely that Sara and Frances were not also involved in, and did not profit from, this practice.
Inevitably, then, it poses a problem for scholars, such as myself, to rationalise the urge to recover their histories, in order to better understand the relationship between gender, English society, and colonialism (and appreciate that they, as women, exerted authority in ways which sometimes surprise us) and yet not lose sight of at whose expense they progressed their families and businesses: enslaved Africans and First Nations people. The Coat of Arms granted to David Kirke in 1638, which depicts Beothuk men, is explicit about this conflict. Sara and Frances acquired safe refuge, developed their economic standing, and sought political influence and legitimacy through the authority invested in David Kirke as a colonial governor; but permanent year-round European settlement deprived the Beothuk of vital access to the resources of the sea.
The recent opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham offered some commentary on this entangled issue. It confronted how working-class Birmingham women scraped a meagre living making chains in the city’s factories, chains that were used to restrict, torture, and enslave captive African women, children, and men. The workers were also, according to the Commonwealth Games organisers, ‘enslaved by their dire circumstances.’ This was represented in the ceremony by their chaining to a mechanical ‘raging bull’ (a metaphor of the city’s industrial revolution) before they ultimately broke free. This was also symbolic, this time of their participation in the 1910 minimum wage strike.
The opening ceremony appeared to be an attempt to balance recognition of working-class women’s industry and resilience – how they shaped workers’ rights, their enduring legacy in the city’s urban landscape and in history today- with the pressing knowledge that the destination of those chains was to enslave others. For me, the plight of the factory workers and the enslaved is not a fair and just comparison, but it does reveal how a feminist lens on history can bring to the surface an inescapably everyday and prosaic recognition of what Britain’s colonial legacy actually is and how it continues to function.Though some may be hesitant to confront it, the lives of women were deeply entangled with British colonization, including the transatlantic trade in enslaved people.