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In the reading by Berry and Gross, we learn about a woman named Isabel. Why do the author's choose isabel life to begin their narrative of America? And how is her life/experience different from the women's lives discussed at the end of the chapter? This answer needs to include some details from the reading .

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IN EARLY JANUARY 1600, Isabel de Olvera, a woman of African
descent, petitioned the mayor of Queretaro, Mexico for protection
of her rights before joining Juan de Onate's expedition to New Spain,
which consisted of several regions in North and South America, in-
cluding present-day New Mexico, Arizona, and Florida. As she was
about to embark on the journey with Spanish explorers, Olvera be-
lieved she would be vulnerable to violence or captivity. "I am going
on the expedition," she stated in her deposition, "and have reason to
fear that I may be annoyed by some individual since I am a mulatto." 1
Born the daughter of Hernando, an African man, and Magdalena,
an Indian woman, she had always been free. Yet Olvera knew that
those she encountered would deem her property, and she wanted the
protection of "an affidavit" that she proudly noted would confirm she
was "free and not bound by marriage or slavery." Her intent was to
carry "a properly certified and signed copy" of this document to show
anyone who might question her status. Her appeal ended with a final
declaration: "I demand justice."
Women of African descent arrived in what became the United
States as early as the sixteenth century. Their histories on this land
are difficult to document because the archive hardly recognizes their
presence. When they do appear, many are nameless figures, men-
tioned in passing, with little identifying information given about their
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experiences. We begin this study before the formation of the country
Isabel's Expedition and Freedom Before 1619 11
as we know it today, at a time when rare women of African descent,
like Isabel de Olvera, demanded justice. Ironically, even in this period,
as gold, iron, and food. Sometimes explorers were greeted with trust
from 1400 to 1619, Black women were fighting for their rights, for
their sense of belonging.
and admiration and were showered with gifts. Other times they were
treated with trepidation, fear, and violence. Some were idolized as
people with religious or supernatural powers. In these situations and
circumstances, where European movement and mastery often pro-
ceeded hand-in-hand, Black women were present as well. And they
THE EARLY HISTORICAL narratives of North America were not
witnessed the often sordid scenes. We learn about them through re-
uniquely centered on Black women until now; instead, it was about
ports authored by explorers such as Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Hernan
discovery, colonization, and conquest. This history emphasized the
Cortes, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon,
"discovery" of land-a geography of multiple meanings depending
Hernando de Soto, and Juan de Onate. Accounts of explorers' jour-
on who occupied it. In the late eighteenth century, the territory that
neys sometimes mention women, and those that left silences in the
became the United States was home to indigenous populations for
historical record force us to construct Black women's lives through
thousands of years before being occupied by the Spanish, Dutch,
French, and British.
traces, conjectures, and sometimes speculation.
Before Olvera traveled to New Mexico, another Black woman
Why do we begin then, with Isabel de Olvera? Because her story
made her way into present-day Kansas around 1594. Although we
reveals hidden or otherwise unacknowledged aspects of the history of
do not know her name, we know that she accompanied the Francisco
this country. American history did not start when Europeans arrived
Leyva y Bonilla expedition and almost lost her life after being severely
in Pensacola in 1528, Roanoke in 1585, or Jamestown in 1607. It
burned in an attack near Wichita.? The woman was a member of
began in sooo to go00 BCE, during the Paleo-Indian era, when indig-
Bonilla's small party and was traveling with them into the Kitikitish
enous people settled here and lived in harmony with the land.
Indian territory when Bonilla, a Portuguese captain serving Spain,
The first Black women who stepped foot on what we now consider
was killed. The unnamed woman, described as "mulatto" (of African
American soil were not enslaved. In fact, some, like Olvera, were free,
and Indian descent), and a young Spanish boy named Alonso Sanchez
and they traveled as part of expeditions to explore land that had been
nearly died as well.' It is believed that the Onate expedition to New
inhabited by native populations for generations. These women did
Mexico four years later, which included several women, was partly
not arrive emaciated and distraught from being packed like sardines
a mission to find these two survivors.* Given the chaos of territorial
in the belly of slave ships. Instead, women of African descent arrived
warfare, it is no surprise that the expedition never found them and
before the first ships disembarked their loads of human cargo in the
that the two women of African descent never made contact, Olvera
American colonies. They came with Spanish and Portuguese explor-
probably interacted with only a handful of women like herself.
ers, and many could be classified as indentured servants, missionaries,
interpreters, or simply leaders.
Black women are sprinkled throughout the history of the United
States before 1619 in fragmentary documents. An occasional passage
Black women arrived during a period of European conquest, col-
onization, and chaos-marked by warfare, trade, travel, and cultural
or reference does tell us, however, that they were in the territory do-
clash. Much of this chaos began when Spanish and Portuguese ex-
ing all they could to survive, just like their male counterparts. In the
plorers, authorized by Castilian law and the Treaty of Tordesillas (by
Southwest Black women arrived with large and small parties as early
papal law), came in search of new lands and trade routes to other
as the sixteenth century, well before the British colonists landed at
parts of the world. They came to territories inhabited by native pop-
Jamestown. They were among the first nonindigenous explorers of the
ulations. They came searching for new continents and resources such
region. We can uncover the women's history through Spanish archival
records and a host of secondary sources. The travel records of explor-
ers like Ofate and Bonilla suggest that there may be more documents
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and references to Black women in the American Southwest than the
Isabel's Expedition and Freedom Before 1619
wider public acknowledges. In fact, hundreds of other women of Afri-
can descent traveled in and occupied this land. Some of these women
in 1535, Hernan Cortes of Spain went on an expedition to present-day
were the offspring of African explorers, and references to them reveal
California, bringing with him three hundred enslaved people of Af-
their vulnerabilities to the physical hardships of their journeys which
rican descent. Although Cortes traveled by horseback across Mexico
included the constant threat of rape and other forms of violence.
from the port of Vera Cruz, he sent three ships, the San Lazaro, the
In 1513, for example, Vasco Nunez de Balboa "crossed the Isth-
San Tomas, and the Santa Agueda, carrying enslaved Africans to help
mus of Panama and "discovered" the "south Sea," or Pacific Ocean.
settle the "new land" in the west." Only two of the ships made it to
Accompanying him were approximately thirty Africans, including a
Old Santa Cruz, which is located near La Paz, Mexico, on the east side
man named Nuflo de Olano, whom scholars believe was enslaved.
of Baja, California. We do not know the genders of those on board,
nor do we know much about what happened when the passengers and
We do not have evidence of whether or not women participated in
crew reached land, but it is quite likely that women were included in
this expedition, but if Olano intermixed with native populations, his
this group. People of African descent stepped foot on the Baja, Cali-
offspring, like Olvera and the unnamed woman who traveled with
fornia, coastline nearly 250 years before European settlement. They
Bonilla, would be considered mulatto. Likewise, a little more than a
traveled with Spanish explorers, whom we learn were not initially
decade later, in 1526, Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon founded the colony
trying to colonize the region but instead were searching for additional
of San Miguel de Gualdape near the Pee Dee River in present-day
trade routes.
Georgetown, South Carolina. Like Balboa, Ayllon brought approxi-
In times of "discovery," violence erupted as people from different
mately one hundred Africans with him to help set up the colony. These
parts of the world clashed with one another in their search for riches
were the first African captives who arrived in the South as a group,
and quest for establishing territories. The first women to walk these
and they rebelled shortly after their arrival. We know women were
territories were not immune from such conflicts, as evidenced by the
among them because documents suggest that there was a discrepancy
mulatto woman in Wichita who was nearly burned to death. Some of
in the payment of an unnamed woman. Conflict with local indigenous
these physical encounters may have involved force and could likely
Americans proved fruitful for the African captives, who fled the col-
be classified as rape; others may have been consensual. Given that
ony and resided with Indians in the interiors.'
some women used the expedition to sever their marital bonds sug
It is possible that there were other women of African descent
gests that they were risk takers at a time when they had few, if any,
among these early settlers, making them some of the first Black women
rights. It appears that the majority of the people on expeditions were
in America, arriving before the women in Olvera's expedition. But
men and that the conditions were challenging, giving way to stress
how do we identify them in archives that hardly acknowledge their
and violence. Parties traveled into unfamiliar territory that had been
presence or through history books that omit them from their pages?
previously occupied for centuries. They brought supplies to outfit the
Who were the first women of African descent to step foot on American
expedition as well as tradable goods. As with any bartering relation-
soil? These women were the offspring of African male explorers and
ships, negotiations sometimes ended in conflict and even war.
indigenous, Spanish, or Mexican women. Many of the women in this
Members of the Onate expedition, which originated in 1596,
early period show up in the travel accounts and ship registers as name-
less people, identified only by ethnic markers and gendered pronouns.
gladly gave up their worldly possessions to join the newly approved
Starting with the story of Spanish conquest/invasion represents a
groups of additional explorers, In fact, "the news of the expedition
shift in the story of Black women in America. The history of explora-
was publicly proclaimed throughout the streets and plazas .. . and no-
tion and discovery produces traces of Black women in regions beyond
tices given of the privileges which would be granted those soldiers and
the grand narrative, which often begins with the British, For example,
colonists who enlisted in this enterprise, "7 Perhaps Olvera became ex-
cited about this opportunity and sought permission to join the group.
The expedition crew brought with them supplies, including weapons:
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leather shields, swords, daggers, helmets, buckskin jackets, and corse-
Isabel's Expedition and Freedom Before 2619
lets with breastplates worn by men and women. The party traveled
with 65 mules and 1,157 horses with heavy saddles (including war
a city in north central Mexico, and took oaths in a "legal manner by
horses, riding horses, ponies, and mares). Onate's companions also
God and a cross" knowing that the consequences of false testimony
carried muskets and pistols, as well as a variety of "blade weapons,"
meant excommunication from the Catholic Church."
such as swords, machetes, fencing foils, and daggers. They needed
Olvera received permission to join the expedition on August 29,
these items both for protection and for trade.
1600, several months after making her request. We do not have evi-
The goal of Onate's first expedition was to travel from Mexico
dence of what Olvera did during her long wait, but we know a great
City to a small base near present-day El Paso, Texas, where they at-
deal about the members of the expedition and some of the hardships
tempted to set up residence. From there, the explorers ventured deeper
they faced leading up to 1600, when Olvera joined them.
into the west, northwest, and central plains on mini-expeditions to
One year into the expedition, in November, 1597, after traveling
learn about life in these regions. During their travels they faced dehy-
for eleven days, the group took a rest to repair their carts. They also
dration, hunger, fatigue, disease, and death. This was the environment
"buried a child, a son of Herrera." A few days later they buried a "ser-
Olvera would be entering when she asked to join the expedition at
vant who had been killed by a colt." It appears the travelers tended
the beginning of 1600. She had to wait eight months for a rigorous
to loss quickly and moved on. Every few months the Spanish gov-
legal process that scrutinized her status and ultimately cleared her to
ernment sent a representative to check on the members of the party.
Officials took depositions and inventories of the travelers' property,
examined their health, and replenished supplies. For nearly two years,
In order to travel, Olvera had to prove that she was free and unmar-
Spanish rulers routinely halted Oflate's expedition and interviewed
ried. She called on three witnesses who testified under oath to confirm
each male member of the party. In the group of nearly 400 men, 130
her identity. This was not always easy for women of African descent.
brought their families, including their wives, children, and servants."
Their credibility was constantly questioned, and courts did not always
The males ranged in age from fifteen to sixty years old, and there were
accept the women's testimony unless they had people to vouch for
no age-specific references to the women and children, only comments
them. Olvera's witnesses were an enslaved man named Santa Maria, a
about marital status and occasionally ethnicity and names. There were
free Black man named Mateo Laines, and a Mestizo (people " of mixed
about thirty women in the expedition, of whom eighteen were mar-
ried, Of the total, eleven appeared as indigenous."
race" with Spanish and Native American ancestry) woman named
So, what was life like for a Black woman such as Olvera, travel-
Anna Verdugo. All three confirmed that Olvera was indeed the daugh-
ing as part of a major expedition? She knew she was taking a great
ter of Hernando and Magdalena and that she was telling the truth
risk entering volatile territory, but other women were present and
about her identity. Ironically, from the earliest moments in American
actively engaged as interpreters, explorers, and servants, so she was
history, Black women like Olvera had to prove themselves free and
not alone. In fact, Olvera traveled with a family as their servant, and
clear of any forms of ownership (slavery and matrimony). Women's
they were supposed to care for her; we have no idea if they did so,
Also joining her was a mulatto "girl of tender age," named Ysabel,
mobility and marital status needed legal confirmation, and even their
and a number of Indian women, including Juana, Anna, Francisca,
status as free individuals required authentication. In this case it was
Catalina, Augustina, Maria, Francisca, and Beatriz, whom we only
necessary for Olvera to be investigated before joining the ongoing ex-
know by their first names in ancient records. Mestizo women, such
pedition. Olvera had never been enslaved, nor was she married, and in
as Magdalena and Ana, accompanied them as well. Some of these
her words, she considered herself a "legitimate" daughter. The ques
women used the expedition to leave their husbands, while others
tioning of "unattached" women of color in the Spanish colonies of the
traveled with their spouses and children." Some women gave birth
during the long journey.
late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was quite common. All
three of Olvera's witnesses appeared before the mayor of Queretaro,
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Isabel's Expedition and Freedom Before adry 17
Many of the married women went as nurses, seamstresses, and
body servants (who served as a personal attendant). We can specy-
Mexico." Knowing about people like Esteban might have encouraged
late about their experiences through inventories (complete records of
men like Hernandez to withhold information about his wife and her
property including goods, food, weapons, and clothing) that appear in
possessions on the Oflate expedition nearly sixty years later. Not all
travel literature such as historical ballads, in which husbands choose
sixteenth century women received such "protections."
to mention the women and acknowledge their presence.
In 1577, while traveling the Pacific Ocean in his quest to circum-
Some men in listing their goods deliberately told officials they
navigate the globe, Sir Francis Drake captured an enslaved woman
named Maria off the coast of Guatemala. Described as a "proper
would not disclose their wives' possessions, to avoid theft. Instead
negro wench," Maria was raped or gang raped and was impregnated
they noted only that their wives and children accompanied them and
by either the captain or one of his crew. Her experience is one of the
had clothing and personal items of their own. Given the demographics
most chilling stories in the history of women in the New World. Yet we
of the women involved, it is clear that when Olvera joined the party
have no written narrative of her experience, just scattered references
two years later, she was surrounded by both married and unmarried
to her existence.
women and by a handful of people of African descent. Onate's per-
Drake decided to leave Maria and two Black men on a deserted
sonal servant was Black, and a man named Francisco de Sosa Penalosa
island called "Crab Island" on the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia.
brought "four female slaves and one male slave."13
Was Drake the father of the unborn child? This we do not know. How-
Some men sought to protect the identities of their wives because
ever, we know that the woman was pregnant and rather than arriving
of horror stories that circulated about men on earlier expeditions.
in London with a baby of African and European ancestry, he and his
They did so by saying little about them in the depositions and by not
crew disposed of Maria and two men, and then continued their jour
disclosing their personal items; some even chose not to share their
ney. What happened to the woman and her two counterparts? Did she
give birth? Did the infant survive? History leaves us with no answers. "
names. Esteban the Moor, one of the first African explorers in Amer-
Maria's brief mention confirms that Black women were being
ica, is said to have mistreated women. We don't know if this is true
sexually exploited on ships in the sixteenth century prior to arriving
or not. However, we know that women accompanied him during the
1539 Coronado expedition through present-day New Mexico, Ari-
on land. Ship captains such as Drake authorized, participated in, or
turned their backs on such exploitation. They saw Black women's
zona, and California. At least one was an enslaved Indian woman,
bodies as disposable, and as historian Jennifer L. Morgan argues,
a prisoner of war. Esteban traveled with women who often served as
interpreters, but legend suggests that they worshipped him and his
Drake's decision to leave Maria and her two counterparts on an island
gave the "white crewmembers" a "hereditary freedom that would not
comrades perhaps for their bravery. On a few occasions women gave
birth on this journey, but we do not know who impregnated them.
be sullied by the birth of a dark-skinned baby."" The value of her life
"Many times, it occurred that some of the women who accompanied
was not worth compromising the reputation of the captain and his
us gave birth, " one traveler shared, and as soon as "the children were
crew. Such actions occurred on the eve of one of the most exploitative
born the mothers would bring them to us that we should touch and
periods in Black women's history: the transatlantic slave trade era.
bless them. "" Some accounts suggest that Esteban was abusive; orh-
How might Maria have told her story? This we can only spec-
ers recognized him as being the main communicator with indigenous
ulate. Given that she was described as "gotten with child," we can
people. "The negro [ Esteban] was in constant conversation, " and Es-
assume that her pregnancy was visible and that she may have been in
reban, it was said by expedition members, "informed himself about
her second trimester. Women at this stage in their pregnancies often
the ways we wished to take, of the towns there were, and the matters
feel a renewed sense of energy, which would have helped Maria sur-
we desired to know. "" Other accounts viewed him as a great explorer
vive being stranded on a deserted island. At the same time, women
who was not given credit for his bravery or for traveling to New
at that stage can also experience dizziness, leg cramps, and urinary
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Isabel's Expedition and Freedom Before 1619
tract infections. We do not know if Maria went through any of these
changes or how long she survived on the island. We do not know who
helped her give birth.
traversed this land on earlier travels, so he developed ways to save
time by cutting through the Chihuahuan Desert on the last two legs of
Maria may have welcomed the opportunity to depart from Drake's
the journey. However, doing so put his comrades, perhaps including
ship, where she experienced exploitation, most likely from the captain
Isabel, at great risk.
and several members of the crew. Yet, we do not know anything about
On the crew's first trip to New Spain, before Isabel joined them,
her interactions with the two men with whom she was sent ashore.
they were without water for three days. How did they maintain mo-
They were given "rice, seeds, and fire to populate the place."" Being
rale and cope under such extreme conditions? We know about these
on land might have given her physical relief as well. The instability
travel conditions through Gaspar Perez De Villagra, who wrote the
first published history of any American commonwealth in 1610 and
of the sea could not have been pleasant during the early weeks of her
pregnancy. But what was her life like on Crab Island?
who accompanied Ofate and paved the way for others, like Isabel,
who came to New Mexico after him. Villagra talked about the "great
We know that many of these islands in this archipelago are home
distances" they "marched" along a "long ridge of mountains" to find
to a warm climate, with average daily temperatures ranging from 73
safe passages. When they reached the banks of a river they named
to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of this group of islands were moun-
"Sacramento" in honor of "the Blessed Sacrament, " they built a large
tainous, with active volcanoes, which could make them a challenge
chapel and used it as a place to rest and pray. "The women and chil-
to navigate. European occupation in the late sixteenth century led
dren came barefoot to pray at the holy shrine," he wrote. One won-
to the discovery of spices such as cloves and nutmeg, and the region
ders if Isabel had the opportunity to pray at this place on her journey.
became known as the Spice Islands. But what about Maria, her un-
If so, what would her prayers be? Did she know about the violence
born child, and the men who were discarded on an island said to be
that had occurred at this site years earlier, when soldiers whipped the
populated by crabs and bats? Would they be safe at night? Did they
women and children "unmercifully until the camp ran crimson with
have a chance of survival? We will never know the answers to these
their blood?"20 She had to know the risks involved in exploration
questions or anything else about Maria, except that she was a woman
because she had petitioned for protection prior to her journey.
of African descent who was impregnated while on a ship with one of
We can speculate that Isabel spent nearly a year traveling by foot to
the world's most renowned explorers, Sir Francis Drake, and aban-
doned soon after.
reach New Mexico. Her migration would have taken her from sea level
to altitudes greater than three thousand feet. She would have walked
Unlike Maria, Isabel de Olvera and her experience in the late
sixteenth-century era of exploration and navigation are better known
through vast desert lands in the Chihuahuan Desert and crossed the
to us because of her testimony and the Onate expedition's travel and
Rio Conchos, Rio Grande, and probably the Rio Santa Cruz before
inspection records.
entering northern New Spain, which includes parts of present-day
Upon being granted permission to join the expedition, Isabel
Arizona and New Mexico. If Olvera was fortunate, she could cross
traveled approximately 1,380 miles across Mexico and New Spain
rivers via the bridges Onate's explorers built. If not, she would have
through mountainous regions, across rivers, and into desert valleys.
to have exercised great caution and skill to avoid being swept down
She probably went from Queretaro, Mexico, to Santa Fe, New Spain
river. We know from accounts of Villagra's experience crossing the
in three important stages: (1) Queretaro to Santa Barbara, Mexico
Rio Conchas, for example, that "teamsters brought the wagons down
(approximately 640 miles), which took three to four months; (a) Santa
the steep banks" where they had to "skillfully" maneuver them into
Barbara to El Paso (approximately 435 miles), across mostly desert
terrain, a journey of about three months; and (3) El Paso to Santa Fe
rushing waters. The swift current must have been treacherous for
(approximately 305 miles), which took about four months. Ofate had
anyone crossing since, as he recalled, "the rushing waves caught the
wagons and tossed them about like ships in a heavy sea" while the
horses and other animals used "every muscle" to reach the other side
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of the river." How did Olvera manage? Did she know how to swim?
Isabel's Expedition and Freedom Before 1619
Was the bridge that Oflate's men constructed a few years before still
standing? Did Olvera have assistance traversing the steep riverbanks
of. Given that Olvera chose to take a yearlong journey to present-day
on both sides? Even if she was successful, there were still two or three
New Mexico speaks volumes to our understanding of the options and
other river crossings to make on the journey.
possibilities for Black women prior to British settlement and arrival of
One wonders if Olvera traveled along mountain ranges or along the
the British. From sixteenth-century accounts of Olvera's exploration
river to keep close to adequate sources of water. Months of travel had
and Maria's exploitation, we know that some Black women exercised
to be taxing on her body, particularly her feet. The harsh conditions
their rights while others relinquished them. Some experienced sexual
likely diminished the travelers' morale, though Oflate was known for
assault on ships while others sought legal protection, even if it did
giving pep talks and encouraging words to his comrades when they
not guarantee they would be spared from assault. Their experiences
set up camp. "Be not discouraged," he would tell them, recognizing
would become more universal as time continued, and as a result, thou-
that "sufferings and misfortunes seem to be our daily lot." With faith
sands of Black women arrived captive in the bellies of slave ships. This
in Good, "ill-luck cannot endure forever, " he said. Reminding them of
journey would soon mark their commonalities.
courageous men and "other heroes, " he proclaimed that the "present
Starting with the seventeenth century, we learn of more women of
trials and tribulations" occurred "for the express purpose of prepar
African descent who were forcibly moved to the New World. These
ing" them "for the gloriman future which awaits. "2 Did the leaders
women had different experiences on this land than Olvera. They were
Olvera traveled with give words of encouragement to the women as
unwilling victims of genocide in the largest forced migration in history:
weil? We know that years earlier women took up arms and protected
the transatlantic slave trade. Historians confirm that 1 444 marked the
their hemen aga.mer an attack from the Acrana persple. Perhaps this
first year a slave ship left the African coast to a European market, al-
lever cary worry inspired Olvers and the women the traveled with in
though this ship of 250 Africans did not come to the Americas; it went
Ffer Warfare was common in their perined and grope at peace could
to Lisbon, Portugal, one of the primary slave trading centers at that
quickly turn on each other. One always had to, be in guard.
time."The ship arrived with grief-stricken men, women, and children.
Hovers made it y, Santa Fe, the would have encountered a place
It is impresible to imagine the experience of this journey or the horror
where Spaniarde, Mercara, mciverran perplex, and Afronmention
of heing taken into captivity.
is very. ( rate heid the wineriesitup until 1627, when he was
Consider for a moment the particular trauma of forced captivity
wish is we'reyes isamar law, That, within a few years of her
for women. African girls and women might have been tending to chil-
dren or engaged in other responsibilities in villages with family and
nos ate trees, we do. see sizeer all the details of her life, thanks
friends when suddenly wimerme put a sackcloth on their heads and
".new may start frestate dept. to have, we knew that the
chains on their hands and feet. They were violently taken and forced
to walk tos places they did nest know existed. When they arrived, some
sing arn a fattily beeflet me at to tiene whee were already in tiew
of them saw bodies of water that seemed to have no end. Even more
frightening was the sight of their captors. This may have been the
first time they waw persple with White skin. Who were they? Chente?
Cannibalst Evil spirits? Where their captors European or Africant
How did women make seme of and process what was happening?
In the midst of this comfirm, they were forced to walk in "slave
wiffies" chained by the neck and ankles to other captives, many of
whathe did see speak the same language despite the commemality of
of skin tome. These being transported may not have been from the
to wanmunity. African people came from theanands of different
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Isabel's Expedition and Freedom Before 1619 23
ethnicities and spoke a variety of languages. Barefoot and sometimes
mind and depressed her spirit. What is this? Where are they taking
naked, they were put into holding facilities with cold concrete floors
me? Why am I subjected to this madness? Before she could fully con-
and walls that did not have windows-a suffocating ventilation sys-
sider these questions, she arrived at the ship, was forced up the plank
and stuffed into the wooden dungeon/coffin/hold, a space she would
tem. Bodily fluids such as vomit, blood, urine, and feces caked the
occupy for the next several weeks. The latch closed and darkness and
floor and the walls, and the stench was overwhelming. The pole in the
middle of the room that everyone avoided was where hands were tied
grief overtook her.
to keep them still during floggings and branding, events that marked
the commodification of bodies prior to being sent to the New World
MOST OF THE WOMEN who came to the New World traversed the
on ships. The shrieking sounds of distraught mothers, daughters, aun-
Atlantic in slave ships. However, women like Olvera and countless
ties, grandmothers, and infants moaning, crying, and screaming, were
unnamed travelers arrived before the slave trade took hold in this
ear piercing and haunting. This was not a place anyone chose to visit
country. From the dawn of the seventeenth century, Black women
nor cared to remember. It was a place they all wanted to forget.
would change the shape of America through petitions, actions and
Standing on the shores of the West African coastline, waiting to
defying legislation that coveted their bodies and commodified their
wombs. For the next several hundred years, however, the travel and
be put on a boat, African women were robbed of their liberty and
exploration that was granted to Olvera, was denied to generations of
identity. They left as individuals who were part of ethnic communi-
ties such as the Arada, Ashanti, Bakongo, Coromante, Ewe, Fante,
Black women who followed her.
Fon, Fulani, Hausa, Ibo, Tiv, and Yoruba. However, outsiders would
soon impose general monikers on them: "Negras," "Wenches," or
"Negars." Captains, traders, crew and eventually enslavers (people
who owned human property) saw them as African captives, and com-
monly made notation of the region from where they came: Angola,
Benin, Calabar, Congo, Gambia, Gold Coast, Guinea, Senegambia,
Sierra Leone, overlooking the variety of cultural or language groups
they represented. But these women resisted, especially when being
shoved onto a small boat. There was something about the water and
the large ship anchored in the distance that seemed even more daunt-
ing than the experience in the cold cement room. Having been in that
holding facility for weeks, subjected to horrors difficult to describe,
African women brought to the Americas faced trauma well before
they were loaded onto ships and traversed the Atlantic.
When a captured and traded woman's feet first touched the water
in the wooden base of the small boat that would take her to a ship
that would make the journey across the ocean, she probably had no
idea that she would never return to her homeland. The chances of
her survival across the Atlantic were even more unlikely; nearly one
third died in watery coffins that represented the belly of slavers. The
rough waters brought a level of motion sickness that she probably
experienced for the first time. Too many new experiences clouded her

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Subject: History, US History

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