Kickass Women in History: Sarah, Lily, Abigail, and Amba

This month’s Kickass Women doubles as a graphic novel review. Wake: The Hidden History of the Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall (Grade: A). This non-fiction book describes Hall’s efforts to uncover the history of the women who led the slave rebellions, women who often went unnamed and blotted out by history. Dr. Hall, who she calls an amazing woman in her own right, also describes the psychological toll of doing this research and how the removal of these women affects us in daily life today.


Descriptions of slavery, violence, execution, suicide and trauma.

Sarah, Abigail, Lily and Amba are listed as defendants in a New York trial report. They allegedly participated in and possibly led a revolt in New York City in 1712. A group of 27 enslaved people were arrested for the revolt, which included setting a building on fire, shooting those who responded, and then fleeing.

We know from court records and letters that 21 of the defendants were executed and that at least four of the defendants were women: Sarah, Abigail, Lily, and Amba. One of them was a pregnant woman whose “election was suspended” because of the pregnancy. None of them have last names or other identifying details listed in court records or letters.

Sarah and Abigail were convicted, but Lily and Amba were not. Until three years after the revolt, the governor requested a pardon for the woman who had become pregnant (we do not know if this woman was Sara or Abigail). She had spent all this time in a hellish prison, one that was not meant to hold prisoners for very long. Her final fate is unknown.

On English slave ships, women were registered only by number and sometimes by gender and estimated age. Hall describes in detail the obstacles he encounters in trying to identify these women, women whose lives continue to be deliberately obscured by sexist and racist practices in both public and private institutions.

Although Hall is unable to identify the women who rebelled on the slave ships by name, he is able to uncover evidence that the women led revolts on board. Riots at sea were suicidal, and yet they occurred on one in ten voyages. Hall finds that, “the more women there were on board a slave ship, the more likely a revolt was to occur.” It was common practice for women to be brought on board once a ship was out at sea, and for these women to be unchained, even near gun stores.

A report of the Lords of the Privy Council, 1789, states:

The Slave, if a Male, is chained to the Main Deck; if he is a boy, he is let loose on the main deck; if she is a Woman or Girl, they are placed without Irons in the Quarter Deck.

Weapons were usually stored in the Quarter Deck.

Hall speculates that the slavers’ sexism was so ingrained that no matter how many riots occurred, they simply couldn’t grasp the concept that a woman could lead a riot, and yet the riots occurred over and over again, as in the thomas in 1797:

Two or three of the female slaves, discovering that the armorer had carelessly left the weapons chest open, passed whatever weapons they could find through the bulkheads to the male slaves, some two hundred of whom immediately ran for the goblets. bow and put them to the test. death all the crew that got in his way.

Hall uses her historical knowledge and imagination to create possible narratives of who some of these women were and what happened to them. These narratives challenge previous assumptions that women did not lead or participate in revolts. She also draws clear lines between what happened then and what is happening now, between the past and the present. In this she is helped by the remarkable art of Hugo Martínez.

Black and white drawing of Hall surrounded by female ancestors, text reads We reach the final stage of healing from trauma when we integrate the past into who we are.  It becomes a part of us and provides understanding of our world.
We reach the final stage of trauma healing when we integrate the past into who we are. It becomes a part of us and provides understanding of our world.

To learn more about Sarah, Abigail, Lily, Amba and others, please read Wake by Dr. Rebecca Hall.

To listen to a podcast with Dr. Rebecca Hall, check out the Unsung History podcast.

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