Tituba

Histories of settler colonialism and enslavement are inseparable in the Americas. These twin genocides, at once separate and yet indispensable to one another, have forged to create the bedrock of the United States and many other modern-day countries in the Americas such as México and Brasil. Although we know relatively little about today’s historical figure, her life is demonstrative of how histories of settler colonialism and enslavement were intertwined in the Americas in the seventeenth century.

Tituba was an enslaved woman who was the first woman accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Her personal history, as with that of millions of enslaved people in the Americas, is murky as to her ethnic background and her exact biographical details. Born in the seventeenth century, there are two main theories as to where Tituba hailed from. The first, as put forward most prominently by the scholar Elaine Breslaw, was that Tituba was an Indigenous woman of Arawak descent, from the present-day region known as Guyana and Venezuela. The second theory was put forth by Peter Hoffer in 1997, and claims that Tituba was a Yoruba woman – as her name is a Yoruba word. Either of these theories could be true, or neither. She could have been an Arawak woman, a Yoruba woman, an Afro-Indigenous woman, or a woman from various other ethnic groups. Regardless, she was enslaved by Samuel Parris in Barbados and forcibly brought to Massachusetts.

In 1692, several young girls and women from Parris’s household – including his daughter Betty and niece Abigail – began to exhibit symptoms that were classified as bewitchment, and Tituba (along with two other women) was accused of witchcraft. Tituba was put on trial, and provided testimony saying that it was “the devil, for all I know” that had bewitched the four young girls/women. Tituba provided one of the longest testimonies in the Salem Witch Trials, one that went on to influence how the rest of the trials were conducted.

Tituba’s life has been subject to the whims of historians, authors, artists, and the general public since the seventeenth century. Her origins, her testimony, her involvement in witchcraft have all been historicized according to the sociocultural and racial context of those writing her story. At times depicted as Indigenous, at other times African, and at other times of mixed background, Tituba’s story has been twisted to suite the modes of the moment in which any given historian, author, or artist has depicted her. Tituba, as with the broader history of witchcraft in the Americas, is a complicated figure. What constituted as witchcraft? What type of person was accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials? How does the perception of Tituba’s “racial” origin matter to accusations of witchcraft? How should we understand her testimony – that of an enslaved woman of colour/Indigenous woman accused of a spiritual, gendered crime? In what ways do particular gender identities become intertwined in histories of colonial witchcraft? Where do Euro-centric understandings and histories of witchcraft fit (or collide) with other ways of knowing and communing with spiritual worlds that originate in Indigenous traditions or West African traditions?

These are questions that continue to perplex historians of witchcraft and practitioners of various traditions referred to as “witchcraft” alike.

~ M

Bibliography

Barillari, Alyssa. “Tituba.” Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. Accessed April 22, 2016. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/tituba.html.

Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: NYU Press, 1997.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

 

Advertisements
Tituba

Ah Toy

Today’s post pays tribute to Ah Toy, the second recorded Chinese woman to have arrived in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and the first Chinese sex worker (that we know of) in San Francisco. Ah Toy was born in 1828 in Southern China and travelled to the United States with her husband, who passed away en route to California. Born into relative wealth in comparison to many of the Chinese (im)migrants who traveled to the United States during the Gold Rush, Toy quickly became an influential social and economic presence in San Francisco.

Toy was an independent sex worker who established herself before the Tong controlled era of the 1850s took hold of San Francisco and wider Gold Rush California. She gained respect and a substantial amount of control over her livelihood (and wider control in the political scene in San Francisco) due to this. Toy’s life traces the difficulties that Chinese (im)migrants experienced in the United States, and specifically those of Chinese women and Chinese sex workers. The “yellow peril” sentiments amongst the White population forced Chinese women to navigate the stereotypes and violence that resulted from these attempts at securing a White supremacist state amidst the influx of thousands of Chinese workers to California and the broader American West.

Toy was both romanticized by many within the society around her and also stigmatized due to the “yellow peril” sentiments that were taking shape in the 1850s. Toy was able to negotiate the many myths surrounding Chinese sex workers, and Chinese women more broadly, to work in her favour, and was even able to manipulate the court system and vigilante police force, as can be seen by her famed relationship with John A. Clark, a prominent vigilante police officer of the time.

After establishing herself as an important political figure through her sex work, Toy went on to open a series of brothels in San Francisco and became deeply involved in the sex trade, bringing in girls and women from China to work for her. Unfortunately, some of these girls were purported to be as young as eleven years old, demonstrating the intersecting set of power dynamics that Toy and others were complicit in while trying to secure respect and safety for themselves. Toy’s life can therefore serve as a window into a complicated era of settler colonialism, anti-Asian racism, and frontier mythology, wherein the history of Chinese (im)migration to the United States points to the messy and complex negotiations of oppression, survival, and control that were at play during the era in California.

Toy’s place in this history can be looked at from multiple perspectives, but begs us here at Historical Hotties to ask ourselves a difficult and uncomfortable set of questions. How do we complicate narratives surrounding sex work in the historiography of California, the Gold Rush, and Chinese immigration to the United States without resorting to tropes of victimhood or predation? How do we understand someone like Ah Toy, whose lived experiences attest to the power and control she gained from sex work but who at the same time became a part of a tangled system of immigration, sex work, exploitation, and liberation? Where do people like Ah Toy fit in the broader project of settler colonialism in the American West? How has the historiography of Asians in America and Asian Americans served to replicate “yellow peril” myths and stereotypes of submissive East Asian women (for example) that continue to this day? How does a story such Ah Toy’s add to our understandings of racism and patriarchy in the American West, the responses of Chinese women to “yellow peril” racism amongst White settlers, and colonialism as a transnational project involving both people of colour and White people in the United States? Lastly, how can we incorporate and understand histories of sex work/ers as integral to — Capital A, Capital H — American History and treat these histories with just as much nuance as we do the histories of other labourers?

~ M

Bibliography

Gentry, Curt. The Madams of San Francisco: A Highly Irreverent History. New York: Signet, 1964.

Tong, Benson. Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

 

Ah Toy