Caribbean Women, Creole Fashioning, and the Fabric of Black Atlantic Writing

Danielle C. Skeehan
The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 105- 123


On October 1,1768, Jamaican overseer and plantation owner Thomas Thistle
wood recorded the following incident between two enslaved seamstresses: he
writes, “Phibbah’s Coobah marked on Silvia’s smock bosom. D Τ S J H, for
Dago, her husband; Mr. Meyler’s Tom, her sweetheart; and John Hart[nol]e,
who she is supposed to love best; and other ornaments,” to which is added
the lines: “Here’s meat for money / If you are fit, I’m ready / But take care you
don’t flash in the pan.”1 Coobah and Silvia had been assigned the task of sew
ing and mending clothes for other enslaved workers, but clearly Thistlewood
caught them in the act of doing something very different: Coobah, it seems,
could “write” and the materials she wrote with were needle, cloth, and thread.
Between 1750 and 1786 Thistlewood wrote nearly 14,000 pages detailing his life
and activities, the planting and harvesting of crops, and his brutal treatment of
enslaved workers; however, on this day Coobah’s “text” disrupts the aesthetic
flow and the discursive authority of the record: in order to record and transcribe
her unauthorized act, he must also accurately acknowledge her act of author
ship and imitate the formalistic qualities of her text. Whether or not Coobah
could write in a traditional sense—with ink on paper—her embroidered writ
ing circulated far more broadly than any of Thistlewood’s private recordings:
worn outside the clothing, Silvia’s smock served as a public broadside. In fact,
what Thistlewood recorded that day was an early example of black Atlantic
women’s writing in which the author converts the very tools of her labor as an
enslaved seamstress into a medium through which she can tell stories of love
and kinship, as well as sexual exploitation and loss.