Hart Sisters of Antigua
Hart Sisters of Antigua
Sisters Elizabeth Hart Thwaites (1772–1833) and Anne Hart Gilbert (1773–1833) were born on Antigua to free colored parents. As educators, abolitionists, and Methodists, both sisters were very engaged with the various representations of blacks and slaves circulating in the West Indies and used their writing to effectively challenge the patriarchal order, which construed blacks, women, and slaves as lowly.
The sisters are commonly understood to be the first female African-Caribbean writers to publish. Anne Hart Gilbert wrote a solicited short history of Antiguan Methodism and completed the biography of her husband, John Gilbert. Elizabeth Hart Thwaites also wrote a solicited history of Antiguan Methodism. In addition she wrote poetry, hymns, and letters, including one that was republished and circulated as an antislavery tract. Elizabeth was more strident about emancipation in her writing than her sister because she had associations with mainstream British proemancipation circles.
Both sisters were baptized into the Methodist faith in 1786 as young women. After this point both would become outspoken members of the Methodist community in Antigua. They advocated a kind of Christianity that sought to challenge rather than enforce the status quo. More specifically, both insisted that God's work was not just a male preserve but that women had the right to pursue holy work as well. In advocating the political equality inherent in Christianity, the sisters proposed that through Methodism and Christianity blacks and slaves were equal to whites. In a certain sense their work can be linked to the upsurge of evangelical women's activism in England, where most women's work was associated with the heart and feeling, or the womanly arts. In emulating their British counterparts, they offered a black Methodist female paradigm.
The sisters were committed to education. They traveled to Montserrat to observe the Lancastrian system of education based on the factory model and drew upon it as they defiantly educated slaves, proposing that slaves were educable and smart. Elizabeth founded a private school in St. John's in 1801. Then in 1809 they opened the first Caribbean Sunday school for boys and girls, without regard for race. Anne Hart held her Sunday school meetings in the dark so people would not feel ashamed of their clothes.
Anne and Elizabeth constructed a new kind of public identity for black women in the Caribbean. In doing so they refuted stereotypes of the depraved or licentious enslaved black woman. Both sisters were committed to helping women and children. They founded a society for orphans and women called the Female Refuge Society in 1816. In particular, Anne condemned prostitution and blamed it on the institution of slavery. Elizabeth argued that by eliminating sexual predation, black women could become socially mobile.
As the first black women to write and agitate against slavery, the sisters transform a reader's sense of the nineteenth century in that they show black women participating in discourses that sought to exclude them. In addition, they also provide evidence of the creolization of religions in the West Indies as they reshaped Methodism to reflect their lives.
Ferguson, Moira, ed. The Hart Sisters: Early African Caribbean Writers, Evangelicals, and Radicals. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1993.
Gilbert, Anne Hart. The History of Methodism in Antigua. 1804.
Twaites, Elizabeth Hart. The History of Methodism in Antigua. 1804.
nicole n. aljoe (2005)