hot commodities: thoughts on reproductive politics, enslaved women, and Maria Sybilla Merian’s peacock flower

Reproduction, it is said, has always been a matter of politics.

In England, Henry VIII divorced and then killed off his second wife, Anne Boleyn for her failure to beget a boy. A few hundred years later, a concerned mother wrote to a Swiss doctor, worried about her daughter’s forthcoming nuptials in the face of newly discovered knowledge about her soon to be son-in-law’s health and its possible implications for their reproductive lives. In Canada, many women have been forcibly sterilized, their reproductive autonomy erased because of their class, race, or presumed psychological fitness for reproduction. In India, a burgeoning international surrogacy industry contracts often impoverished women to rent out their uteri for wealthy North American or European couples. In Ireland, labouring women have been victim – with the blessing of the Catholic church – to the profoundly disabling and medically unnecessary practice of symphisiotomy. In the global South, women have been used as guinea pigs for contraceptive testing, often without their consent or even knowledge. American fetal personhood laws pit the rights of the fetus against those of the mother to be. It was only in April 2017 that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that “the sterilization requirement [for trans people] was a violation of Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights” ( see New York Times)

Perhaps nowhere were the politics of reproduction more overt than in the context of the dying days of plantation slavery in the Americas. Numerous historians have observed that slave owners’ perspectives on reproduction changed as the political mood shifted toward abolition (van Stipriaan, Turner, Paton). Before this, owners hadn’t paid much attention to reproduction; after all, a slave population could easily be renewed with the purchase of more slaves (see Newton 1788, for example). But abolitionist talk changed things. Perhaps plantation owners would not always be able to rely on new bodies to fulfil their needs. This became all the more acute after the British abolition of the slave trade. While illegal trading still continued after this point, most slave owners had to rely on their own enslaved women to renew their labour force. In this new political context, women’s uteri became hot commodities (Turner, Morgan, Paton).

As I look back at my family tree, I wonder how these shifting political landscapes shaped the reproductive experiences of my enslaved ancestors. How did they navigate all of this in their daily lives? What might reproduction have meant for them?

NG-2013-22-7

Gezicht op een plantage, waarschijnlijk plantage Jagtlust, vanaf de overkant van de Suriname rivier. NG-2013-22-7. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.538364

The Dutch historian Alex van Stipriaan observes that there were more children at cotton plantations than at coffee or sugar plantations (54). This could be because the work was much heavier at sugar plantations (Beeldsnijder 1997). It could also be that the cotton plantations, which emerged in Suriname only in the early nineteenth century and were located along what was known as the “Zeekust” along the western coastline of Suriname, were in a healthier region of the colony.

In a 2009 demographic study, van Stipriaan followed 204 enslaved women through the slave registers in the period between 1820 and 1863, the last forty years of slavery in Suriname, with the goal of tracing reproductive patterns. He focused on 6 sugar plantations, 6 coffee plantations, and 6 cotton plantations. He discovered that fully one quarter of the women (24%) did not have children at all (55). Those who did had an average of 4 children each. On average first time mothers were just over 20 years old and there were usually just over 3.5 years between births. He argues that this data suggests that enslaved women exercised a certain amount of authority over their reproduction; for example, it seemed that many women stopped having children once 2-4 reached the age of five. It’s also possible that non-reproductive enslaved women – that 24% who did not have children – were not necessarily unable to bear children, but actively choosing not to by either avoiding sexual relations, or more likely, by using commonly known abortifacients such as the peacock flower (which, according to one of our graduate students, is still used as an abortifacient today among some Indigenous communities in South America) (Schiebinger; for more of Merian’s drawings, see Heard).

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“Peacock Flower with Carolina Sphinx Moth,” by Maria Sybilla Merian. In Maria Merian’s Butterflies, Royal Collection Trust, 2016

All of this data is interesting, and it does indeed shed a light on plantation societies more broadly speaking, but it doesn’t help me to understand my own family histories.

The problem is that my family histories don’t fit these averages at all. Let’s look at my own demographic data.

I have a tiny sample of two, but both fit perfectly into van Stipriaan’s historical parameters. Eva Albertina and Frederica were both born in 1827 on Sarah plantation, one of the cotton plantations along Suriname’s west coast.

So far, so good.

But then, things diverge from van Stipriaan’s model.

Eva Albertina and Frederica had twelve children between them; Eva had five and Frederica had seven. But they lived remarkably parallel reproductive lives. Both had children well before they were twenty (the average age determined by van Stipriaan). Eva was seventeen when her first child was born; Frederica was eighteen. They both had their second children in 1847, their third in 1849 and their fourth in 1851, and their fifth in 1855. At this point, at the age of 28, Eva stopped having children, thus approximately following Stipriaan’s model. But Frederica had two more, in 1857 and finally, at the age of 35 (what we would, today, term a geriatric pregnancy), gave birth to her last child, Leander, in 1862, on the eve of emancipation.

My (albeit tiny) sample suggests that we need to move beyond the broad sweep of van Stipriaan’s model. Frederica and Eva Albertina were younger than the average, had more children than the average, and had them more frequently. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they were enslaved on a cotton plantation where working conditions were better. Perhaps the various owners and overseers of Sarah plantation, conscious of the need to ensure demographic growth, heeded calls to improve maternity care, hygiene, and working conditions for enslaved mothers.

NG-1064-9

Gezichten op een kamp van slaven bij een Surinaamse plantage. Onderdeel van het plaatwerk ‘Gezigten uit Neerland’s West-Indien’. NG-1064-9. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.516156

It’s also possible that one or more of these children were the result of alliances with white or mixed overseers. Such alliances were likely accompanied by certain sexual and reproductive obligations. But they may also have bought Eva and Frederica better living conditions, and with this, better reproductive conditions. In addition to this, they may have offered the possibility of manumission, or freedom, for enslaved children.

Frederica’s first child, a daughter named Annette, was manumitted in the fall of 1862. Eva’s fourth child, a son named Marlon 2, was manumitted under the name Jacob Schove in 1851.

There weren’t a huge number of manumissions at Sarah plantation; thus, two manumissions in the same family stand out.

Women and children were much more likely to be manumitted than men; van Stipriaan observes that men constituted only 21% of the free black population (61). So, too, were children of mixed race much more likely to be manumitted – fully 85% of free black children were listed in the censuses as ‘kleurling,’ of mixed race.

Did Frederica and Eva bargain with the only thing they had available to them: their wombs? Were they able to use their reproductive capacities to try to shape positive lives for themselves and their offspring? What did reproduction mean for enslaved women on Surinamese plantations?

I only wish I could ask them.

Binnenplaats_op_plantage,_aquarel_-_20651520_-_RCE

Leasowes Plantation (next to Sarah plantation). Binnenplaats op plantage, aquarel, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

References

Beeldsnijder, Ruud. “Om werk van jullie te hebben”: Plantageslaven in Suriname, 1730-1750, 1997.

Heard, Kate, Maria Merian’s Butterflies. Royal Collection Trust, 2016.

Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. UPenn Press,2004

Newton, John. Thoughts upon the Slave Trade. 1788.

Paton, Diana. “Maternal struggles and the politics of childlessness under pronatalist Caribbean slaver.” Slavery & Abolition 2017, online in advance of print.

Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Harvard UP, 2004.

Stipriaan, Alex van. “Welke de ware redden zijn, dat Plantaadje negers zoo weinig voortelen’: Demografische ontwikkelingen op Surinaams plantages gedurend de laatse eeuw van slaverij.” Kind aan de ketting: Opgroeien in slavernij toen en nu, edited by Aspha Bijnaar. KIT Publishers, 2009. 50-64.

Turner, Sasha. “Home-grown Slaves: Women, Reproduction, and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Jamaica 1788-1807” Journal of Women’s History vol. 23, no. 2, 2011, pp. 39-62.

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