Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing,and Slavery in Jamaica

Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing,and Slavery in Jamaica

Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing,and Slavery in Jamaica

Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing,and Slavery in Jamaica


It is often thought that slaveholders only began to show an interest in female slaves' reproductive health after the British government banned the importation of Africans into its West Indian colonies in 1807. However, as Sasha Turner shows in this illuminating study, for almost thirty years before the slave trade ended, Jamaican slaveholders and doctors adjusted slave women's labor, discipline, and health care to increase birth rates and ensure that infants lived to become adult workers. Although slaves' interests in healthy pregnancies and babies aligned with those of their masters, enslaved mothers, healers, family, and community members distrusted their owners' medicine and benevolence. Turner contends that the social bonds and cultural practices created around reproductive health care and childbirth challenged the economic purposes slaveholders gave to birthing and raising children.

Through powerful stories that place the reader on the ground in plantation-era Jamaica, Contested Bodies reveals enslaved women's contrasting ideas about maternity and raising children, which put them at odds not only with their owners but sometimes with abolitionists and enslaved men. Turner argues that, as the source of new labor, these women created rituals, customs, and relationships around pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing that enabled them at times to dictate the nature and pace of their work as well as their value. Drawing on a wide range of sources--including plantation records, abolitionist treatises, legislative documents, slave narratives, runaway advertisements, proslavery literature, and planter correspondence-- Contested Bodies yields a fresh account of how the end of the slave trade changed the bodily experiences of those still enslaved in Jamaica.


Suspended midair by one arm tied to a rope draped over a pulley, an unnamed African captive faced her last torment. For three weeks in the month of December 1791, she was flogged repeatedly for refusing to dance for the amusement of her captors. For about half an hour, the young girl, who was about fifteen years old, hung from her limbs, bruised and naked. Repeatedly she was whipped, hoisted, and released, her head falling inches from the ground. Her captors watched, mocked, and laughed. Several times during her ordeal, her tormentors changed her position, hanging her by each wrist, then by both hands, followed by each ankle, and finally by both wrists again. After her punishers satisfied their appetites for cruelty, they released her and instructed her to return to her quarters. From her weakened, terrified state, she collapsed, never to rise again. For three days, the unnamed girl writhed in pain as her now disfigured hands, swollen legs, and battered body trembled.

The story of this unnamed fifteen-year-old girl was one of several accounts William Wilberforce recounted in his numerous speeches before the British Parliament persuading it to abolish the slave trade. Unlike many of the other cases Wilberforce brought to the attention of the House of Commons, this one drew national interest. Wilberforce narrated a truncated version of the brutal fate of the fifteen-year-old before the Commons on Monday, 2 April 1792, and by Tuesday, several British newspapers published the tale of the girl’s suffering. Almost two months later, on 7 June, Captain John Kimber of Bristol, the orchestrator of the girl’s punishment, faced trial for murder. the court hearing and subsequent not guilty verdict sensationalized the case, drawing further attention to the cruelty of the slave trade and the lack of justice for captive Africans.

In the version he rendered before Parliament, Wilberforce detailed not just the manner in which the youngster was punished but also the reasons for the sentence she received and what he imagined were her feelings after . . .

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