Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Politics of Natural Knowing: Contraceptive Plant Properties in the Caribbean

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Politics of Natural Knowing: Contraceptive Plant Properties in the Caribbean

Article excerpt


In Jamaica Kinkaid's short story "Girl" (1978), a mother in Antigua gives advice to her daughter in a string of straightforward lessons told sharply and hastily, allowing the child only two brief responses throughout the long monologue. Much of the advice given reflects the mother's particular knowledge of women's daily labors and clear conception of gender roles: She explains to her daughter how to wash clothes and menstrual rags, how to hem a dress, how to behave with men and manipulate them. Some of the instructions she gives contain recipes for preparing food and medicines:

   this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona;
   this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine
   for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a
   child before it even becomes a child ...

Jamaica Kinkaid was born in Antigua, where the indigenous Caribs and Taino were among the first to be colonized by Spanish colonists in the fifteenth century. Soon after the mass slaughter of these indigenous peoples, Europeans captured slaves in West Africa and transported them to the Caribbean island, creating in Antigua a violent plantation society based on enslaved labor, as well as a distinct Creole culture that still preserves much of the local knowledges and medicinal plants. "Obeah" practice still permeates much of Antiguan culture, a blend of folk magic, sorcery, and religious practice derived from West African plant-based healing. Contraceptive plant knowledge has remained central for Obeah Caribbean women as a political practice and is often part of their everyday lives (Schiebinger 2004, 238-241). (2)

Eduardo Galeano, in his work Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of the Continent, combines fiction and political analysis to provide a more complete history of a land he says has been "condemned to amnesia" (6), cites how the indigenous people of Antigua took poisonous plants to engage in mass suicide shortly after the colonizers arrived, and made use of other plants to poison their children rather than subject them to the massacres and enslavement of the colonists (14-16).

In A People's History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn tells the same story, of fifteenth-century Caribs and Taino using cassava, an everyday plant food staple, to engage in mass suicides shortly after Columbus arrived in 1493 (3-5). Clearly, then, not only did native Antiguans have knowledge of cassava's existence and food use, but lucid understanding of the levels of toxicity in the plant as well as the fermentation process that usually made it safe to eat. We may have a historical and political knowledge of this kinds of plant usage in select histories or anthropological accounts, or perhaps of medicinal plants that became important monocrops in the developing world, such as tobacco or quinine, but medicinal plants, and especially those used for fertility and contraception, have an important political history often forgotten in the social sciences and contemporary development literature.

To this end, healing activities remain a large part of women's daily labors, and medicinal plant treatments are well-known among rural Caribbean women, (3) so much so that Kincaid includes the preparation of a contraceptive plant in her description of a woman's everyday life, including its recipe immediately after how to cook some Antiguan specialties and make a cold remedy. One of the plants Kincaid may be speaking of is called guinea hen weed in Antigua, and this plant has remained central to Obeah practice and rural contraception. (4) This is not to say that the use of these plants is widespread or a frequent topic of conversation; rather, this information belongs to certain people in certain communities, is dismissed easily in scientific circles, or by some, deemed improper or evil. However, plants are central to political history and contemporary understanding of social relations if we understand their impact fully. …

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