- Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica by Sasha Turner
In this groundbreaking study, Turner builds upon the current historiography about enslaved women by using the body as the basis for her theoretical framework. She not only explores the changing nature of how abolitionists, planters, and the enslaved perceived and represented women’s bodies, and how those perceptions and representations extended and legitimized colonial rule, but also how those ideas created tension and conflict between abolitionists and planters during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Although scholars have traditionally argued that planters imposed ameliorative reforms only when abolitionists succeeded in ending the trans-Atlantic trade, Turner shows that planter efforts at fostering higher birth rates on their estates began much earlier.
Turner makes clear from the start that his book is more than just a history of the changing nature of reproductive practices imposed by the state. Contested Bodies is a deeply intellectual history, but Turner’s arguments have roots that reach far into methodological models and theories from anthropology, material feminism, and gender studies. As a result, she succeeds in producing a highly interdisciplinary work that contributes to an already prolific historiography about enslaved women in the colonial Caribbean and relates to today’s current discourses concerning reproductive health. At its core, however, Contested Bodies is also a history of the ideas that reinforced and manipulated stereotypes, misconceptions, and preconceived gender roles. Turner deftly presents her arguments and research to show how the growing tensions between abolitionists, planters, and the state incorporated and co-opted enslaved women’s bodies as a tool for their various agendas. In the end, she shows that enslaved women’s [End Page 173] reproductive potential, as well as their maternal practices and their very role as mothers, became subject to political manipulation.
Concurrently, Turner examines how enslaved women negotiated their own space during this period through specific maternal resistance efforts. Enslaved mothers rejected the restrictions placed upon their lactation and child-rearing practices, and they delayed reporting the birth of their children to have more time for bonding with them. They fought for home births and the presence of midwives and lay healers to protect and preserve community childbearing practices and continued to perform traditional bathing and cleansing rituals whenever possible. Enslaved women even employed time-honored methods of birth control and breastfeeding in an effort to maintain control over their bodies. Furthermore, Turner highlights the complexities of kinship networks within the enslaved community, calling attention to adoption and grandmother-headed households, as well as the continued presence of friends and family in the birthing room and home after birth. Neonatal care also became a battleground to protect traditional holistic practices and secure the health and material needs of newborns and children. Therefore, although much of the book focuses on the struggle between abolitionists and planters over enslaved women’s bodies, Turner is adamant to raise enslaved women’s voices to convey an idea of their agency.
Contested Bodies succeeds in bringing together a number of competing historiographical trends. As a result, it offers a comprehensive picture of enslaved women’s experiences. That said, the book is not just another monograph about Jamaican slavery or abolitionism. Instead, Turner presents a profound dialogue about the conflicting role that women’s bodies played in the various agendas of the period. Her arguments find compelling support in impressive, carefully detailed archival research conducted in the libraries of four different countries, making Contested Bodies an authoritative analysis that reframes the field.