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  • Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, childrearing, and slavery in Jamaica by Sasha Turner
  • Bridget Brereton
Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, childrearing, and slavery in Jamaica
By Sasha Turner. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

This book examines struggles over pregnancy and childrearing among the enslaved population of Jamaica during the era of abolitionism, the late 1780s to 1834. Turner writes that she has placed the enslaved female body at the centre of her analysis, as the “main investigative frame, thus taking “a body-centered approach” (5). The bodies of women and children became the sites, or zones, of struggles between and among planters, estate managers and overseers, doctors, abolitionists, and enslaved women and men. Her overall theme is that these struggles “reveal the centrality of women’s reproductive labor to the moral and economic ambitions of abolitionists and slaveholders, and reproductive concerns as essential to enslaved people’s resistance” (70).

Though Turner refers from time to time to other Caribbean slave colonies (and, oddly, many of the illustrations relate to places like Trinidad and Suriname rather than Jamaica), this study’s focus on the largest British West Indian island is typical of the historiography of slavery in the sub-region. Typical, too, is the choice of the period, the last fifty years of British Caribbean slavery. The period between the emergence of organised abolitionism in Britain and the Act of Emancipation generated an enormous quantity of written source materials, far more than for the earlier (and much longer) era of slavery in Jamaica. Turner makes excellent use of these sources: Parliamentary Papers, Colonial Office files, travel writings and visitors’ journals, treatises by doctors and abolitionists and proslavery men and, above all, correspondence and related papers exchanged between absentee planters living in Britain and their “attorneys” (managers) in Jamaica. This study is solidly based on archival research in Jamaica, Britain and the USA.

Chapter 1 examines the abolitionists’ ideas about enslaved women and children. They wanted first to end the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans (achieved by 1807), then to encourage or coerce planters to adopt pro-natalist policies so that the slave population would reproduce itself by reversing the alarmingly low fertility and high infant mortality rates typical of all the sugar colonies. In the second chapter, Turner looks at the strategies adopted by Jamaican planters and managers between 1788 and 1807 to increase the birth rates, a shift from the earlier preference for “buying over breeding,” in response to the emergence of abolitionism in Britain.

The subsequent chapters focus mainly on the short period between the ending of the African trade (1808) and the Act of Emancipation (1833). Chapter 3 examines the experience of motherhood for enslaved Jamaican women, who were mostly employed in gang labour on sugar plantations, and who were subjected to corporal punishment even when pregnant. Turner evaluates the various measures put in place to encourage live births and infant survival, while women of reproductive age constituted the backbone of the plantation field labour force. Struggles over maternal health care are the focus of Chapter 4: conflicts between owners and managers, doctors and enslaved women over the management of childbirth and the care of pregnant and new mothers. Everywhere, women—mothers, female kin, slave midwives—wanted to keep control over labour and delivery, rather than ceding authority to European-trained doctors and/or estate managers who hoped to improve the life chances of infants by moving birthing from the mother’s hut to “lying-in houses” under a doctor’s oversight.

Other struggles centered on the care of newborns, the focus of Chapter 5. Mothers were happy to accept the rewards offered for giving birth to living babies (money, clothing and baby linens, special rations, time off for nursing), but wanted to control the care of their infants—“maternal autonomy” (152) as opposed to constant interference by doctors and managers. This chapter concludes with a sensible discussion of the issue of infanticide and deliberate abortion as strategies of resistance: Turner accepts that we will never know how far these were resorted to by enslaved mothers and midwives.

The discussion on maternal authority continues in Chapter 6. Child naming was one zone of conflict, as parents tried to fashion...


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