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  • The Politics of Reproduction: Race, Medicine, and Fertility in the Age of Abolition by Katherine Paugh
  • Verene A. Shepherd (bio)
Katherine Paugh. The Politics of Reproduction: Race, Medicine, and Fertility in the Age of Abolition. The Past & Present Book Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. xi + 263 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-878978-9 Hardcover.

In this book, which started its early life as a PhD thesis, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Katherine Paugh, continues a decades-old historiographical tradition of turning research lens on the factors that brought down the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and African enslavement in the British-colonized Caribbean, with a particular focus on Barbados. But her main objective is to interrogate the role of planter and parliamentary politics in Britain in the reproductive lives of enslaved women, as planters and plantation managers became concerned about the impact of the abolition of the main means of renewing the labour force, on personal profits and economic development in Britain. They directed their attention to black women's bodies and their reproduction customs and practices, and the application of incentives to breed and grow children in order to encourage an increase of the population available to be enslaved and extend the life of the plantation system. So the book is located within the larger debates over the demographic experiences of enslaved people in plantation societies and the causes of population increase and decrease, especially in the Caribbean, but also with comparisons with other societies, for example in the United States South. Interestingly, racism kept a significant portion of potential labourers out of consideration – those born of white women but fathered by enslaved men, who could not be enslaved as white women could not reproduce the status of enslavement.

The main questions that the author seeks to answer are, firstly, what implications did the emergence of policies designed to promote fertility have for the political and economic history of the British-colonized [End Page 197] Caribbean and the Atlantic World? Secondly, how did these policies play out in the lives of enslaved black women? Over the six chapters of the book, the author discusses the political events that affected the continued supply of enslaved Africans to the planters such as the Haitian Revolution, and spends time on strategies to increase supply and the factors that caused the plan to fail outside of a few colonies, like Barbados. Planters in Barbados of course did not await the abolition of the trafficking in Africans to put plans in place to increase the enslaved population and cushion its impact, a reason why they supported its abolition. By 1808, and unlike their neighbours, they could keep the plantation going with the numbers they had and sought comparative advantage. Clearly the arguments over the increase/decrease of the enslaved population and the implications of demographics in slave society ebbed and flowed in the Atlantic World, escalating in the eighteenth century. But, in the end, none of this discussion affected the resolve of enslaved men and women to escape the brutal and immoral system of enslavement. Whether or not abolitionism was grounded in the economics of ending or continuing the Maafa, as long as it rested on enslaved women's ability or desire to reproduce, it was doomed to fail.

The case studies of specific enslaved women that the author provides, plus the evidence in the book of the efforts to control black women's sexuality and women's responses to such efforts, give credibility to the view that women's agency cannot be ignored in the accounts of abolition. Clearly the external abolitionists and the internal abolitionists had opposite views relating to the pace of emancipation; towards gradualism vs "immediatism". The book demonstrates that debates over population increase, fertility and reproduction were not only local planter debates but featured heavily at the external level of policymakers.

The book is well documented and gives a fresh insight into the age old to buy or to breed and to breed when buying was out of the question narrative. The book contains a few familiar photographs, which, I am not sure add much to the analysis; but it is...


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pp. 197-198
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