- The Politics of Reproduction: Race, Medicine, and Fertility in the Age of Abolition by Katherine Paugh
In the final decades of the eighteenth century, as abolitionists in Britain campaigned for an end to the Atlantic slave trade, the ability of the slave population in the Caribbean colonies to reproduce itself through natural increase assumed crucial significance. Although the development of a plantation labor force capable of sustaining the British imperial economy hinged on enslaved women's reproductive capacity, the political and economic importance of Afro-Caribbean women's fertility during the abolition era has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. Katherine Paugh's new book, The Politics of Reproduction, attempts to rectify this oversight by placing reproductive policy squarely at the center of political abolitionism.
Paugh contends that abolishing the Atlantic slave trade was not designed to disrupt the Atlantic plantation system but rather to ensure the reliable, economical reproduction of a homegrown Afro-Caribbean labor force. In doing so, she offers a fresh perspective on the economic motivations for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, challenging arguments put forward by proponents of the "Williams thesis," particularly Seymour Drescher, that abolitionism was driven by humanitarian ideology and economically irrational. Instead, Paugh shows how abolitionists' promotion of slave breeding and monogamous Christian marriage was bound up with the development of global capitalism. Focusing on the overlap between abolitionists' evangelical worldview and pronatal plantation management policies designed to encourage slave increase, Paugh demonstrates how Afro-Caribbean women's reproductive potential underpinned the economic aspirations of British abolitionists, politicians, planters, and doctors.
Chapter one provides a comparative analysis of concerns about slave demography in the West Indies and the American South in the decades prior to and immediately after the American Revolution. In contrast to fears of slave hyperfertility and overpopulation in North [End Page 104] America, which prompted calls to suppress the Atlantic slave trade, Paugh shows how in the Caribbean colonies the supply disruptions wrought by the American Revolution led to a new emphasis on Afro-Caribbean women's fertility as a means of easing planters' reliance on the slave trade. In chapter two, Paugh analyzes the little-known case of Mary Hylas, whose uncertain legal status as a married slave revealed the conflict between the law of slavery and the law of marriage. Shedding new light on the infamous Somerset trial of 1772, Paugh argues that the contractual nature of marriage posed problems for abolitionists seeking to at once promote marriage and condemn slavery.
Chapter three focuses on attempts by abolitionists and British doctors to deploy Afro-Caribbean women's bodies as tools to reproduce the West Indian slave population. Micro-level power struggles between mixed-race women and white male plantation staff are the subject of chapter four. As Paugh reveals, both groups vied for control at the local level in response to broader political developments and geopolitical ruptures in the Atlantic world. Chapter five is concerned with plans to govern and reform Afro-Caribbean women's sexuality and reproductive practices to the benefit of the plantation economy during the age of abolition. The final chapter explores the role of missionaries on the ground in promoting Christian marriage as an alternative to concubinage that would maximize the Afro-Caribbean labor force at the expense of white men's sexual prerogatives and enslaved women's customary paths to material security.
Paugh's attention to the medicalized bodies, lived experiences, and reproductive practices of enslaved women at the heart of the debate over the Atlantic slave trade brings Afro-Caribbean women and the politics of reproduction to the forefront of political abolitionism. Through analysis of a wide range of sources—plantation records, abolitionist texts and correspondence, legal cases, and medical tracts—Paugh connects local Caribbean case studies to broader political and economic developments in Britain and the Atlantic world.
In sum, Paugh's book is well written, deeply researched, and compelling. [End Page 105] It makes an original contribution to the...