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  • Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica by Sasha Turner
  • Evan C. Rothera
Turner, Sasha. Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Sasha Turner, currently an associate professor of History at Quinnipiac University, examines an important enigma about the rise of British abolitionism in the 1780s in her prize-winning book Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica. On the one hand, abolitionists sought to save the victims of the slave trade. On the other hand, they sought to ensure that sugar plantations in Jamaica maintained their productivity. Turner examines abolitionist perceptions and representations of "young, black female bodies, and in particular, how they legitimized and sought to extend colonial rule and the benefits it generated to the mother country by controlling these women's reproductive lives" (4). She argues that the bodies of women and children became important sites in battles over slavery, abolition, and colonial reform, drawing on an extensive literature about the body. Abolitionists linked abolition and colonial reform to women's reproductive capabilities and strove to eliminate the slave trade so they could capitalize on the reproductive potential of enslaved women. They also emphasized how the material conditions of slavery undermined women's reproductive potential. Reproduction thus became key to the success of emancipation and consequently "enslaved women and their children were essential to abolitionist goals of transforming the colonies from slave to free societies" (42).

Abolitionists were not the only actors who participated in determining pronatalist policies. Colonial capitalists responded to economic rather than moral stimuli. As a result, "the working out of reforms in the colonies was subordinated to planter interests, who prioritized maintaining sugar production and increasing profits" (43). The economic calculations of plantation owners and agents often proved more powerful than the moral ambitions of abolitionists. [End Page 439] For example, planters tended to see pregnancy and childcare as distractions because in their eyes, reproduction was costly and took women out of the fields. In addition, planters "interpreted and shaped policy according to the needs and wants of their sugar plantations as well as their perceptions of the capabilities and intimate lives of captive Africans" (46). In the period 1788 to 1807, however, planters began to see the ability of enslaved women to reproduce less as a distraction and more as a source of profit.

As one might expect, enslaved people did not appreciate increased planter interest in and attention to their bodies and sexuality. Turner notes that "for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Jamaica, enslaved women gave birth in their homes, aided by midwives and female companions from their communities. Childbirth was one rare aspect of enslaved women's lives over which they had relative autonomy and authority" (112). The presence of British doctors and their attempts to overhaul plantation medicine brought conflicts because different groups of people had different approaches to medicine and healing. Tellingly, British doctors often relied on enslaved informants and "failed to control completely the bodies of slaves because enslaved people and planters resisted 'professional' interventions" (127). Plantation medicine remained in the hands of black medics, although white doctors frequently claimed medical authority. In addition, doctors saw themselves as reformers and frequently criticized planters for making incremental and insufficient changes to silence critics. Thus, they were often in conflict with planters. Turner's book should be read in conjunction with another recent study, Rana A. Hogarth's Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780–1840 (2017), as both provide a detailed overview of medicine in the Atlantic World.

Turner also analyzes how "in the wake of abolitionist-inspired pronatalism the care of infants and their deaths became a site of struggle" (151). Children complicated the lives of enslaved women. Some avoided pregnancy, some procured abortions or resorted to infanticide and suicide, and some may have "viewed the challenges of infants' survival as an opportunity to give their lives meaning and value beyond the daily drudge and brutality of slavery" (181). Motherhood and infant care also became sites of resistance as slaves fashioned their own naming cultures and sought to determine how long to breastfeed. In sum, the bodies of enslaved...


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