Sugar and Slavery: Reproductive Mills, by Jude Reeves

Reposted from Reading History blogs.

I have been given the opportunity to share my experience working as an intern at the Mills Archive Trust on Watlington Street, a registered charity dedicated to the protection and preservation of records of milling history, in the summer of 2021. My placement was funded by the University of Reading’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities (UROP) programme, which offers six-week funded student research projects, supervised by a member of staff, in the summer vacation before final year.

This placement involved exploring how sugar milling during the era of slavery contributed to the development of new global markets in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. I researched the role played by enslaved people, especially women, in sugar milling and how this changed over time. I researched technological changes in sugar milling and I also considered the legacies of the subsequent decline in sugar milling on Caribbean islands in relation to the rise of tourism on the islands. My findings have all been collated into a digital exhibition which can be accessed, below. These are important subjects to research as Britain as a nation increasingly confronts its colonial past and seeks to develop more inclusive histories and associated teaching resources.

My placement saw me moving between the office of the archive and the university library to utilise both places’ resources, supervised by Emily West in the Department of History, and Liz Bartram, Director of the Mills Archive Trust. It was my first chance to be in an archive – COVID has a lot to answer for in that respect! Having begun university in 2019 and then going into lockdown in March 2020, this was my first opportunity to gain hands on experience in heritage and to get to physically touch history and learn in such a visual way. When I began my placement, I knew very little about the history of milling and so I was apprehensive about how I would settle into the research. It turns out, it was far more accessible than I expected. The first two weeks of my placement were full of reading, reading, and more reading. Getting my head around the topic and building my confidence were my top priorities of the first couple of weeks to make sure I felt confident going into the next stage of my placement.

The second half of my placement was surrounding the creation of the literature for the digital exhibition, including making use of the Mills Archive Trust’s extensive collection of images related to sugar milling. It made me focus in on selecting the best material that I had collected and collating it into a coherent narrative for the audience to view. This was where I felt I gained the most from my time at the archive, I was introduced to a totally new way of writing and presenting material. Until this point, I had only written in an academic style and in a rather passive voice. This was the first time I had written in such a direct way and it helped me develop an understanding of the way curators present digital exhibitions.

Partaking in the UROP scheme has been a truly formative experience. It has given me the opportunity to explore different areas of history and various jobs in the heritage sector. It has further invigorated my desire to work in curatorship in the future and I cannot thank Liz and everyone else at the archive enough for taking me under their wing and giving me this fantastic experience during possibly the most seminal period of my academic life.

Jude Reeves is a third-year student studying History and English Literature. Her UROP project focused upon creating a digital exhibition which displays the links between sugar milling in the Caribbean and the treatment of enslaved people, especially women. See here to view the digital exhibition of Jude’s UROP project at the Mills Archive Trust.

Learn more about the Mills Archive Trust and the University of Reading’s UROP programme.

Jude will be giving a presentation about her project via MS teams on Wednesday 27th October at 1pm. To receive the joining link, please email e.r.west@reading.ac.uk.

Black History Month: Celebration Through the Lens of a Zimbabwean Female Liberation Fighter, by Shingi Hopkins

Maggie Caroline Katsande, former liberation fighter

Black History Month is a celebration of outstanding excellence from the black community. In the spirit of celebration, this blog explores the feeling of jubilation amongst female liberation fighters of the Second Chimurenga of 1965-79. The Second Chimurenga resulted in a ceasefire which liberated Zimbabwe from the white British minority government of Ian Smith. Thus, there were two critical moments of celebration for those involved in the liberation struggle: first, the end of the war marked by the ceasefire as a result of signing the Lancaster Agreement 1979 and, second, 18 April, the official date of when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe after the British-supervised independence election of 1980, which resulted in Robert Mugabe becoming the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. 

I asked a former fighter what celebration means to her when she remembers these two events. Maggie Caroline Katsande, who joined the movement at 15, stated the following about what these dates represented:

‘When the ceasefire was called, we were not pleased. We thought it was a trap. There were rumours that when we arrived at the camp, we were all going to be killed point-blank. So it wasn’t a happy day’.

The imagery of the ceasefire in Zimbabwe’s collective memories is that it was filled with song and dance. The triumph and strength of those who were responsible for the country’s liberation is vividly represented in videos, pictures and books on the liberation struggle. In reality, after years of living in the terra incognita of Mozambique working as a political commissar, trust was not easy, and celebration was not immediate.  

In contrast, her memory of the 18 April celebrations (when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe) was filled with the hope of a new dawn for the nation she for which she fought. Finally, there was a purpose to the journey she had embarked on several years before. Maggie continues: 

‘We were happy, but we were still vigilant because we were taught to be always vigilant. Although we were on edge because we were commanders in a group, there was a sense of security, so we celebrated in full. Our hearts were full of happiness about what we had achieved. We cried tears of joy, but we were still ready to fight if anything happened’. 

Looking at the current Zimbabwe Maggie states: 

‘When thinking of Zimbabwe today, we celebrate because we managed to see a free nation. At the same time  sad because my fellow Zimbabweans who fought with us did not manage to see Zimbabwe today. They never made it out of the war and are not here to see it. Therefore, celebrating is bitter-sweet’. 

Celebration during Black History Month brings up a complex mix of emotions. We celebrate the accomplishments of the movement of equality for black and ethnic minorities, but do not forget that for us to celebrate today others had to suffer. As questions continue about the long-term impact of the changes professed during the second wave of Black Lives Matter and meaningful representations of diversity & inclusion in practice, we can see parallels with the complex, mixed emotions Maggie felt as she celebrated liberation in our experiences of celebration during this Black History Month.

Shingi Hopkins is a Phd student in African History at the University of Reading. She specialises in Zimbabwean history during and after colonialism with a keen focus on the feminist movements and ideals throughout that time.

Great Expectations in Zimbabwe: (White?) Femininity and Womanhood, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Summer in Zimbabwe is a time of expectation. As the days become warmer, eventually the nights lose their biting cold, and the breath is no longer visible in the morning. It is a time of waiting for the rain. With only one rainy season to bring the sustenance that ancestors, god, and climate – despite its change – provide in nurturing the nation, the waiting can turn into joy or eventually to desperation if the rains fail and drought leads to famine. Meanwhile rural landscapes are transformed, announcing impending summer, as msasa trees sprout new leaves, red before changing into magnificent fresh green. With the relentlessly bluest late winter skies, free of clouds, the shade of msasa trees creates hues of red and pink, and beautiful views stun as the spectacular.

Msasa Tree, Nyanga, © Heike I. Schmidt

One legacy of white settler rule that lasted until 1980 in Zimbabwe is that urban planning included the creation of colour schemes for each city through the planting of at times exotic trees, seasonally turning entire streets and even boroughs violet, yellow, read, or orange. During summer, descending the mountain pass into Mutare, it looks as if the city is on fire, dowsed in the red blossoms of the flamboyant trees.

Flamboyant Tree, The Avenues, Harare 1975, © Wikicommons

                       

Cassia Tree, Mount Pleasant, Harare, © Heike I. Schmidt

Most resonant with the theme of summer love are the jacaranda trees that line the Avenues in Harare, originally a middle-class neighbourhood reserved for white residency, just north of the capital city’s centre. Their effect is quite similar to lilac, evoking the senses and enticing desire. But experiencing jacaranda trees in Zimbabwe is also decidedly different from early summer lilac in Europe.  Jacaranda begins to blossom as winter vanes and the rising temperatures and the expectation of rain settles into one’s body, noticing the first clouds arriving, walking along the Avenues under the canopy of light purple blossoms, the scent caressing one’s senses. When wind, and eventually the rains, strike the trees, the petals tumble to the ground in a shower of violet scent that in darkness resembles snow.

Jacaranda trees, Avondale, Harare, © Heike I. Schmidt

From the perspective of white lives, Zimbabwean summer as a time of love, passion, and self-recognition, has maybe been best expressed by Doris Lessing. Already in her debut novel, The Grass is Singing (London, 1950) did Lessing capture the colonial encounter between white and black lives in the colony magnificently, by directly addressing gender in juxtaposing her main characters, the white madam and the African worker on a run down farm. The novel shows the necessary and tragic failure of the primacy of white privilege, here in the guise of a poor white farming couple. The crackling of the tin roof of the farmhouse under the stifling summer heat, as these white lives become undone, remains a palpable reminder with the reader long after setting the novel aside.

Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013), © Wikicommons

Born to British parents in Iran and having spent most of her childhood and formative years in what then was Southern Rhodesia, Lessing published a series five fictionalised memoirs, Children of Violence (1952-1969), four of which are based on her life in Zimbabwe until she left for London, thirty years old, in 1949. In the second volume, A Proper Marriage (London 1954), her protagonist Martha lives in Harare during World War II. Pregnant with their first child, her husband occupied with his own concerns, Martha feels overwhelmed, lost, and recognises that having become a colonial wife did not bring her the freedom and self recognition for which she is yearning. She struggles with her life, doubts her decisions, and finds herself reduced to her heavily pregnant body that makes her uncomfortable and restless as she is expected to be out of sight, proper and respectable, in a small flat in the Avenues. The summer heat and the pounding rain make her feel isolated, lonely, and undone, until one day, when her friend Alice visits, also expecting, they decide to go for a drive. Lessing observes that even before they leave the flat the decision and getting up to act upon it recovers the women’s self respect. It is that moment of no longer seeking validation from their husbands and society, of recognising that they connect with the world they live in themselves, that the curtain of rain is not a prison wall, in and of itself is an act of self-recognition. Lessing then has the women move beyond the confines of marital and maternal respectability by driving through Harare with Martha’s friend Alice heading for the maternity clinic. They move with hardly any visibility, themselves invisible in the summer rain. After stopping, Lessing first lets an African man, a ‘worker’, walk by, with Martha assuming all he is thinking of is shelter from the rain. This is a significant pause in the narrative, a reminder that these women inhabit a white world, driven by white privilege. There are no African characters that appear, only African workers and servants at the margins, expected to be loyal, subservient, and unnoticed. Seeing this man, his wet clothing stuck to his skin, rain water running down his chest and splashing up his feet, is a potent reminder of this artificially created world of white privilege and at the same time the reality of a lived experience that entails more than one masculinity, more than white manliness as the guiding light into femininity and womanhood.

Gloriously, forcefully, with the reader invited to feel passion, relief, joy, to read on smiling, taking deep breaths and being breathless simultaneously, Lessing has Alice park the car opposite the clinic, next to a stretch of veldt, an open area of uncultivated and unused land one can find to this day in inner city areas. As soon as the African man is out of sight, the women undress and run screaming through the grass, relishing even the cuts on their skin, embracing every sensation. It is the touch of rain, of water on the ground, of the grass, the mud under their feed, not a man’s touch – in this strictly heteronormative account – that gives pleasure and sets the women free. Martha, seeing a water hole in the ground glides in and shares her euphoric experience with a frog and a snake. She transforms the desperation of loneliness into the joy of solitude. Martha is whole – without her husband, without society. As the rain eases and the sky lightens Martha lets the rain wash the mud off her body and runs back to the car where she and Alice get dressed just in time before being discovered. Back in her flat she takes a bath to cleanse herself of the experience, albeit reconciled with the corporeality of her pregnancy.

At a time when body shaming and mental health are prominent in the (social) media and impact all genders and all ages it may just provide a moment of reprieve to read Lessing’s account of a young woman empowering herself by reclaiming her body, and here embracing the sensual pleasures of summer. For Martha, love does not require a romantic partner or societal approval. What is transformative is a mindful moment as she allows herself to lose her bearings in the summer rain and experiences finding herself in doing so.

Much can be added, such as the choices of young African girls, climbing hills and mountains in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe in 1918/19, praying, seeking authority from the Holy Spirit to stay out all night, unsupervised, with some emerging as prophetesses. The sheer joy in the faces of postmenopausal women claiming authority as they are the only members of local communities safe to enter the spiritual forests of the highlands, stripped down, bared breasts, to gather food when the rains do not arrive and for ritual purposes, while all others are prohibited. The rural female sphere of riverbed gardens, where males have to ask permission to even transverse and are not permitted to join, a place of banter, speech, and exchanges. Married women joking about a soldier who ‘lost his penis’ as he was lured by a juzu (Shona: female water spirit) and was then punished for his sexual appetite aroused by what appeared to be a young beautiful woman. An elderly female chief enjoying that men who suffer from old age impotence have to wear something red to signal this malady to the world.[1] It is easy to forget such sheer joy of femininity and womanhood and Doris Lessing reminds us magnificently that sometimes letting go of our boundaries, of the norms we embrace or wrestle, may allow us to find ourselves – or indeed just to practice at times the sheer childlike delight of a daring nude splash. The dramatic tension built up with the coming of the rains, the sensuality of the red leafed Msasa trees, and the seductive embrace by Jacaranda’s scent, colour, and touch are one path one can follow to such an experience of empowerment in a summer of love.

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.

[1] Heike Schmidt, Colonialism and Violence in Zimbabwe: A History of Suffering, (Oxford & Harare, 2013), chapters 3 and 6 and ‘Shaming Men, Performing Power: Female Authority in Zimbabwe and Tanzania on the Eve of Colonial Rule,’ in Gendering Ethnicity in African History: Women’s Subversive Performance of Ethnicity, eds. Jan Shetler and Dorothy Hodgson, (Madison, WI, 2015), 265-289.

Love is an action word: Reconciling academia and activism, by Chessie Baldwin

Tigray Youth Network, 25 April 2021

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
– 
Elie Wiesel, US News & World Report (27 October 1986)

Over the past ten months, I have used my academic research to speak about the ongoing Tigray War in Ethiopia, specifically the weaponization of gender-based and sexual violence. As deliberate communication blackouts continue across the region, the federal government has benefitted from the ambiguity allowed through the spread of misinformation and disinformation about the war, the crimes, and the perpetrators. In response, academics, journalists, humanitarian workers and community leaders have stepped up to their intellectual responsibility to combat harmful manipulation of history and politics as tools of the conflict. I suppose I am one of them.

There are those who don’t think academics should engage in activism at all, claiming it compromises the objectivity of academic research.[1] The two are indeed not always natural companions; scholars, after all, trade in complexity and depth while activism requires snaps and facts. Nonetheless, many historians and philosophers have engaged in activism quite openly and successfully, from Voltaire, to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Benedict Anderson. The rise of public history and public historians since the 18th century has certainly made this more mainstream, with organisations like History Workshop and Subaltern Studies Group forming explicitly activist agendas in their research orientation.[2] Alongside these movements has been the quite phenomenal historical work by non-academic activists, whose efforts to uncover, explain and ‘do’ history should not be underestimated.

Challenging dominant scholarly perceptions of knowledge production, Aziz Choudry suggests, requires recentring understandings of activist scholarship that are not tied to higher-education models and practices.[3] LGBT+ history, anti-racist work, intersectional feminism, indigenous knowledge system preservation and anti-war theorising (amongst others) are negotiated and enacted in public spaces. The resulting interventions in human rights and social justice both inform and are informed by intellectual frameworks, resources, and contributions.[4] In other words, academia and activism exist in a mutually dependent relationship. They enhance each other and, most importantly, they exist together, whether they want to or not.

There are four ways in which academia works explicitly as a site for activism:[5]

  • As a means to produce knowledge to inform progressive social change. In this category, academic research can help disrupt systems of oppression or injustice and direct action, in policy, law, and public debates.
  • As a means for conducting research which itself involves social change. This might be called ‘action research’, where activism is academic work in that it holds intellectual value for its own sake.
  • As a site for progressive strategies of teaching and learning. Pedagogy can be a means for mobilisation, organisation, learning and un-leaning as a form of activism. As undergraduates spend a great deal of time revising the myths of history taught in schools and public discourse, the classroom is a space to critique which voices have been privileged in collective historical narratives, and why.
  • As an institution whose power relations themselves may be challenged and reconstructed. As structures which can perpetuate elitism through hierarchies of class, age, gender, and race, higher education institutes can themselves challenge dominant power relations in their decisions and practices.

The process of historical research and writing (or, perhaps more accurately, rewriting) takes this further still. Despite claims of objectivity and neutrality in pursuit of a reasonable representation of ‘truth’, the epistemic is political and it is personal. The past is always framed through the lens of the present, and of the individual context of the researcher. Choices about which voices to include, which voices to exclude, which scholars to engage (and not engage), what language to use, which methods, mediums of public engagement, and more, are all decisions imbued with reflections of the person. Even those most committed to their rationality cannot escape such choices. Howard Zinn contested that archivists (deciding what to preserve, where, and how) are not neutral actors as they tend ‘to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about [their] ordinary business’.[6]

Historians who sincerely consider, analyse and critique their interpretations are themselves engaging in a form of activism. They ask difficult questions and face difficult answers, like: ‘Who am I to speak about this?’, ‘Does my position uphold systems of injustice?’, and, when history becomes a question of national security, ‘What space should I take up in this discourse?’.

Engaging in activism as a historian, and engaging in history as an activist, compels the researcher to explicitly address their positionality, focus, relevance, and which voices they centre in their work. It complements and improves accountability, representation, and integrity in the research. More than this, however, the act of ‘doing’ history is inextricably about change. Change in re-evaluating narratives, re-interpreting sources, revising theories and reviving debates; change in the way we remember the world as it was and how we see the world as it is. Perhaps then, it is not that historians can be activists, nor that they should, but simply that they are.

Chessie Baldwin is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Reading, specialising in women’s narratives of conflict in Tigray. You can watch Chessie speak about the ongoing war on Tghat Forum, or visit Tigray Youth Network to learn more.

[1] Thomas Wells, ‘Academics Should Not Be Activists’, 3 Quarks Daily (2018).

[2] Yuliya Yurchuck, ‘Historians as Activists: History Writing in Times of War: The Case of Ukraine in 2014-2018’, Cambridge University Press, 29, 4 (2020).If this is an article then reference incomplete.

[3] Aziz Choudry, ‘Reflections on academia, activism, and the politics of knowledge and learning’, International Journal of Human Rights, 24, 1 (2020).

[4] Choudry (2020).

[5] Michael Flood, Brain Martin & Tanja Dreher, ‘Combining academia and activism: Common obstacles and useful tools’, Australian Universities’ Review, 55, 1 (2013).

[6] Howard Zinn, ‘Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest’, The Midwestern Archivist, 2, 2 (1977).

An Interdisciplinary Approach: Gender and Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales c. 400-1200 CE, by Arica Roberts

There are a total of 565 monuments for Wales c. 400-1150 CE. which cover three geographical regions: the South-East Wales and the English Border (Redknap and Lewis, 2007), South-West Wales (Edwards, 2009) and North Wales (Edwards, 2013). The three regions have 191, 216, and 158 number of monuments respectively. My questions about how gender was constructed and manipulated by high-status men in Wales through the surviving evidence of stone monuments relies on an interdisciplinary study that includes their archaeological, historical, and art-historical context.

Most of the stones with inscriptions include a name in the nominative or genitive case, which implies that the stone is the ‘monument of X’ and includes the filiation, frequently using filius or fili, followed by the name of the father in the genitive ‘X son of Y’. The stones also contain the formulaic Latin ‘hic iacit’ ‘here lies’and ‘pro anima’ ‘for the soul[s] of’, commemorating the dead and their souls in Christian fashion. The imagery on the stone monuments includes human figures, most of which are arguably Christian and depict familiar Biblical scenes or ecclesiastical figures. There are also identifiable secular masculine warrior figures.

The Pillar of Eliseg is one such exceptional stone monument in Wales that I employ interdisciplinary methods. This stone was erected by Concenn ruler of Powys (c. 854 CE), to honor his great-grandfather Eliseg, who had expelled the Anglo-Saxons from that part of Powys. The pillar is a round-shafted cross that stands on a barrow near the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis. The lengthy inscription carved into the monument is now illegible, but two copies of the transcription in 1696 by Edward Lhuyd have survived, enabling a study of the inscription and its significance. The archaeological context of this pillar has recently been reconsidered, illuminating how its form and function emphasized the link of the rulers of Powys with the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus and the sub-Roman ruler Guarthigirn. The inscription was intended to be read out loud and that the monument was as an important piece of public propaganda erected at a time when the kingdom of Powys was severely under threat (Edwards, 2009).

Figure 1. Eliseg’s Pillar near Llangollen, Denbighshire, Wales. Photograph © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas(http://www.castlewales.com/eliseg.html)

The separate elements of the inscription as well as its landscape context and function can be pulled together to present a clearer picture of elite masculine constructions of identity. What does the evidence reveal? Firstly, that the Pillar of Eliseg had commemorative functions, both political and religious.

The masculine names and filiation demonstrate patrilineal kinship and seek to commemorate Eliseg, the great-grandfather of the 9th century ruler, Concenn. It praises Eliseg for defending Powys from the Anglo-Saxons, using the words in gladio suo parta in igne “with his sword and with fire” demonstrating the importance of a forceful warrior masculinity amongst Welsh rulers. The inscription asks that those who read the stone give a blessing to the soul of Eliseg, “det benedictionem supe/[r animam] Eliseg,” an example of the “pro anima” commemorative Christian formulae. The inscription ends by Conocenn legitimizing his rule by explaining his Roman lingeage through “Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans” and asks for a blessing of the Lord upon Conocenn, his household, and the entire kingdom of Powys. The entirety of the inscription and its phrasing demonstrates a masculine construction of power and legitimacy through secular patrilineal kinship, links to the distant past via Roman rule, as well as Christianity.

The Pillar of Eliseg is only one example, but it clearly shows how men constructed their own intersecting identities of gender, status, religion, and ethnicity using an earlier Roman and pre-Christian past to assert the legitimacy and power of warrior-kings. It also reveals how high-status men also constructed their identities via patrilineal kinship, ethnic names, and patriarchal Christianity. These men engaged with gendered symbols of power and legitimacy across a variety of different cultures and the acceptance of a plurality of models of masculinity served political ends in helping to promote order and coherence for hegemonic masculinity in early medieval Wales.

Arica Roberts is an international student from the United States and a PhD Candidate in Archaeology  specializing in gender of early medieval Wales.

References:

Edwards, Nancy. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume II: South-West Wales, University of Wales Press, 2009.

 

——— A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume III: North Wales, University of Wales Press, 2013.

 

——— ‘Rethinking the Pillar of Eliseg’, The Antiquaries Journal, Vol. 89, September 2009, pp. 143-177.

 

Redknap, Mark and John M. Lewis. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume 1 Southeast Wales and the English Border. University of   Wales Press, 2007.

‘Useful’ Old Women: ageing women in the dual role of patient and caregiver in early modern England, by Amie Bolissian

How did the older gentlewomen healers and caregivers of early modern England feel about providing hands on care when suffering illness and infirmity themselves? Amie Bolissian provides a historical perspective on being an ageing and infirm carer. [Content Warning: injury detail]

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Despite being disparaged as ‘quacksalvers’, or marginalised, witch-like ‘crones’ by qualified doctors, ‘old women’ played a crucial role in the care of patients at every level in Tudor and Stuart cities, towns, and villages. Most of these women were also usually suffering from some sort of illness or infirmity themselves. Why did these ailing women continue to care for the sick into their old age? Some, of course, may have needed the income for everyday subsistence. Parish records have shown that poor women with ‘nursekeeping’ experience might be pressured into caring for patients by the authorities, on pain of losing their own poor relief of money and food.[1] But what of wealthier older women, who cared for patients in their families and communities while also suffering from disease or disability? These women were entirely capable of paying for others to provide care, but they chose to persist, working on through feelings of fear, ‘grief’, pain, and discomfort. Why might this have been? Affection for an ailing relative may have played a part, and a feeling of duty towards kin and friends, but my research into diaries and letters has also revealed the particular importance of feeling ‘useful’.

An example of this can be found in the extensive writings of English gentlewoman Lady Anne Halkett (1623-1699), who suffered from extremely painful kidney stones, a chronic cough, and breathing problems but continued to care for the sick up until months before her death aged seventy-six. Former courtier and staunch royalist, Halkett was schooled in medicine and surgery by her mother – Jane Drummond Murray, previous governess to King Charles I’s children – and treated patients for most of her life. This included stints during the civil war, and within her community in Fife, Scotland, where she lived with her husband until he died at age sixty, then as a widow for a further 29 years.

 

Wax figure of Lady Anne Halkett at her desk in Abbots House, Dunfermline, Wikimedia Commons

Halkett made and distributed remedies, but her ‘meditations’ reveal that she also provided in-person care, day and night. Descriptions of her attending patients, including her own son, as she entered her seventies, show the toll that could take on her health – causing neck pain, cramps and worse. In 1696, at the age of seventy-three, she described a charitable care visit one evening but explained that, while she had little ‘paine or sickness’ at the time, after supper her painful ‘fitt of the stone… grew so much worse as I could get noe rest’. She eventually passed the stone, described as ‘a Pea & sharpe att one end’, and felt much better, but she directly linked her relapse with her caring labours.[2]

Directly after her ‘fit of the stone’, she wrote that she had declined to take in a sickly child for care because, as she put it, ‘I absolutely refused […] in the reason of my old Age & unfittnese to undertake new trouble of others when I had so mych of my owne’, referring also to her substantial debts. But then she had a change of heart. The pious Protestant wrote that she began to interpret the petition to help the child as a sign from God. ‘Perhaps’, she wrote, ‘the Lord in his Providence had sent this occation to lett mee see hee would have mee still continue to bee usefull to others.’ The word useful appears twice in this passage, and she also refers to her practice as doing God’s work.[3]

An old woman wearing a black veil; head and shoulders. Etching by or after Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

While the term ‘useful’ does not (curiously) appear in the King James Bible, the notion of being of use and in service to God was commonly expressed. ‘Useful’ as applied to a person appeared with greater and greater frequency in Protestant religious commentary over the seventeenth century. The theologian Richard Steele’s 1688 Discourse on Old Age suggested that before decrepitude set in, old age might even be considered the ‘best parcel of our Life’, because ‘our impetuous Passions being already spent, we are furnished by great experience to be very useful’.[4] Halkett may have felt that, as long as she maintained her ‘usefulness’ in her medical care-work, she might avoid entering the culturally dreaded decrepitude of extreme old age – what a contemporary diarist of hers, Lady Sarah Cowper, called the bitter ‘dreggs’ of life and what is now often referred to as ‘the fourth age’.[5]

Early English Books Online, Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary

Yet there were other routes to feeling useful for ageing women in early modern devout Protestant culture. Printed religious discourse, following the teachings of Cicero, assured the aged that, despite being infirm and unable to work as they formerly had, they could turn to studious, religious contemplation, edifying reading and writing, and a pious preparation for death – thereby avoiding ‘idleness’ which was considered a gateway shrug to sin. When describing the ideal old man, Steele recommended that ‘Aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in Faith, in Charity, in Patience’, but added, ‘The aged Women likewise, &c.’[6] As customarily found in published works, ‘old women’ were an addendum, an afterthought, a postscript, inhabiting the &c. This also occurred in texts on women’s health, where postmenopausal women past childbearing were found relegated to parentheses and consigned to caveats. On the rare occasions that old women were addressed in spiritual literature, they were urged to be exemplars for younger women. The cleric and author Thomas Becon, used the image of a mirror, claiming the ‘dutie of olde women’ was to ‘shew themselves … naturall myrrours of all godlines and honestie’.[7] To be useful, they could erase their own decrepit, post-menopausal, post-protagonist body by becoming a reflective surface representing a purely spiritual ideal for the reproductive-age women who mattered.

Page from Lady Anne Halkett’s ‘Meditations’, Image: Public Domain, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/autobiography-of-lady-anne-halkett

As a devout, literate woman with visibility, and some means (despite her debts) Anne Halkett had access to these forms of cultural identity and validation in old age. Nonetheless, despite her prodigious efforts in spiritual writing and religious practices, something about her medical ministry still called to Halkett, and made her feel that she was truly the ‘worke’ of God’s ‘owne hands’.[8] It appears her characterisation of ‘usefulness’ was far more active and embodied than that recommended by religious doctrine.

My research has shown me that there is no doubt ageing women like Halkett, and others, believed their medical care-work was hazardous to their health and emotions, but the desire to be ‘useful’ to God, those they loved, and the wider community seems to have compelled them to continue. In a cultural context which largely ignored, vilified, or ridiculed older women, unless you were the actual Queen of England (and even then… ), they may well have gained a valued identity and sense of continuing relevance from their medical roles.

Amie Bolissian is a Wellcome-funded PhD Candidate researching ageing patients in early modern England, examining medical understandings of old age and the experiences of sick older people from c.1570-1730.

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  1. See: Harkness, Deborah E., ‘A View from the Streets : Women and Medical Work in Elizabethan London: Women, Health, and Healing in Early Modern Europe’, Bulletin of the history of medicine, 82/1 (2008), 52-85, 66; Munkhoff, Richelle, ‘Poor women and parish public health in sixteenth-century London’, Renaissance studies, 28/4 (2014), 579-96, 587; Wear, Andrew, ‘Caring for the sick poor in St Bartholomew’s Exchange, 1580-1679’, Medical History; Supplement, 11 (1991), 41-60, 46. Also: Pelling, Margaret (ed.), The Common Lot : Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (London: Longman, 1998), Ch.8: 179-202.
  2. National Library of Scotland, Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’ NLS MSS.6489-6502 (Mid seventeenth century), MS 6501, fol.246.
  3. Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’, MS 6501, fol.249.
  4. Steele, Richard, A discourse concerning old-age tending to the instruction…of aged persons (London, 1688), 11.
  5. Kugler, Anne, The Diary of Sarah, Lady Cowper, eds Lynn Botelho and Susannah R. Ottaway, 8 vols. (The History of Old Age in England, 1600-1800, 7; London, 2009), 87; Gilleard, Chris and Higgs, P., ‘Aging without agency: Theorizing the fourth age’, Aging & Mental Health, 14/2 (2010/03/01 2010), 121-28..
  6. Steele, Richard, A discourse, title page.
  7. Becon, Thomas, The sycke mans salve, (London: 1561), unpaginated.
  8. Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’, MS 6501, fol.246.

“The master whished to reproduce”: The (Forced) Reproduction of Enslaved Life in the Antebellum South, 1808-1865′, by Aisha Djelid

“When my babe was born, they said it was premature. It weighed only four pounds; but God let it live. I heard the doctor say I could not survive till morning. I had often prayed for death; but now I did not want to die, unless my child could die too. Many weeks passed before I was able to leave my bed. I was a mere wreck of my former self. For a year there was scarcely a day when I was free from chills and fever. My babe also was sickly. His little limbs were often racked with pain. Dr. Flint continued his visits, to look after my health; and he did not fail to remind me that my child was an addition to his stock of slaves.”

– Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861)

Spring and Easter is a time of year that many begin to ruminate on new beginnings and the circle of life. Chicks, bunnies, and lambs are the general motif of this new life. However, for enslaved people in the pre-Civil War US South, life cycles and reproduction were a daily concern within plantation communities, with many enslavers comparing enslaved people to livestock such as cows, calves, horses, and pigs. Slaveholders actively encouraged their enslaved ‘property’ to reproduce by cajoling, threatening, and coercing them into intimate relationships. Enslavers then either sold or exploited the children born of these sexual relationships for labor, earning themselves a profit. In this way, enslaved women were both producers and reproducers of slavery, and these children also grew up to unwillingly follow in their parents’ footsteps. This was known, at the time, as ‘slave-breeding’, but will be referred to here as ‘forced reproduction.’

Houghton, G. H., photographer. (1862) Family of slaves at the Gaines’ house. Hanover County Virginia, 1862. [Hanover County, Virginia] [Photograph], Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Forced reproduction manifested itself in the emphasis on what enslavers deemed ‘healthy’ and ‘strong’ infants absorbed into slavery. A 1662 law originating in Virginia, known as partus sequitur ventrem, meant that children followed the status of the mother. So, if the mother was free, so too were her children. But if the mother was enslaved, her children inherited the same status. By reproducing, enslaved men and women increased the enslaved workforce, which was especially important after 1808 when the international slave trade ban came into force. Enslavers could no longer traffic people from West Africa, and so had to concentrate on the internal market and ‘natural growth’. Thus, enslavers coerced enslaved men and women to procreate, supervised their children’s exercise and diet in an attempt to control their growth, and raised them as laborers and commodities to be sold on the market.

Harriet Jacobs (1894)

The above quotation from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) demonstrates the different motivations enslaved parents and enslavers had for the survival and health of children (1). Harriet worried for the wellbeing of her premature baby, praying for his recovery and growth. Dr Flint (whose real name was actually Dr James Norcom) saw Harriet’s baby not as a sick infant, but ‘an addition to his stock of slaves.’ Harriet later wrote that her children ‘grew finely’, and that Norcom often remarked to her ‘with an exulting smile, “These brats will bring me a handsome sum of money one of these days.”’ Enslavers shrewdly calculated the life of enslaved children. As they grew older, they grew more valuable, and enslaved boys and men were valued higher at market than girls and women.

However, the commodification and marketisation of ‘breeding women’ – enslaved women either at the prime of their fertile lives or who had already proven to birth multiple children – were a more complicated story. Some enslavers preferred to avoid purchasing particularly fertile women as they could not labor as productively in the fields due to their pregnant state and were reduced to what was known as a ‘half-hand’, rather than a full hand. Others, however, saw potential in fertile women, and valued women that produced lots of children as they were reproducing the workforce with their ‘natural increase’, and thus increasing the number of slaves that could be sold or exploited through labor. Thus, the value of these ‘breeding women’ at auction varied depending on whether enslavers viewed these women as the creator of potential lives and profit. In particular, slaveholding women saw value in these ‘breeding women’, and financially savvy white women purchased them with the intent to exploit their ‘future increase.’ (2)

The children born of relationships forced by slaveholders were kept under the watchful eye of their enslavers, and white men and women often took them away from their parents and into the ‘Big House’ to utilize them as domestic ‘servants’ and keep a close eye on them. Many enslavers also carried out a feeding regime by forcing the children to eat from long troughs, not unlike those they used to feed livestock. In this way, enslavers systematically controlled what and when children ate. Slaveholding women also gave the children medicine such as ‘Jerusalem Oak’ to cure parasites like worms, and forced them to run around the plantation, and engaging in races to see who the fittest was. All of this was to make sure that the children grew up to fit their specifications for the labor they intended them to carry out (3).

Many of these enslaved girls and boys were singled out as potentially productive producers and reproducers. Just as their enslavers had forced their parents to reproduce the labor force, they also forced the next generation to do so, too. Slaveholders forced mothers and fathers to witness their children experience the same violent and traumatic ordeal that they did – forced reproduction. Some enslaved men and women resisted forced reproduction through what has been termed ‘reproductive resistance’ – the use of natural contraceptives, long periods of nursing, abortions, and infanticide (4). However, those who did not choose or were unable to carry out this method of resistance witnessed their enslavers forcibly march their children down the same path they themselves were forced down. Life cycles and the reproduction of life was thus a huge part of enslaved peoples’ day-to-day lives in the early- to mid-nineteenth century (5).

(1) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Boston, 1861) https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html

(2) Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Yale University Press, 2019).

(3) Easter Wells, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 13, Oklahoma, (1936), https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn130/, p. 318.

(4) For works on reproductive resistance see: Thelma Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go Through a Plenty”: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,’ Journal of Women’s History, 1 (1990)45–74; Liese M. Perrin, “Resisting Reproduction: Reconsidering Slave Contraception in the Old South,” Journal of American Studies, 35 (2001), 255–74; Emily West with Erin Shearer, ‘Fertility Control, Shared Nurturing, and Dual Exploitation: The Lives of Enslaved Mothers in the Antebellum United States’, Women’s History Review, 27(2018), 1006-1020.

(5) For more on forced reproduction see: Gregory Smithers, Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, (University Press of Florida, 2001); Thomas Foster, Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men, (University of Georgia Press, 2019).

Aisha Djelid is a second year PhD student at the University of Reading, currently researching her thesis on forced reproduction in the Antebellum South. Her work explores the intersection of race and gender and considers how while enslaved people were raising their families, enslavers were raising them as bodies for exploitation. Aisha is also a postgraduate representative for the association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH), and co-convenor of the Reading Gender and Sexuality Research Network.