“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.