As I read Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, I could not help but think about my own family. My grandparents sacrificed much so their children could have a better life than they did. My parents forfeited many of their own desires, to ensure my siblings and I had access to opportunities they did not. We in turn hope for a brighter future for the next generation. These are hopes for the future that were denied slave women. In her book, Morgan focuses on the idea that the reproductive capabilities of slave women were what allowed slavery to flourish and grow in early British North America. Indeed, she makes the claim that is was this very concept of reproduction that began to build the racial divisions which perpetuated slavery to a point that we are still dealing with the aftereffects and tensions today.
It is important to understand how white men in the early colonies measured pregnancy. To them it was both a curse and a blessing, depending on which women in their life bore the child. They needed and wanted their wives and daughters to bear children so that they colonies could be populated and their ancestral line could continue. However, after their women gave birth, they needed time to rest and recover – sometimes even up to a month depending on their economic class. For that reason, the bearing of children was viewed, not as a blessing, but as a hardship when it came to the pregnancy of their indentured servants, so much so that these women were punished if they married or became pregnant while indentured because it “interfered with the owners’ demands on female servants” (76). If they did become pregnant, their time of indenture was extended and if it continued past an age that the child was old enough to work, they were required to work as well. Indeed, there were many instances in which indentured women were seduced by their owners in an effort to force them into a longer contractual time of servitude. It was not a great leap, from there, for slave owners to come to the same conclusion.
In fact, Morgan shows how journals and letters of early British explorers and travelers to Africa, instilled the idea that African women were more hardy and capable than white women. Morgan recites accounts from travel journals that state African women were giving birth with “no shrieks or cries” (45), and that they are ready to return to work the very next day (31). Their bodies are described as being hardy and having breast so elongated that they can strap their infant child to their back and when it becomes hungry, she simply tosses her breast up and the child leans forward over her shoulder to suckle. To those inclined to participate in slavery, African women were a godsend. Here was a class of women who could reproduce the next generation of slaves and not lose more than a day of work in the process. They were better than the white indentured servants, who still needed a month of rest after childbirth.
Morgan points out that things did not go quite the way the owners had expected they would go. Through her research she shows that men and women were bought in nearly equal ratios and speculates that it was in an effort to get them to “breed.” However, slave women in the British colonies did not reproduce as their owners expected them to. Morgan speculates that it could be an effort on their part to not get pregnant. Or it could have been the amount and type of work the women were required to perform. It could also have been the stressful and harsh conditions they were forced to live in that impeded their ability to get pregnant or carry the child to full term. That is not to say there were no babies born to slave mothers. There were quite a few, just not in the numbers that were expected. It did not stop owners from trying to get them to reproduce. It was a fairly common practice that for slave owners to “couple” slaves together. If no child was produced after a year, they would often “couple” her with a different man. Morgan repeatedly makes the comparison that these women were treated as animals. Is it any wonder, why slaves were regarded as little more than property to be bought and sold at auction, when the very heart of its purpose lay with the reproductive capabilities of the women? This the very basis for which any farmer or rancher could tell you that all livestock are chosen, bought, and sold. That these owners viewed their slaves the same way can be seen in the many wills written at the time. As a case in point, Morgan quotes from many of them wherein slave women and any children they may have in the future were seen to be given over to the heirs.
These poor mothers did not have the privilege we have to hope for a better future for their children. Many did not have the choice women today have to bear children or not. Their choices were stolen from them in their captivity. However, as Morgan clearly shows, they were the most important aspect of the institution of slavery. In fact, after the slave trade was banned in America they became even more important and valuable than the slave men. Morgan makes this point: though this demographic has been mentioned in passing, slave women were at the heart of economic history during this time and they cannot continue to be ignored and diminished.