How Enslaved Black Women Resisted Slave Breeding By Using Cotton Roots as Contraceptives

Throughout the antebellum era, slave breeding was a highly profitable investment. Slaves were scarce. The cheap labor they provided in plantations wasn’t cheap anymore and slave children sold like wildfire.

Slavery in US: How Black Women Resisted Slave Breeding By Using Cotton roots as Contraceptives
Black women in a farm

The couple of years following the prohibition of slave importation into the US was an era of slave farming. After 1808, slave labor was a scarce commodity in the United States. It was a period that heralded the collapse of a highly lucrative business where the stock traded were humans whose lives were as perishable as autumn leaves. But the slave owners were good businessmen. They knew that no business survives with borders closed on supplies. These slavepreneurs did what every good business man would do, they found an alternative means of supply – slave breeding.

Slave breeding was a slave multiplication agenda. It was implemented by slave owners through a forced sexual relation between the male and female slaves and between masters and their female slaves. This sexual relation was solely intended to result in pregnancies to reproduce slave children as essential stock for trade. The motive was entirely profit-oriented. The slave owners ensured that where force didn’t work, they encouraged this procreation by favoring the female slaves who had more children. In some cases, freedom was promised to those who could produce as much as fifteen slave children.

Slavery in US: How Black Women Resisted Slave Breeding By Using Cotton roots as Contraceptives
A black woman and her large family

Notably, slave breeding bypassed the experimental level and went straight to a highly structured business strategy. Slave girls were expected to start reproducing from the age of thirteen and should have five children at least by the age of twenty.

Meanwhile, the slaves who managed to escape before the American civil war, testified to their experience in books that became the literary genre known as the slave narratives. These books recorded stories of slaves forced into marriages and compelled into sexual relations with their male counterparts. They recorded the sexual abuse of female slaves by their masters and overseers.

A good example is the testimony of Maggie Stenhouse, an ex-slave. In her words, “Durin’ slavery there were stockmen. They was weighed and tested. A man would rent the stockman and put him in a room with some young women he wanted to raise children from.”

Slavery in US: How Black Women Resisted Slave Breeding

A black woman and her eight children working in a cotton farm

Margie’s testimony expressly showed how slave owners were uncompromisingly meticulous about slave breeding. They carefully paired which slave mates with which. Like livestock, these slave breeders knew the role of biology in producing the healthiest stock. Like good farmers fortuned with fertile ground, the slave owners knew to select the best stock of seeds to plant.

Throughout the antebellum era, slave breeding was a highly profitable investment. Slaves were scarce. The cheap labor they provided in plantations wasn’t cheap anymore and slave children sold like wildfire.

Slave breeding

Slave breeding should have been an ingenious investment idea if the livestock reared and harvested weren’t humans. But it didn’t matter to the slavepreneurs how their business decisions affected this group of humans, especially as they have been named slaves. However, it always matters when your livestock have minds of their own, and can choose to use it against you.

Slavery in US: How Black Women Resisted Slave Breeding
A slave family Working on a cotton plantation

Consequently, black women began to think for themselves more cleverly than their masters. They picked up the courage to frustrate the attempt to be used as involuntary surrogates. They knew better than to continue birthing children that were snatched from their breasts sooner than they could breathe on their own. They knew it was suicidal to confront their masters directly, but they also knew that not all pregnancies must be born.

Accordingly, these women perfected the science of contraception with the use of herbs to prevent or terminate pregnancies. They spread the popular conspiracy amongst themselves that chewing on cotton roots wipes the womb clean of any germinating life. Scientists found that the cotton plant contains a poisonous pigment known as gossypol. It is believed that this substance has the ability to restrict the mobility of sperm and alter the menstrual cycle by preventing the secretion of certain hormones.

Chewing cotton roots as a contraceptive or to induce abortion was common among slave women that labored in cotton fields. Other less popular abortifacient included the peacock flower. Women who couldn’t lay hold of the cotton roots made use of the peacock flower to achieve the same aim of frustrating the idea of slave breeding.

In the long run, this gynecological resistance to slave breeding by black women proved so effective that it dismantled the structures carefully laid for furthering the slave business in the US. The resistance proved so effective against the agenda for reproduction of slaves that it shifted power from the hands of the slaver to the enslaved. There were two major dimensions of victories that highlighted this power shift.

Firstly, it made the slave women conscious of the truth that only them had control over what use their bodies could be put. They denied the slavepreneurs the authority they thought they had over their bodies by refusing to reproduce the children they sought. They realized that through contraception, they controlled the amount of profit the slavers made off their bodies. This realization that a simple decision can frustrate the pro-natalist policies, showed them that they are not powerless after all. It made it easier to picture a conscious resistance to the idea of slavery itself.

Secondly, the idea of partus sequitur ventrum, saw its natural end. Partus sequitur ventrum is the idea that a child inherits the status of its mother. The implication is that any child born to a slave woman would equally become a slave, and a property of the slaver. The contraceptive resistance to slave breeding by these women ensured that more children were not condemned to a life of slavery.

In conclusion, the conspiracy for gynecological resistance by black women seemed both simple in concept and execution just like the slave breeding plot that necessitated the response. What didn’t seem simple was that while some women irrigated the cotton fields with the blood of voluntary miscarriages, others loved their children to infanticide. They fed them death with the arms of love just to starve the slaver’s whip of the pleasure. Because no child deserves not to have a life of its own.

Note: The terms Slave farming and Slavepreneur, as used in this article, are the writer’s made-up words to bring the description of Slave Breeding as close to what it was as possible.

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Chiedozie Omeje
Chiedozie Omeje
Chiedozie is a writer and a reader. He is also a firm believer that man's idiocy is the reason he claims he's a higher animal.


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