Book Review: Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica by Sasha Turner

by Lucia Hodgson

Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica
by Sasha Turner
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017

In Contested Bodies, Sasha Turner offers an interdisciplinary, theoretically nuanced history of pronatal reforms on Jamaican slave plantations between the emergence of British anti-slavery activism in the 1780s and the abolition of slavery in British colonies in the 1830s. Turner’s monograph centers on the issue of maternity, but she devotes a chapter to slave children, “Raising Hardworking Adults: Labor, Punishment, and Slave Childhood,” that is of particular interest to childhood studies scholars. Turner’s project “prob[es] the representations and competing meanings given to the body and its capacities” (5) and resonates with the current interest in the evolution of age-based understandings of children’s development in the long nineteenth century.

The 1780s, according to Turner, constituted a “transformative moment” (10) in the representation of enslaved children because the abolitionist emphasis on reproducing the slave population locally led planters to “a more coherent articulation of slave childhood” (213-214). In their efforts to end slavery without decreasing plantation productivity, anti-slavery activists sutured amelioration and abolition to the rearing of slave children. They argued that attending to the needs of slave children would create a self-sustaining population of diligent and obedient laborers that would make the slave trade unnecessary and eventually make slavery itself obsolete. And they focused on raising awareness on the horrific treatment of slave children on Jamaican plantations. In response to these efforts, colonial lawmakers and slaveowners implemented changes in the way they managed enslaved children in part to prove to the British parliament that they could police themselves. These reforms involved classifying children according to developmental stages marked by chronological age and creating labor practices tailored to the bodies of children at these different stages.

Before the 1780s, children made up a small percentage of imported slaves and a marginal proportion of the Jamaican slave population. Given their low labor output and high mortality rate, children were of little concern to planters. Childhood itself was determined mostly by height, “below 4 feet 4 inches,” and to a lesser extent breasts, skin, hair and teeth (212). During and after the 1780s, as the child population increased, planters, even more so than abolitionists, created chronological metrics that categorized slave children into four categories: “Infants referred to newborns up to age two, children were three to seven years old, boys and girls were ages seven/eight to sixteen, and men-boys and women-girls were ages eleven/twelve to sixteen/eighteen” (214). Planters used these categories to acclimatize slave children gradually to the demanding and dangerous labor practices of the plantation. Age-based labor tasks constituted an effective response to abolitionist demands for “proportioned” (227) and therefore ostensibly more humane labor conditions. 

Though Turner does not cite Colleen A. Vasconcellos’ Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788-1838 (University of Georgia Press, 2013), Contested Bodies implicitly refutes Vasconcellos’ claim that the ameliorative measures implemented by Jamaican lawmakers and planters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries changed the lives of enslaved children “for the better in medical, social, and quantitative terms” (8). Turner makes the more Foucauldian argument that increased attention to slave children as children led to new forms of surveillance, regulation and subjugation. She illustrates how planters accommodated children’s developmental stages in order to increase their capacity for labor over the course of their lifetimes. They sought to avoid exposing them too early to tasks and conditions that could harm them physically and psychologically, and thereby deter their growth into proficient and productive adult laborers. They used age categories to extract the maximum labor output possible at every stage of development. And their attention to age differences, particularly the transitional phase of twelve to sixteen, served to refine their strategies for indoctrinating young slaves into their future roles in the plantation labor system. 

The “discovery” of childhood in the seventeenth century and the ensuing age-stratification of early life stages first documented by Philippe Ariès in Centuries of Childhood (Vintage, 1962) have generally been regarded as the beginning of more benevolent childrearing practices. But it is worth remembering that Foucault cites Ariès in Discipline and Punish (Vintage, 1979), and notes that he, himself, had “cho[sen] examples from military, medical, education and industrial institutions” to make his argument about docile bodies, but that “Other examples might have been taken from colonization, slavery and child rearing” (314n1). Although rarely remarked by scholars, Ariès himself asserts that the invention of childhood led to an infringement of children’s liberties: “The solicitude of family, Church, moralists and administrators deprived the child of the freedom he had hitherto enjoyed among adults” (413). Though Turner does not explicitly make this observation, her work productively develops and expands on Ariès’ claim. 

Though on opposing sides on the slavery debate, abolitionists and planters agreed on the central assumption that guided reform measures. Both groups accepted the Enlightenment argument that children were moldable and could be acculturated into particular habits and attitudes. As Turner writes, the goal for both was to “produce children whose undeveloped minds and bodies could be fashioned into subjects that embodied the industriousness needed for the continued success of the colonial economies” (4). Though abolitionists positioned themselves in opposition to planters, as champions of enslaved children, they too regarded children as a natural resource to be cultivated, and also sought to “capitalize” on their malleability. Turner’s study importantly challenges narratives of abolitionist benevolence and clarifies the abolitionist project in late eighteenth-century Jamaica which sought to repackage, never to abolish, the exploitation of black labor.


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