Mothering Slaves: Comparative Perspectives on Motherhood, Childlessness and the Care of Children in Atlantic Slave Societies

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of History, Classics and Archaeology


This research network will bring together scholars who are investigating the lives of enslaved women in Brazil, the United States, and the Caribbean, paying particular attention to issues related to motherhood, the care of children, and childlessness. The title, 'Mothering Slaves', draws attention to the multiple forms of 'mothering' that took place in slave societies. Enslaved women acted as mothers to their own children, thus mothering children who would live out their lives under slavery, but also--with varying frequency in different parts of the Americas--undertook mothering work of their owners' children, including sometimes breastfeeding them. These issues are important because slavery was transmitted by inheritance from the mother, and because women's experience of enslavement was very significantly influenced by whether or not they were mothers. In addition, motherhood and/or women's childlessness has often been interpreted as a site of trauma for enslaved women; in particular literary and visual artists have frequently focused on motherhood in order to convey the horrors of slavery.

We want to bring scholars together in order to consider how enslaved motherhood worked similarly across Atlantic slave societies, to find out what the important differences were in different slave societies, to compare representations of enslaved motherhood in the arts, and to consider the best methodologies for investigating these issues. This network will draw out points of similarity and difference, and seeks to encourage new ways of thinking about enslaved women in the Atlantic world through the benefit of comparative perspectives. This work will help historians and other scholars develop future research on slavery and enslaved women.

The network will involve three main events. The first, in Newcastle, will focus on comparing slave societies and non-slave societies, particularly in relation to breastfeeding and wetnursing. The second, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, will bring the best current scholarship on women in Brazilian slavery (particularly that focused on motherhood, childlessness, and the care of children), into dialogue with similar work on other slave societies. The third event, a conference in Reading, will consider questions relating to motherhood, the care of children, and childlessness in the context of the transition from slavery to post-slave societies, and will also seek to review what has been learnt from the series of events.

The network will create relationships between scholars in several different countries, enabling them to develop plans for future research. In particular, it will consolidate links between scholars based in the UK and those in Brazil, in order to design future research on relevant questions in the study of comparative slavery.

Within a more public context, the network will foster collaboration between academic historians and the wider public through two public events held at the Reading International Solidarity Centre as part of Reading Borough Council's Black History Month activities. The first, a public lecture delivered by writer Andrea Stuart, author of the 2013 book Sugar in the Blood (Faber) will use personal and familial stories to consider the theme of motherhood in enslaved women's lives, and its relevance for contemporary society. The second, an illustrated talk with the visual artist Joscelyn Gardner, will use Gardner's creative response to enslaved women's mothering to open up a public discussion of the significance of the history of slavery to contemporary debates about motherhood, pregnancy, birth, and the care of children. Additional funding will be sought for an exhibition of Gardner's work to coincide with the conference. These events will be filmed and made available on the network's website, which will also include short articles and an interactive bibliography of work on the network's themes, and information about its events.

Planned Impact

Groups outside academia who could benefit from this research include:

1) Interested members of the Caribbean and African-descended communities in the UK and Brazil, which are some of the most socially-disadvantaged and excluded groups in both countries. A demonstrated interest in slavery is evidenced in the UK in the many community-led projects that took place in response to the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, and in the supplementary schools run for children of African and Caribbean descent. The history of enslaved women is often of particular interest to community African history projects. We will reach out to these groups, including Reading's Alliance for Cohesion and Racial Equality (ACRE) and national organizations such as the Windrush Foundation, with which the PI has co-operated in the past, through our events organised in conjunction with Reading Borough Council and Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) for Black History Month. In Brazil we will collaborate with representatives of the Faculdade Zumbi dos Palmares and the Instituto Geledés da Mulher Negra to ensure that the network has impact within education projects aimed at increasing public understanding of Afro-Brazilian history.

2) Other members of the public in the UK and Brazil who have a particular interest in history, in particular the history of slavery. For example, in the UK, members of the Historical Association, and, in Brazil, members of ANPUH (National History Association); as with group 1, this research can provide these groups with a deeper historical understanding of slavery and its legacies across the Atlantic world.

3) Professionals and those who train them in the caring professions whose members work with women as mothers. These include doctors, midwives, health visitors, social workers and breastfeeding advisors (for example from the National Childbirth Trust and La Leche League). Although the situation of enslaved women is far from that of most childbearig women today, some of the difficulties and choices enslaved women faced have parallels, resonances, and implications for the present. Professionals' awareness of these historical issues may enable greater clarity to be achieved in discussions of best professional practice and ethical choices today.

4) Museum and heritage professionals, arts practitioners and broadcasters interested in engaging a wider audience for exhibitions and events by including material that is directly relevant to enslaved women in the Atlantic world. Our network will bring to public attention a wider range of topics about enslaved women than are usually covered by research that falls within, rather than across, national boundaries. The research can benefit members of these third sector groups by providing access to new material (for example the proposed exhibition of Joscelyn Gardner's work), and interpretive analysis which might be incorporated into future exhibitions, events and productions.

5) School teachers and other educators who are interested in expanding the curriculum to discuss slavery beyond the usual focus, in both the UK and Brazil, on abolitionism, the abolition of the slave trade, and on 'great' (usually male) individuals. Despite a big expansion in material for children and educators, relatively little is available at appropriate levels on enslaved women. By including accessible materials along with a bibliography of resources pitched at a general audience (including children), our bilingual website will enable educators to update their teaching practice, incorporating recent scholarly developments in the study of enslaved women. We will consult with teachers in the UK with whom members of the team have worked in the past, and with educators in Brazil from the Faculdade Zumbi dos Palmares and the Instituto Geledés da Mulher Negra, to ensure that the material connects the knowledge and experience of educators across national and linguistic boundaries.
Description Motherhood and reproduction were centrally important to the experience of slavery throughout the Atlantic world. The network did not fund new research but by enabling people conducting research across a wide variety of Atlantic societies (Brazil, the US, and the Caribbean) to meet and share their research findings, each member of the network has significantly developed their research.
Exploitation Route Further research on slavery and motherhood. Great understanding of issues relating to pregnancy, childbirth, infant care and childlessness in contemporary society.
Sectors Education,Healthcare

Description Attendees at Newcastle workshop and Reading workshop from National Childbirth Trust. Student attendees at Sao Paulo workshop.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Healthcare
Impact Types Cultural

Description Marie Curie Fellowship
Amount € 183,454 (EUR)
Funding ID 747374 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 09/2017 
End 08/2019