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Views of Historiography on Slavery in the Colonies: Critical Essay

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Slavery in the colonies relied on the notion that the mother passed down the legal condition of enslavement. From the beginning of the colonization of the Caribbean sometime in the 15th century, it was expected that enslaved women gave birth to enslaved children. This was later cemented into the common law of the roman code Partus Sequitur Ventrem, a Latin translation of ‘offspring follows belly,’ that legally stated any child born to an enslaved woman was born into slavery, regardless of the status or ancestry of the father. Historiography has differed in its emphasis on what the doctrine was based on, some such as Weinbaum and Santos argue that it was due to the economic value of women in the slave trade. Others argue it facilitated the transformation to entirely race-based slavery. The Foucauldian discourse remains focused on its ability to perpetuate white domination within the most important point of contact of power relations, the body. A post-modern view held by historians such as Morgan and Bush emphasizes that it legitimized the sexual abuse of enslaved women, as it presented no repercussions to the widespread abuse through the alienation of the enslaved from their kin. Ultimately, whilst all these factors are integral to the facilitation of maternal heredity it was most importantly a doctrine born out of economic necessity that in practice supported the sexual abuse of enslaved women throughout the Caribbean.

From its introduction into the Atlantic World, colonial slavery was fundamentally connected to enslaved women’s reproductive capability. Before it was even fleshed out into legal codes, it was a commonly held European assumption that slavery would be passed down through the mother. Morgan corroborates this, by providing insight into the roots of inherited slavery: stating that well before 1662, enslaved and free black women were faced with the dangers of racial inheritance. Considering this, the institution of slavery could only occur due to the understanding that ‘enslaved women gave birth to enslaved children.’ Although it did not appear legally until the implementation of legal codes in 1662, it was a common belief that was recognized by slave owners and enslaved women alike. Thus, as shown by the historiography, enslavement passed down through the mother’s line due to an ideological process that was tethered to the institution of slavery. The codes of Partus Sequitur Ventrem legalized this belief.

Legal codes thus cemented the notion that enslavement followed maternal lines, due to the establishment of the legal doctrine Partus Sequitur Ventrem. This roman code translates to ‘offspring follows belly. ‘ It stated that ‘all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.’ This was incorporated into legislation in the British American colonies, and later in the United States. It fixed into colonial law that any child born to an enslaved woman was born into slavery, regardless of the ancestry or citizenship of the father. This was ratified in 1662 by the Virginia House of Burgesses. Its ratification was in reaction to the case of Elizabeth Key Greenstead, who was one of the first enslaved persons to sue for freedom from slavery and succeed. This suit was called for as her father was an Englishman. Thus, the law was formalized to forbid any other slaves from seeking freedom due to European ancestry. The doctrine was then passed and adopted throughout the colonies.

For slavery to be passed down through maternal lines, English common law was entirely reversed. This is further commented on by Morgan who notes that this system was a ‘profound reversal of European notions of heredity; in the service of a new form of difference and bondage.’ Morgan additionally argues this had not always been the case. For example, in the context of the Slavic and Greek slavery trades, the child was seen as assimilable and paternal heredity still took place. This is important in understanding how common assumptions surrounding hereditary fundamentally shifted in the colonies due to incorporating racial ideals. Although the concept of race at this time was not similar to its modern definition and rather conceptions revolved around a sense of ‘blackness’. Therefore, the legal condition of passing enslavement down through the mother occurred due to the retraction of European common law throughout the colonies, a new concept that occurred as the slaves were not seen as assimilable to the European colonizers. This ultimately meant that no white man’s child could be enslaved, yet all black women could. Beckles explores the social relevance of this reversal of European heredity, highlighting that it was an important construct as it ensured the white race could not be reduced to chattel slavery. Thus, it further enforced slavery as a non-white institution. This arguably concretized the underlying racial significance of slavery that European colonizers had sought to develop.

The concept of reproductive capitalism developed by Weinbaum is a useful element of historiography in understanding the slave trade as a reproductive venture where women played a principal role. Weinbaum states that women participated in multiple streams of essential labor; ‘sexual, reproductive, domestic and agricultural.’ The idea of reproductive capitalism extracted procreative labor and products from the bodies of black women. This was enabled to occur due to the moral and social distance that was created between both black and white women. This stratification of the gender provided a sense that ‘blackness’ justified the use of slave women as ‘reproductive tools’, who provided children as chattel, that were to be utilized for labor or sold. This concept is useful in understanding how this supported the legal condition being passed down maternally, as women were bound to their reproductive labor.

Broadly, economics played the most important role in the new concept of maternal heredity. Enslaved women’s bodies were legally bound as economic spaces that overthrew ideals of kinship and motherhood. Morgan explains the necessity of enslaved women in the economic success of racial slavery, as they contributed to a ‘productive relationship whereby everything that a body could do was harnessed to the capital accumulation of another.’ Therefore, slave owners were aware of the economic advantage that laboring women created. Enslaved women’s children automatically became slave owner property due to the legislation. This was crucial as it provided owners with more sources of labor or the children was sold. This is echoed in Barbados in the 1650s, where slave owners began to describe fertile female slaves as ‘increasers.’ Thus, the duality of women’s labor was integral to the economic needs of the colonies as they experienced relentless labor shortages. As mortality rates were extremely high, and the government could not produce enough indentured servants, the legal doctrine created a stream of work. The legal condition ensured that all children born were automatically chattel and could be identified as so.

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Historiography also indicates that this economic value of enslaved women was also highly apparent in the ‘Second Slavery’. This concept was based on the second upsurge in the production of sugar in the Hispanic Caribbean, expressly in Cuba and Puerto Rico, that followed the dismantling of slavery throughout the remainder of the colonies. Santos argued that Elite planters were concerned with the issue of replenishing captive labor as the middle passage was being increasingly policed. This caused women’s reproductive labor to become requisite in the ‘procreation of a creole population of slaves that would replace African captives imported in the trade.’ The concern of economic failure of the slave trade was pressing as enslaved populations declined. This meant that plantations needed more coerced workers to ensure production levels. This caused women’s reproductive capabilities to be exploited by the Hispanic Caribbean in the second wave of slavery as to provide greater levels of coerced labor.

Black and white women were ideologically separated to justify this economic exploitation that was enabled through the legal condition. This is particularly evident in the destruction of black motherhood. Claude Meillassoux argues that this was a defining characteristic of slavery, as the enslaved African woman’s womb was denied her productive role. Consequently, enslaved women were ‘stripped of their sex’ and denied motherhood, as their children were removed from them and sold or taken captive. This allowed slave owners to completely disregard the social impact surrounding reproduction. Orlando Patterson describes this exploitation of reproduction as ‘natal alienation’ as it denies the enslaved women access to motherhood and a family unit. This consequently resulted in the understanding of enslaved African women as members of reproductive capitalism whose labor resulted in the creation of chattel, which was justified through the denial of black motherhood.

Furthermore, the notion that slavery should be passed down through the mother was allowed to occur as black women were constructed as non-feminine in the white female sense. Emphasis was placed upon black enslaved women alleged increased muscular capability, physical strength, aggression, and sturdiness. This entirely contrasted contextual white feminine ideals of fragility, and weakness. This is summed up in the descriptions from pro-slavery writers who presented enslaved black women as ‘devoid of the feminine tenderness and graciousness in which the white woman was tightly wrapped.’ It was believed that black women were able to have multiple children, work without rest and be successful at manual labor. This is evident in sources at the time such as Edward Long’s History of Jamaica, which also described the low fertility rate as evidence of her non-feminine identity. The ideological de-feminization of the black woman supported maternal hereditary as they were ignorantly understood as being able to provide far more children and work manual labor, unlike the white woman who mothered children in a family unit where the father was also involved.

Importantly, the passing of the legal condition through the mother legitimized the sexual abuse of slave women by white men. Evidently, women and girls were vulnerable to sexual exploitation and rape by white planters and other white men. Morrissey has argued that there is little evidence to suggest that liaisons between slaves were common, due to the harsh conditions. Thus, most sexual interactions were sexual abuse, to which Bush argues there were limited checks. This is corroborated by Beckles who stated that the rape and sexual violation against enslaved women by males was not considered a legal offense and thus does not appear in litigation records. Plantation owners repeatedly denied that female slaves were sexually abused, rather African women were inherently promiscuous and would engage in sexual relations for their social betterment.

The extent of sexual abuse that enslaved women encountered can be seen in the accounts of Thomas Thistlewood, a British plantation owner who created a diary in which he recorded instances of rape of enslaved women recording 265 sexual encounters with over 45 slaves. Thistlewood described his fetishization of black women and how he was not alone in this, rather ‘it was an important part of white culture.’ The horrifying extent of sexual abuse could occur, as explored by Morrissey, through the notion of maternal inheritance as kinship relations were destroyed which allowed non-marital ties. This often led to illegitimate ‘mulatto’ children who were confined to slavery unless their fathers took special legal action. This ultimately meant that white fathers did not have to legally acknowledge or support their illegitimate children with slave women, and slave children had no possible claim to any possessions, titles, or financial support. Thus, sexual abuse could continue without repercussions.

Broadly, this pattern of enslaved hereditary acted as another avenue of control on not only the enslaved woman but also her offspring. Michel Foucault describes how the body is the ultimate contact point of power relations in the Caribbean. Considering this, white domination is allowed to occur at the most fundamental level, the body. Bush corroborates this, stating that a slave’s life was dominated from birth to death. This, therefore, locked Africans into a continuous cycle of slavery. Enslaved people’s lives entirely existed as human property. This fundamental level of power was important in the maintenance of slavery, as the sense of control and domination with little chance of freedom allowed for complete mastery over the enslaved, and perceived supremacy of the European institution.

Conclusively, it emerged that the mother passed down the legal condition of enslavement through the introduction of common law that consolidated years of European assumption. This was importantly facilitated through the complete destruction of black motherhood and femininity. Historiography has placed different emphasis on why the code was ratified; some stress it allowed for economic advantage as it created a constant line of labor, while others that it was used to confirm the racial meaning behind the slave trade or that it was to legitimize sexual abuse of the enslaved. Ultimately it may be concluded that the most important factor that led to the legal condition was that it allowed for the economic exploitation of women. Enslaved women provided reproductive labor that was essential to the running of the slave trade since its introduction into the Atlantic World. Europeans were most concerned with the economic outcome of the slave trade, particularly in the context of high mortality rates and insufficient numbers of bondsmen. However this undoubtedly simultaneously facilitated sexual abuse as the lack of ties of kinship to the illegitimate children provided no repercussions for the abuser.

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Views of Historiography on Slavery in the Colonies: Critical Essay. (2023, July 11). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
“Views of Historiography on Slavery in the Colonies: Critical Essay.” Edubirdie, 11 Jul. 2023,
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