African Slaves in the United States and Birth Control

Little appears in the source material about contraceptives used by African slaves in America, but it was certainly believed by their European owners that their slaves used something. Herbert Guttman (1976, pp. 80-81) quotes a Georgia physician in the 1840s saying that abortion and miscarriage were more common among slaves than they were among free white woman. The physician believed that this was either due to the harsh conditions of slavery or that the “blacks are possessed of a secret by which they destroy the fetus at an early stage of gestation.” The known remedies used by the slaves were tansy, rue, roots and seeds of the cotton plant, pennyroyal, cedar gum, and camphor. A brew made from cotton root is certainly an excellent emmenagogue. The slaves were also reported as using violent exercise, external and internal manipulation, and occasional tampons of various sorts. Vaginal douches made of a tea brewed from cocklebur roots mixed with bluestone was used both as a menstrual regulator and to wash out the fetus.

How effective such efforts were is perhaps debatable, but the white owners were convinced that their slaves were doing something. Guttman records a story of a slave owner who kept between four and six slave women of the “proper age to breed” for some twenty-five years and only “two children” had been born over that period as a result of full-term pregnancies. The other pregnancies had all been terminated by miscarriages. Whatever the reason, it seems that among the slaves some form of birth control was widely used, particularly among slave women who were more or less forced consorts of their owners. Birth control was in a sense a matter of quiet rebellion.

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