Mothering Slaves

By Dr Emily West


In 2013 I was looking for a new research project and found myself increasingly interested in exploring the lives of enslaved women beyond the geographical confines of the United States. Moreover, I also wanted to bring together some of the amazing historians interested in gender and slavery more broadly. After many long discussions, a group of us ended up making a successful bid for a network grant from the AHRC-FAPESP scheme (designed to bring together researchers in the UK and Brazil) led by Professor Diana Paton (Newcastle University, and University of Edinburgh from July 2016), Professor Maria Helena Machado (University of São Paulo), and me.

We titled our network ‘Mothering Slaves’ in order to encapsulate the multiple forms of mothering by enslaved women in Atlantic slave regimes. Women acted as mothers to their own children, but also – with varying frequency – undertook mothering work of their owners’ children. These issues are important because slavery was transmitted by inheritance from the mother.  Motherhood was hence central to the institution’s development and was both a place of joy and a site of trauma for enslaved women.


The network brought together researchers working on the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean to address to issues related to motherhood under slavery, a system where women held value as both workers and reproducers. We explored themes around the intersecting forms of oppression for enslaved women, including the care of children and childlessness, attempts to control fertility, how enslaved motherhood worked similarly and differently across Atlantic slave societies which had a variety of different systems of power and authority. We also compared representations of enslaved motherhood in the arts and the best methodologies for investigating all of these issues. Our network aimed to encourage new ways of thinking about the lives of enslaved women in the Atlantic world and their central role in slavery’s development through the benefit of comparative perspectives. Importantly, too, we all wanted to bring together PhD students with more experienced researchers, so the network built in funding to allow a number of PhD students to attend all events and to pay them for organising the conferences.

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We held three conferences as a part of our network, the first (April 2015) at Newcastle University, the second at the University of University of São Paulo in September 2015, and the final event, organised by me and R. J. Knight, at the University of Reading in April 2016.

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We were particularly pleased to engage at this event with the work of literary and visual artists who focused on motherhood in order to convey the horrors of slavery, in large part thanks to Professor Alison Donnell, Head of the School literature and Languages. So our conference poster used the striking artwork of Joscelyn Gardner which depicts the tropical plants enslaved women used as abortifacients  while we also heard from Andrea Stuart, author of Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (2012)  in conversation with Alison Donnell. Andrea’s best-belling and poignant book traces her family’s history from slavery in Barbados through to modern times. This important outreach event was attended by many members of local community groups in Reading, many of whom are part of the Barbadian diaspora. We were especially grateful to Staff at MERL and the University’s archives and collections for hosting this event and for hosting a display of slavery –related items we hold at the University.

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Dr Nicole King, English Literature, University of Reading introduces a panel on the images and representation of enslaved mothers
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Kimberley Wallace-Sanders on portraits of ‘mammy’ in US
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Emily West opens the concluding roundtable to April 2016’s Mothering Slaves conference

Our future plans for mothering slaves are twofold. First, we will to publish the best papers from the three conferences in two journal special editions   (Slavery and Abolition, and the Women’s History Review) in 2017-18. Thereafter we are all keeping our fingers crossed that a new, larger grant bid we submitted is successful and that we can continue to develop the important conversations that mothering slaves enabled us to begin and to put the lives of these women at the heart of the history of Atlantic slavery.

More information about our network can be accessed on the Mothering Slaves pages.

The conference was also live-tweeted with ‘#motheringslaves’, here are few of the top tweets:

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