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Response to Review of The Politics of Reproduction: Race, Medicine and Fertility in the Age of Abolition

I should like to thank Prof. Burnard for this provocative review. I appreciate the chance to engage with a respected scholar regarding pivotal questions in the political and economic histories of slavery and reproduction.

The politics of reproduction has certainly long been a theme in the historiography of the early Caribbean. As the introduction to my book discusses, the region’s demographers have debated the causes of persistent decline among the enslaved populations of the British Caribbean, and social historians of the region have documented the emergence of plantation management strategies designed to promote childbearing and preserve the health of the enslaved during the era of amelioration, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. What my book offers that is new is a broad interweaving of this long-standing sense among historians of the Caribbean that reproduction was a concern among slave-owners, with the broader Atlantic histories of slavery, abolitionism, medicine, economics, politics, sexuality, childbirth, and women/gender. What this approach loses in exhaustive historiographic engagement with each subfield, it gains in its power to address some of the big questions of Atlantic world history. Indeed, I made the intentional decision to limit historiographic debate to the book’s introduction and footnotes in order to present an engaging narrative encompassing the broad sweep of Atlantic world history that would appeal to general readers. In sum, what I hope my book offers is the sense that Afro-Caribbean women’s reproductive lives mattered, not only as an episode in the social and demographic history of the Caribbean, but also to the broader political and economic history of empire. In what follows, I will focus on my answers to two big historical questions raised in Burnard’s review.

The first question is this: was the British abolitionist movement motivated by economic factors or is it better characterized as a primarily religious and humanitarian venture? This question is as old as the abolitionist movement itself. Until the publication of Eric Williams’ pivotal Capitalism and Slavery in 1944, the consensus among historians was that the abolitionist movement owed its success to the inspiration of Christianity and the humane sensibilities of the British people.(1a) This assertion persists to this day, as for example in the recent controversial ‘Ethics and Empire’ project, hosted by the McDonald Centre at Christ Church College, Oxford, which lists the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade as one of the ethical achievements of empire. Williams developed a line of counter-argument that had already been suggested in the work of his mentor, the Black Marxist scholar C. L. R. James. He demonstrated that the accumulation of capital in Great Britain arose to a significant extent from the Atlantic slave trade and from trade with the Caribbean colonies, which relied on slave labour. Members of the British political elite with investments in the West Indies (or what James would call the ‘maritime bourgeoisie’) were committed to maintaining the economic viability of Britain’s Caribbean colonies during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.(2a) Yet as the industrial sector of the British empire expanded and with it the industrial bourgeoisie, and as the reach of the empire expanded to new parts of the globe, British ruling elites were no longer so dependent on the Caribbean colonies for their wealth, and thus willingly acceded to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and eventually the emancipation of West Indian slaves. The American Revolution was a pivotal event in this transformation, in that it initiated a period of declining economic and political influence for slave owners and the maritime bourgeoisie. Seymour Drescher, whose work has since its publication been seen by many historians as a persuasive takedown of the ‘Williams thesis’, argued that in fact the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 was an ‘econocide’, inspired primarily by humanitarianism at a time when the British West Indian economy was thriving. He based his claims on an analysis of the share of Britain’s trade that was devoted to the West Indies, which indicated that in the years immediately preceding the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the West Indian trade had rebounded from the devastation caused by the American war.(3a)

My book’s focus on the politics of reproduction provides a new timeline for comprehending abolitionism and new evidence that the abolitionist movement was deeply intertwined with the economic ambitions of the British Empire’s political elite. Burnard is thus right to say that I find fault with Drescher’s ‘econocide’ thesis. Drescher’s argument turned on a quantitative analysis of British colonial trade, but my book focuses instead on what British politicians debating abolitionism – as well as various other interested parties including slave owners, doctors, and missionaries – actually said about their economic intentions, and particularly their intentions regarding the reproduction of labour. There has not been an extended close reading of British parliamentary debates regarding abolitionism since Roger Anstey’s 1977 study, and Anstey argued that evangelical religion was the primary impetus for abolitionism.(4a)

To begin with, the abolitionist movement certainly did not take off ‘from virtually nothing in 1787’, as Burnard claims. This is not even true if we focus strictly on abolitionism that found a hearing in governmental venues and try also to contain abolitionism within British national boundaries – perhaps Burnard is forgetting Granville Sharp and the Somerset case of 1772? But my book understands abolitionism within a broader, Atlantic world frame. From this vantage point, the origins of political abolitionism are better placed in Virginia in the late 1760s and early 1770s, when the Virginia legislature attempted to stem the tide of the Atlantic slave trade through adoption of prohibitive duties on slave imports. The politics of reproduction help to explain why: unlike Britain’s Caribbean colonies, the Chesapeake was experiencing demographic growth among its enslaved labourers. As Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor wryly observed, Virginia’s most prosperous planters had ‘bred a great quantity of slaves’ (my book, p. 23). Elite Virginians therefore had little need for additional imports. My book shows how the willingness of elite Virginians to condemn the Atlantic slave trade provided fodder for Sharp’s early abolitionism, and helped to inspire Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

Moreover, American opposition to the Atlantic slave trade during the American Revolution caused a virtual halt of the slave trade to the British Caribbean, creating a demographic crisis with which British abolitionists would subsequently grapple. As early as 1784, the year after the war ended, the influential abolitionist James Ramsay argued that promoting childbearing among Afro-Caribbean women would ensure the economic prosperity of West Indian plantations, allowing planters to ‘much more than double their present profit’ (my book, p. 41). Debates about abolitionism in the 1780s and 1790s revolved around how best to implement this transition to a home-grown labour force. Some radical abolitionists endorsed immediate abolition, while politicians with investments in the Caribbean, many of them financiers with capital sunk into West Indian agriculture who had suffered through a wave of foreclosures during the American Revolution, were wary of abrupt changes that might result in further foreclosures. Nonetheless, the latter shared the hope that a crop of children born to enslaved women in the Caribbean could eventually end their need for the embattled Atlantic slave trade, just as it had done for elite Virginians. To say, therefore, as Burnard does, that ‘British politicians, as opposed to evangelical abolitionists, were, except for William Pitt, mostly in favour of the expansion of slavery in the Caribbean in the 1780s and 1790s rather than being supporters of abolition’, is an oversimplification that fails to convey the consensus that emerged in the aftermath of the American Revolution, among both the maritime bourgeoisie and the evangelical advocates of abolitionism: that it would be economically beneficial to make the transition from the Atlantic slave trade to the reproduction of plantation labour by Afro-Caribbean women. During the 1790s, they disagreed only on the timing.

The politics of reproduction also help to explain why this movement to reform reproduction by abolishing the Atlantic slave trade succeeded in 1807. Burnard claims that my book ‘fails to appreciate that the British West Indies rebounded quickly from the economic blip of the early 1780s’. This is nonsense. In fact, my book argues that the rebound of sugar production that Drescher points out was, as David Ryden has pointed out, useless to the British in 1807 because disruptions to re-export markets caused by the Napoleonic Wars resulted in a devastating glut that year, and because Cuban sugar was quickly flooding global sugar markets.(5a) I point out also that the United States was preparing to end its own involvement in the slave trade, which raised the prospect of further disruptions to the flow of Africans to the Caribbean, similar to those suffered during the American Revolution. The timing was thus right for the long-contemplated effort to force slave owners, in the words of Wilberforce, to ‘make breeding the prime object of their attention’ (my book, p. 1). Moreover, when we consider that politicians on both sides of the debates had long described the goal of a self-reproducing labour force as an economic boon to the West Indies, Drescher’s claim that this was a moment of econocide collapses. Drescher’s focus on 1807 was always problematic. Enslaved labourers in the Caribbean were not emancipated until the 1830s. By then, even Burnard and Drescher acknowledge that the West Indian economy was in steep decline. By tracing the political and economic aspirations of British politicians for the fertility of enslaved women’s bodies, it thus becomes possible to understand the history of abolitionism differently.


Overall, Burnard’s critique of my book seems to suffer from an old-fashioned vision of the relationship between capitalism and slavery. Because my book is a relatively straightforward attempt to build on the insights of Black Marxism, I have not bothered to outline in the book’s historiographic introduction the fine points of the debate among Marxist scholars about the relationship between capitalism and slavery, but perhaps it will be useful here to clarify where Burnard has gone wrong. Particularly misleading is his assertion that I apparently ‘think that abolitionists and West Indian slave owners were committed together to an ideology of free trade “that sought to define sexual behaviour in the interests of capital”’. Long gone are the days when historians could blithely locate the origins of capitalism in the rise of industrialism, free trade, and wage labour. As Robin D.G. Kelley has discussed, well before the current vogue for Atlantic world history Black Marxist historians were pointing out that the economic webs that grew out of the Atlantic slave trade laid the foundations of the capitalist world system.(6a) There has been some disagreement among Marxist scholars about the particulars. Some have debated whether the profits reaped from the commercial networks spawned by new world slavery should be understood as a sort of primitive accumulation laying the foundation for capitalism, or whether the enslavement of Africans was in fact integral to the early history of capitalism. Marxist scholars have also debated whether enslaved workers themselves were, in the words of C. L. R. James, ‘closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time’, or whether slavery is better understood as a variation on feudalism. Some scholars have argued that the labour of enslaved Africans was (equally with that of wage labourers) a crucial conduit for the production of surplus value and consequent accumulation of capital, and furthermore that the coexistence of free and unfree labour has remained essential to the functioning of the capitalist world system.(7a) But Marxist scholars generally agree, at least, that the accumulation of capital in Europe was fuelled by the Atlantic slave trade and protected markets for slave-grown commodities, even as the contradictory virtues of free labour and free trade became an increasingly central feature of capitalist ideology. My book builds on this relatively uncontested insight, arguing that abolitionists and the West Indian interest agreed that encouraging childbearing among Afro-Caribbean women would help to safeguard capital invested in the West Indies and ensure the continued exploitation of Afro-Caribbean labour.

Burnard raises another big question that is worthy of discussion: Was the science of demography shaped at its inception by the histories of slavery and reproduction? My book traces the history of medical, demographic, and religious ideas about the mechanics of reproduction, arguing that the reforming mentalities that evolved during the age of abolition set an important precedent for governmental management of reproduction under global capitalism. Although there is not room to fully discuss this aspect of my book here, I want to specifically address the role of Malthusian demography in abolitionism.

Burnard apparently believes that Malthusian demography played a trivial role in abolitionist debates. He misunderstands the recent book on Malthus by Alison Bashford and Joyce Chaplin when he says, about Malthus’ published intervention in the abolitionist debates, that these authors ‘dismiss its importance’. In fact, Bashford and Chaplin claim in their chapter on Malthus and slavery that ‘either Malthus himself or his principle of population were present at each point in the parliamentary process’.(8a) In the course of making this argument, they cite both my doctoral dissertation and my article in Past & Present. Bashford and Chaplin do explain that Malthus was personally reluctant to comment on the situation in the West Indies, perhaps partly because his own family held claims to West Indian property. But they also convey in some detail that Malthus’ personal reluctance did not stop numerous participants in the abolitionist debates from using Malthus’ published observations about slavery and reproduction elsewhere in the world to their advantage. When Malthus did finally deign to comment on Caribbean demography, offering an extended footnote in the 1806 edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population, both sides continued to cite him for their cause, with Wilberforce proudly proclaiming the publication of Malthus’ intervention in the midst of the pivotal debates that led to the passage of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Burnard is also wrong to say that Drescher claims that ‘Malthus had no interest in slavery as a transatlantic phenomenon’. Drescher, too, recounts the publication of Malthus’ footnote as a timely intervention in the abolitionist debates.(9a)

My book argues that, in response to the problem of reproduction in Britain’s Caribbean colonies, Malthus developed a facile moralizing logic about the causes of population decline that has become a recurring theme in the government of sexuality under global capitalism. In his extended footnote, Malthus provided fodder for the numerous participants in the abolitionist debates (both evangelicals and those with West Indian property) who attributed the infertility of Afro-Caribbean women’s bodies to racially characteristic sexual promiscuity, even as he acknowledged that the harsh conditions of slavery were also to blame. In particular, Malthus claimed that the causes of demographic decline in the West Indies could ‘be attributed to the excessive and unusual action of vice and misery’ (my book, p. 167). In Malthus’ thinking, the sexual vices of the enslaved populations of the British Caribbean thus created an exception to the natural tendency of human populations to increase. The existence of such exceptions gave new flexibility to Malthusian demography in guiding the governance of reproduction, allowing it to contend simultaneously with surplus labour in the metropole and inadequate labour in the colonies. In Great Britain, governmental assistance for the labouring poor could be derided as only contributing to the poor’s natural tendency to increase, while in the Caribbean governmental intervention could be justified by the unnatural tendency of the labouring poor to decrease. In both cases, the sexual misbehaviour of the poor was to blame: the sexual vices of the British poor were to blame insofar as they neglected to practice sexual abstinence when unable to support children, while sexual vice in the Caribbean paradoxically inhibited reproduction. In this respect, my book is certainly an attempt to comprehend Marx’s insights into the ideological functions of Malthusian demography, and to build particularly on Marx’s long neglected observation that, on the one hand, in cases where labour was plentiful, governmental refusal to assist the poor was frequently justified by Malthusian claims about the supposed need to allow the labour market to achieve its natural equilibrium, and yet on the other hand in cases of inadequate labour supply, as for example in the colonies, ‘capital … rebels against the “sacred” law of supply and demand, and tries to check its inconvenient action by forcible means and state interference’ (my book, p. 15). This flexibility of Malthusian demography, to govern the reproduction of labour in cases of both under and over supply, emerged out of the age of abolition.

These are two examples of how a focus on the political economy of reproduction sheds new light on big questions in the history of the Atlantic world during the age of abolition. Readers of my book will find that it also reflects on a number of other significant themes: how the emerging obsession with Afro-Caribbean women’s fertility fits into the history of childbirth in the Atlantic world; how enthusiasm for data about Caribbean populations fed a growing governmental appetite for information in the British Empire; how British doctors’ medical theorizing about venereal disease and infertility in the Caribbean perpetuated racialized assumptions about sexual promiscuity, even as African medical knowledge preserved by black healers offered a crucial avenue of resistance; how the work of Methodist missionaries in the Caribbean overlapped with the moralizing logic of reproductive reform. The book attempts also to trace out the implications of these big questions at a microhistorical level in the lives of three generations of an extraordinary Afro-Caribbean family, recounting the previously uncharted midwifery practice of Doll of Newton Plantation in Barbados, as well as the previously unexplored abolitionist legal case regarding Doll’s mother, and the experiences of their female descendants. What links these various elements of the book is the contention that the story of women of African descent giving birth on Caribbean plantations is not simply a story about the social or demographic history of a single region, nor is it solely a story about women’s history or the history of childbirth. It is a political story, with the power to address big questions about the historical forces that have shaped our modern world.


  1. E. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994, originally published in 1944). For the earlier view, see, for example: R. Coupland, The British Anti-Slavery Movement, (London, 1933).Back to (1a)
  2. For a useful short overview of James’ insights, see ‘The Revolution and the Negro,’ New International, 5 (December 1939), 339-43. Published under the name J. R. Johnson.Back to (2a)
  3. S. Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition, (Pittsburgh, PA, 1977).Back to (3a)
  4. R. Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760-1810, (London, 1975).Back to (4a)
  5. D. Ryden, West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783-1807, (New York, NY, 2002).Back to (5a)
  6. R.  D. G. Kelley, ‘"But a Local Phase of a World Problem": Black History's global vision, 1883-1950’ Journal of American History, 86, 3 (1999), 1045-77.Back to (6a)
  7. C. James, The Black Jacobins, (New York, NY, 1963, originally published in 1938), p. 86. Instructive contributions to these debates also include D. Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital and World Economy, (Lanham, MD, 2004); R. Brenner, ‘The origins of capitalist development: a critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism’, New Left Review, 1, 104 (July-August 1977); I. Wallerstein, ‘American slavery and the capitalist world economy’, American Journal of Sociology, 81, 5 (March 1976), 1199-121; E. Genovese and E. Fox-Genovese, Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism (New York, NY,1983); B. Solow, The Economic Consequences of the Atlantic Slave Trade, (Lanham, MD, 2014).Back to (7a)
  8. A. Bashford and J. E. Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population (Princeton, NJ, 2016), p. 173.Back to (8a)
  9. S. Drescher, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor Versus Slavery in British Emancipation (New York, NY, 2002), pp. 43-4.Back to (9a)