Slave Breeding

Gad Heuman and James Walvin, the authors of Family, Gender and Community (2003), have pointed out: "The patterns of African enforced migrations and settlement were basic to the development of the slave family and society. In a world where African men outnumbered African women, not surprisingly, slave reproduction was low. Understandably, too, those women took to the Americas the cultural habits of their homelands; in this case, most importantly, prolonged breast-feeding habits which inhibited conception. That, coupled with high infant mortality among African slave women, ensured a very low rate of slave reproduction. Where imported Africans dominated a local slave society, slave women simply did not give birth to the numbers of children necessary to maintain, still less to increase, the local slave population."

The death-rate amongst slaves was high. To replace their losses, plantation owners encouraged the slaves to have children. Child-bearing started around the age of thirteen, and by twenty the women slaves would be expected to have four or five children. To encourage child-bearing some population owners promised women slaves their freedom after they had produced fifteen children.

Charles Ball, a slave from Maryland, commented on a slave market that sold pregnant slaves. "The stranger, who was a thin, weather-beaten, sunburned figure, then said, he wanted a couple of breeding wenches, and would give as much for them as they would bring in Georgia. He then walked along our line, as we stood chained together, and looked at the whole of us - then turning to the women; asked the prices of the two pregnant ones. Our master replied, that these were two of the best breeding-wenches in all Maryland - that one was twenty-two, and the other only nineteen - that the first was already the mother of seven children, and the other of four - that he had himself seen the children at the time he bought their mothers - and that such wenches would be cheap at a thousand dollars each; but as they were not able to keep up with the gang, he would take twelve hundred dollars for the two."

Young women were often advertised for sale as "good breeding stock". To encourage child-bearing some population owners promised women slaves their freedom after they had produced fifteen children. One slave trader from Virginia boasted that his successful breeding policies enabled him to sell 6,000 slave children a year.

It has been claimed that plantation owners were often the fathers of slave children. Harriet Jacobs, a house slave in Edenton, North Carolina, claimed that when she reached the age of fifteen, her master, Dr. James Norcom attempted to have sex with her: "My master, Dr. Norcom, began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. The master's age, my extreme youth, and the fear that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue. Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling." Several of the young slaves gave into his demands. Harriet points out in her autobiography: "My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves."

Olaudah Equiano was a slave who witnessed the rapes of slave women: "While I was thus employed by my master, I was often a witness to cruelties of every kind, which were exercised on my unhappy fellow slaves. I used frequently to have different cargoes of new Negroes in my care for sale; and it was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves; and these I was, though with reluctance, obliged to submit to at all times, being unable to help them. When we have had some of these slaves on board my master's vessels, to carry them to other islands, or to America, I have known our mates to commit these acts most shamefully, to the disgrace, not of Christians only, but of men. I have even known them to gratify their brutal passion with females not ten years old." Henry Bibb, a slave from Shelby County, Kentucky, has argued: "A poor slave's wife can never be true to her husband contrary to the will of her master. She can neither be pure nor virtuous, contrary to the will of her master. She dare not refuse to be reduced to a state of adultery at the will of her master."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Charles Ball was married and living in Maryland when he was sold to a master in South Carolina.

About sunrise we took up our march on the road to Columbia, as we were told. Hitherto our master had not offered to sell any of us, and had even refused to stop to talk to any one on the subject of our sale, although he had several times been addressed on this point, before we reached Lancaster; but soon after we departed from this village, we were overtaken on the road by a man on horseback, who accosted our driver by asking him if his niggars were for sale. The latter replied, that he believed he would not sell any yet, as he was on his way to Georgia, and cotton being now much in demand, he expected to obtain high prices for us from persons who were going to settle in the new purchase. He, however, contrary to his custom, ordered us to stop, and told the stranger he might look at us, and that he would find us as fine a lot of hands as were ever imported into the country - that we were all prime property, and he had no doubt would command his own prices in Georgia.

The stranger, who was a thin, weather-beaten, sunburned figure, then said, he wanted a couple of breeding wenches, and would give as much for them as they would bring in Georgia. He then walked along our line, as we stood chained together, and looked at the whole of us - then turning to the women; asked the prices of the two pregnant ones. Our master replied, that these were two of the best breeding-wenches in all Maryland - that one was twenty-two, and the other only nineteen - that the first was already the mother of seven children, and the other of four - that he had himself seen the children at the time he bought their mothers - and that such wenches would be cheap at a thousand dollars each; but as they were not able to keep up with the gang, he would take twelve hundred dollars for the two.

(2) Olaudah Equiano, The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African (1789)

While I was thus employed by my master, I was often a witness to cruelties of every kind, which were exercised on my unhappy fellow slaves. I used frequently to have different cargoes of new Negroes in my care for sale; and it was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves; and these I was, though with reluctance, obliged to submit to at all times, being unable to help them. When we have had some of these slaves on board my master's vessels, to carry them to other islands, or to America, I have known our mates to commit these acts most shamefully, to the disgrace, not of Christians only, but of men. I have even known them to gratify their brutal passion with females not ten years old; and these abominations, some of them practised to such scandalous excess, that one of our captains discharged the mate and others on that account. And yet in Montserrat I have seen a Negro man staked to the ground, and cut most shockingly, and then his ears cut off bit by bit, because he had been connected with a white woman, who was a common prostitute. As if it were no crime in the whites to rob an innocent African girl of her virtue, but most heinous in a black man only to gratify a passion of nature, where the temptation was offered by one of a different color, though the most abandoned woman of her species.

(3) Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave (1849)

A poor slave's wife can never be true to her husband contrary to the will of her master. She can neither be pure nor virtuous, contrary to the will of her master. She dare not refuse to be reduced to a state of adultery at the will of her master.

(4) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

But I now entered on my fifteenth year - a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master, Dr. Norcom, began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. The master's age, my extreme youth, and the fear that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue. Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling.

He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him - where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.

The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. Even the little child, who is accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children, will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and such a one among the slaves. Perhaps the child's own mother is among those hated ones. She listens to violent outbreaks of jealous passion, and cannot help understanding what is the cause. She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master's footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely, and shrink from the memory of it. I cannot tell how much I suffered in the presence of these wrongs, nor how I am still pained by the retrospect.

My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother's grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings. The other slaves in my master's house noticed the change. Many of them pitied me; but none dared to ask the cause. They had no need to inquire. They knew too well the guilty practices under that roof; and they were aware that to speak of them was an offence that never went unpunished.

I longed for some one to confide in. I would have given the world to have laid my head on my grandmother's faithful bosom, and told her all my troubles. But Dr. Norcom swore he would kill me, if I was not as silent as the grave. Then, although my grandmother was all in all to me, I feared her as well as loved her. I had been accustomed to look up to her with a respect bordering upon awe. I was very young, and felt shamefaced a

(5) W. L. Bost, aged 88 from Asheville, North Carolina, interviewed as part of the Federal Writers Project in 1937.

Plenty of the colored women have children by the white men. She know better than to not do what he say. Didn't have much of that until the men from South Carolina come up here and settle and bring slaves. Then they take them very same children what have they own blood and make slaves out of them. If the missus find out she raise revolution. But she hardly find out. The white men not going to tell and the nigger women were always afraid to. So they just go on hoping that things won't be that way always.

(6) Gad Heuman and James Walvin, Family, Gender and Community (2003)

The patterns of African enforced migrations and settlement were basic to the development of the slave family and society. In a world where African men outnumbered African women, not surprisingly, slave reproduction was low. Understandably, too, those women took to the Americas the cultural habits of their homelands; in this case, most importantly, prolonged breast-feeding habits which inhibited conception. That, coupled with high infant mortality among African slave women, ensured a very low rate of slave reproduction. Where imported Africans dominated a local slave society, slave women simply did not give birth to the numbers of children necessary to maintain, still less to increase, the local slave population.

Slave numbers could only be maintained by yet more importations of Africans. From one region to another (North America, Brazil, the West Indies) the early days of local slave societies were characterised by a dominance of males, the failure of local women to reproduce "normally", and the continuing reliance on imported Africans. Slave owners everywhere recognised the problem. It seemed that slave labour could be maintained only via the Atlantic slave trade, hence the powerful plantocratic and metropolitan support for that trade and a dogged refusal to contemplate abolition...

The settler slave societies were dominated by men. Not surprisingly, local slaves complained about the absence of women, and life was scarred by inevitable disputes about access to them. From the first it was obvious that slaves were happier in a stable domestic environment, but such stability was virtually impossible in the rough, wild days of frontier settlement. However, that changed: planters realised their interests were best served by promoting slaves' domestic happiness, but they took little direct interest in the slave family until quite late in the history of slavery. As more women became available, slaves expected their owners to allow them to live together in whatever unions they formed, or to allow them to visit each other when separated. In time, the initial communal living quarters (barracks, for example) gave way to individual slave cabins, and as women became less scarce, family units evolved among the slaves.