Breastfeeding Manual for Slaves
Breastfeeding Manual for Slaves
By: James Hammond
Source: Hammond, James. "Plantation Manual." James Henry Hammond Papers (container 43). Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 1857–58.
In writing about African slave women in the antebellum south in the United States, researchers and historians often examine such issues as manual labor, rape by the plantation master and other white authority figures, attempts by mothers to keep their children from being sold, differences between female field hands and household slaves, and pregnancy, childbirth, and slave conditions.
Discussions of African slave women as wet nurses are also part of the scholarship on this time period. Slave women, across historical periods and regions, often acted as wet nurses—women who breastfeed the children of other mothers for money or as part of a slave's labor. From ancient Greece to imperial Rome to modern day America, which puts a scientific spin on wet nurses with the creation of human milk banks—in which breast milk donors give their pumped milk to banks for use by premature babies in hospitals—wet nursing has played a strong role in infant growth and development.
In the pre-Civil War south, African female slaves acted as wet nurses for the white owner's children as well as the children of fellow slaves for cultural as well as practical reasons; older female slaves often acted as wet nurses to the children of younger slaves, freeing the young mother for labor in the fields. From the owner's standpoint, this was a wise use of labor sources, while keeping the infant, a future source of labor, alive and healthy.
In the manual entry below, James Hammond, the owner of plantations outside of Savannah, Georgia and a United States Senator who represented the state of South Carolina, documents his rules for slaves and the issue of breastfeeding. He outlines a series of breastfeeding policies, regulating the amount of time a nursing slave mother could spend breastfeeding, and dictating a weaning schedule. His discussion of pregnant, nursing, and old and infirm women slaves displays his view of the roles and value of slave women in his household.
BREASTFEEDING MANUAL FOR SLAVES
Sucklers are not required to leave their houses until sun-rise, when they leave their children at the children's house before going to field. The period of suckling is 12 months. Their work lies always within 1/2 mile of the quarter. They are required to be cool before commencing to suckle—to wait 15 minutes, at least, in summer, after reaching the children's house before nursing. It is the duty of the nurse to see that none are heated when nursing, as well as of the overseer and his wife occasionally to do so. They are allowed 45 minutes at each nursing to be with their children. They return 3 times a day until their infants are three months old—in the middle of the forenoon, at noon, in the middle of the afternoon; 'til the 12th month but twice a day, milking at noon during the twelfth month at noon only. On weaning, the child is removed entirely from its mother for two weeks, and placed in charge of some careful woman without a child during which time the mother is not to nurse it at all.
Remarks: the amount of work done by a suckler is about 3/5 of that done by a full hand, a little increased toward the last.
Old and Infirm
Those, who from age infirmities are unable to keep up with the prime hands are put in the sucklers gang.
Pregnant women at 5 months are put in the suckler's gang. No plowing or lifting must be required of them. Sucklers, old and infirm and pregnant receive the same allowances as full work hands.
Hammond's manual for slaves grants female slaves work breaks for breastfeeding on an average of every three to four hours, with a fifteen minute rest, then a forty-five minute nursing session, far in excess of breaks provided by most modern corporations for female employees who breastfeed. The breaks Hammond provided allowed for slave infants to survive, though he could have required that wet nurses, and not the mothers, nurse the children. He makes no mention in his diary of reasons for eschewing wet nurses for slave children.
At the same time, Hammond provided full rations to "sucklers" in spite of the fact that they provided approximately sixty percent of the work of a non-suckling mother. Hammond's benevolence toward his slaves, compared to other masters, was progressive. In a speech before the U.S. Senate, Hammond noted that "In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity." Hammond, like many owners, viewed African slaves as child-like and in need of protection. At the same time, Hammond never pulled away from harsh punishment of slaves who disobeyed, but his "sucklers" manual sets him apart in his treatment of female slaves as mothers by providing them with time to nurture and breastfeed their infants.
Nursing to the age of one and beyond, in a time before artificial baby milk, provided babies with nutritionally complete food and with liquids that were filtered through the mother's body, protecting the infant or toddler from disease. Therefore, James Hammond's approach focused on infant survival; slave children were an investment, and the more children who survived the first year of life at a time when infant mortality rates for slave children neared fifty percent, the more future slaves Hammond could cultivate.
As women in the Western world strive for breastfeeding rights that include breaks from work patterned after the three to four hour interval suggested for optimal milk supply, Hammond's manual provokes questions about how breastfeeding is valued in modern-day culture in which artificial baby milk is widely available, while at the same time public health campaigns designed to reduce infant mortality and morbidity promote breastfeeding as the optimal form of infant nutrition.
Burton, Annie L. Women's Slave Narratives. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Books, 2006.
Stuart-Macadam, P., and K. Dettwyler. Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives. New York: Haworth Books, 1995.
La Leche League〈http://www.lalecheleague.org/NB/NBpublic.html〉 (accessed March 7, 2006).