Painting of a black woman breastfeeding a white infant while a black infant is on the floor at her feet.

Black Nurse, White Milk: Wet Nursing and Slavery in Brazil

In 1888, Brazil became the last country to abolish slavery in the Western hemisphere. The process of emancipation in the country, however, had been gradual, beginning in 1850 with the final end of the slave trade. In the second half of the nineteenth century, legislation continued to chip away at the institution of slavery, including the 1871 Law of the Free Womb, which freed all children born to enslaved women, and the 1885 Sexagenarian Law, which freed all slaves over 60.

Abolitionist legislation hinged upon enslaved women’s reproductive bodies. But despite the centrality of enslaved women’s wombs to the process of abolition — after all, it was through their bodies that freedom was literally born — they had not demographically sustained the institution throughout the three centuries of its existence. In Brazil, as in most Atlantic slave societies, the slave population was reproduced through imports and not natural growth.1 Thus, for many slave owners it remained cheaper to import new slaves than to rely on reproduction to maintain a labor force. With some regional and temporal exceptions, slave owners valued the productive labor of enslaved women over their reproductive labor.2

This demographic reality often resulted in a violent separation between mother and child. One area in which this disregard for the children of enslaved women came to the fore was the mercenary practice of wet nursing. In urban areas, slave owners rented out for profit their slaves who had recently given birth. In cities like Rio de Janeiro, newspaper advertisements for enslaved wet nursing services existed throughout the nineteenth century.

One 1827 advertisement read: “For rent, an ama de leite [wet nurse] with very good milk, from her first pregnancy, gave birth six days ago…Be it advised that she does not have a child.”3

Old newspaper ads for wet nurses in Portuguese.
Brazilian ad for wet nurse. (African Globe)

Another 1845 advertisement stated “For rent an eighteen-year-old girl, wet nurse, healthy, and with much good milk for the last two months. She is for rent because her child has died.”4 There was no advertising space to explain how these infants died, or what the mother was feeling about those deaths or the prospect of nursing a child that was not her own.

The 1871 Law of the Free Womb, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to have increased slave owners’ disregard for the now free children of enslaved women. Slave owners were now less concerned with whether or not children survived to laboring age, as they were no longer their property. Physicians, for example, believed that slave owners viewed free children as a nuisance rather than a potential investment. One medical student wrote in 1873 that he observed many cases of forced child abandonment of ingênuos (as the free children of enslaved women were called) when he was interning at the city’s maternity hospital:

Asleep, the poor mother, trying to recover her strength after the painful labor of childbirth, had her innocent little child taken from her and sent to the roda [orphanage turnstile]; later, when the disgraced woman awoke she looked anxiously for the fruit of her womb; upon learning that he had been sent to the roda, she came undone in tears, and she became submersed in a deep sadness.5
A black woman with white child on her back, Bahia, 1860 (left). An enslaved woman with a sleeping child on her back in an undated photo (right).
A black woman with white child on her back, Bahia, 1860 (left). An enslaved woman with a sleeping child on her back in an undated photo (right).
(Moreira Salles Institute)

The practice of slave owners abandoning ingênuos to rent out their mothers for profit seemed to only increase as legislators, abolitionists, and the enslaved themselves fought for final abolition in the 1880s.6 Physicians believed slave owners were abandoning the free children of their enslaved women at higher rates to take full advantage of “a lucrative source of profit”: the mother’s milk.7

Perhaps most important, however, was what this brutal practice of separating child and mother meant for the ability of the enslaved woman to nurse other children. Some physicians viewed enslaved women’s sadness as making them “unfit” to nurse other children.8 Other physicians agreed, arguing that enslaved women took revenge on their “ambitious and despotic owners” by mistreating the infants under their care.9 In the end, the economic cruelty of wet nursing resulted in the poor “quality” of enslaved wet nurses. In the words of one medical student, how could you have “full confidence in a woman who … abandons her own child, although due to necessity?”10

This last quote hints at the blame physicians put on enslaved women themselves, particularly after the Law of the Free Womb. In the 1870s and 1880s, various medical theses described how enslaved nurses became “seduced” by the good treatment they received from their owners when they were rented out.11

A black nanny with a white child.
A nanny with child, photographed in 1870 in Salvador de Bahia.
(João Goston/Original at Moreira Salles Institute

Physicians also believed that amas felt actual maternal love towards their white charges, purposefully abandoning their own children because they wanted to take care of white children: “It it is a certain satisfaction, a particular pride, that to be the mãe de leite (milk mother) of a white child, those that judge themselves superior in this conjuncture now depend on the enslaved woman’s zeal, on her caresses, a type of unconscious revenge that the slave woman exercises over the free.”12

Missing from these debates and treatises are the feelings and desires of enslaved women and their children. Historian Maria Helena Machado describes the absent black children in these stories as “little ghosts” that haunt our historical memory of the brutal practice of renting out an enslaved woman to breastfeed a child that was not her own. Sometimes this was done at the expense of a living child; other times, it was done because that child had died. The contradiction is clear, however, that while an entire abolition process was built on the supposed elevation of enslaved women’s wombs — and the products of those wombs — the practical policy was one of deadly neglect and violence.

Further Reading

Camillia Cowling, Conceiving Freedom: Women of Color, Gender, and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Okezi T. Ovoto, Progressive Mothers, Better Babies: Race, Public Health, and the State in Brazil, 1850-1945. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2016.

Notes

  1. Laird W. Bergad, Slavery and the Demographic and Economic History of Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1720–1888 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Manolo Florentino and José Roberto Góes, A paz das senzalas: famílias escravas e tráfico atlântico, Rio de Janeiro, c.1790–1850 (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1997); Robert W. Slenes, Na senzala, uma flor: esperanças e recordações na formação da família escrava, Brasil Sudeste, século XIX (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Fronteira, 1999). Return to text.
  2. On reproductive and productive labor see Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). Return to text.
  3. Jornal do Comercio, Rio de Janeiro, December 1827. Return to text.
  4. O Mercantil, Rio de Janeiro, April 30, 1845. Return to text.
  5. Juvenal Martiniano das Neves, Do aleitamento natural, artificial e mixto e particularmente do mercenario em relação as condições em que elle se acha no Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro: Typographia da Reforma, 1873), 38. Return to text.
  6. José Cypriano Nunes Vieira, Hygiene da primeira infancia (Rio de Janeiro: Typographia e Lithographia de Moreira, 1882), 40, 64–65, 68. Return to text.
  7. Ildefonso Archer de Castilho, Hygiene da primeira infancia (Rio de Janeiro: Typographia Universal de Laemmert, 1882), 40. Return to text.
  8. Neves, Do aleitamento natural, 38. Return to text.
  9. Luiz Augusto Corrêa d’Azevedo, Do aleitamento natural, artificial e mixto e particularmente do mercenario em relação as condições em que elle se acha no Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro: Typographia Academica, 1873), 67. Return to text.
  10. João Baptista Capelli Camarano, Da alimentação nas primeiras idades (Rio de Janeiro: Typographia de Miranda & Almeida, 1884), 40. Return to text.
  11. Targino Ottoni de Carvalho e Silva, Da alimentação nas primeiras idades (Rio de Janeiro: Typ. Hamburgueza do Lobão, 1884), 25. Return to text.
  12. Vieira, Primeira infancia, 53. Return to text.

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