Captivity, Breastmilk, and the Myth of Colonial Supremacy: An Interview with Carla Cevasco

Captivity, Breastmilk, and the Myth of Colonial Supremacy: An Interview with Carla Cevasco

Cassandra Berman

Carla Cevasco is the winner of the second annual Nursing Clio Prize for Best Journal Article. Her winning submission, “‘Look’d Like Milk’: Colonialism and Infant Feeding in the English Atlantic World,” appeared in the Journal of Early American History in 2020.

Dr. Cevasco is an assistant professor of American Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Her research examines the intersections of food, the body, material culture, gender, and race in early America. “‘Look’d Like Milk’” examines two 18th-century captivity narratives to better understand colonial and Native women’s intimate encounters around breastfeeding, nutrition, and infant survival. Unlike the interactions that occurred between colonial and enslaved women through wet nursing, the power dynamics within captivity presented significant challenges to colonial supremacy. Colonial infants and children in captivity were a cause of particular anxiety due to fears that they would be permanently absorbed into Indigenous communities. Because of this, Cevasco argues that “English colonists’ fears about the feeding of infants were no less than fears about the fate of the colonial project.”[1]

Congratulations on winning the Nursing Clio Prize with this exceptionally insightful and sensitive article! What has the response been to this work?

Thank you! Frankly, this article had a really torturous publication process, and bounced around to different journals for years. It means a lot to me to see it in print, to receive this prize, and to see people’s reactions to it.

Headshot of Carla Cevasco
Headshot of Carla Cevasco. (Courtesy of the author)

I’ve gotten some emotional responses to this work. I think today many parents feel a lot of pressure about infant feeding – a pressure that has presented in various ways across history, but takes a particular form today. The ideology that scholars have called “natural motherhood” invokes an imagined past of Western society, and a problematic view of Indigenous peoples.[2] It’s this belief that breastfeeding in the past, or in Indigenous or “traditional” societies, was/is somehow easier than in a world with access to modern infant formula.

On the contrary, people did struggle with breastfeeding in the past, for many of the same reasons they might struggle now – pain, supply problems, exhaustion. And in the past, breastfeeding could be much more dangerous for mothers, who could literally die of mastitis or other infections that we now treat with antibiotics. The stakes were also much higher for babies, who faced terrible mortality rates if they were not breastfed, because the substitute foods that were available were often nutritionally deficient and contaminated with pathogens. (These problems continue in places without access to clean water for mixing formula.) Aware of these dangers, many parents turned to wet nurses instead. And, then as now, inequities of race and gender impacted who could provide their children enough to eat – for example, wet nurses tended to be poorer, immigrants, or enslaved, and often could not care for their own children adequately because they were nursing someone else’s children.

So, in the United States today, breastfeeding is still hard, but at least women can get antibiotics if they need them, and there’s also this nutritionally complete alternative in the form of infant formula, for those who cannot or do not want to breastfeed. However, racial inequities in infant feeding still remain. What I’m saying is, romanticizing the past can take a real toll on parents. Those who encounter my work, and the work of other scholars of infant feeding, are often relieved to learn that parents in the past had similar struggles.[3] I’m not saying that the past doesn’t offer useful lessons to today’s parents, but we do need to use that past more critically.

A wooden board with a strap across the top
Odanak/St. Francis Abenaki cradleboard. (National Museum of the American Indian)

Your forthcoming book examines hunger in the context of Native-colonist encounters in the early Northeast. How does this article fit into your broader research?

This article started as a tangent from the dissertation that became my first book project, about colonial and Indigenous experiences of hunger in northeastern North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the book concerns adults, but I kept finding accounts of hungry babies. I realized that these hungry babies were driving fascinating cross-cultural negotiations between many kinds of people.

Then I started reading about how Europeans became very anxious about infant feeding as they began their colonial invasions of other parts of the world.[4] I realized that if we understand the reproduction of settler children as fundamental to settler colonialism, then infant feeding is crucial to settler colonialism, too. I was likewise inspired by the brilliant work scholars of slavery have been doing on infant feeding.[5] I noticed that there wasn’t much scholarship out there regarding infant feeding and colonial and Indigenous parents in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So I started to pull these threads together, and that’s where this article came from.

Pursuing this line of research got me interested in the history of feeding infants and children in the United States, which has become my second book project. I’m starting to research how the nourishment of children fits into big questions about national belonging, racialization, and gender.

What drew you to the topic of infant feeding in captivity narratives? What are the challenges of working with these types of highly mediated sources, and where else might we learn about Indigenous reproductive and nutritional knowledge in early America?

This is a huge question for anyone studying Indigenous peoples in early America. The conventional historical archive is colonial – the sources were overwhelmingly written by colonists, and the whole nature of the archive is trying to prove the legitimacy of colonization by demonizing Indigenous peoples. Captivity narratives are no exception. The narrators of these sources are colonists who were captured by Indigenous peoples, lived for some time with them, and then were released or they escaped. (Captives who were absorbed into Indigenous communities did not tend to leave captivity narratives behind.) When you’re reading captivity narratives, you’re reading sources by colonists who tended to have a maximum amount of disdain for Native people.

But these sources also can tell us useful information if we read them for ethnographic detail – Jonathan Dickinson’s narrative, which I talk about in the article, offers a vivid snapshot of Indigenous coastal Florida in the late seventeenth century. And these sources fascinate me (and other scholars) because they vividly reveal colonial dependency. In my article, colonists needed to feed their babies, and they found themselves dependent upon Indigenous care and knowledge, whether it was a Wabanaki woman teaching Elizabeth Hanson how to make baby food out of boiled cornmeal and walnuts, or Ais women breastfeeding Mary Dickinson’s baby. Like many scholars of captivity narratives, I argue that these moments of dependency really challenge colonists’ belief in their superiority over Indigenous peoples.[6]

So, as a historian, you have to read these sources really, really carefully. One strategy is knowing as much as you can about early modern Europeans so that you can try to subtract their preconceptions from their descriptions of Indigenous ways. Another method is turning to Native communities and scholars today. For instance, the Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks has written extensively about the importance of reciprocity in the Native northeast, and even though it’s a completely different geography, I can see ideas of reciprocity shaping how Ais women both fed Mary Dickinson’s child and expected her to nurse their children too.[7]

Nursing Clio always strives to connect historical topics on medicine and gender with current issues. Reproduction and infant care certainly continue to be shaped by gendered and racialized power dynamics. Can you talk about how your research on infant feeding in early America might help us better understand women’s experiences today?

I’m very interested in how seemingly individual parenting choices can further racism and inequality. White parents often view the choice to live in a particular neighborhood or send their kids to a particular school as individual choices, but when you add them up they’re driving systemic forces of racial and class inequality, forces which have long histories. Looking at the colonial parents in my scholarship, I’m curious how they viewed the relationship between their individual choices and the structural changes of colonialism and racialization in early America – forces that were emerging and evolving then, and continue to shape the United States today. Parents today receive cultural messages that feeding children is a didactic practice. I’m eager to explore the evolution of this belief, and how parents and children have used food to taste and make the world around them.


    1. Carla Cevasco, “‘Look’d Like Milk’: Colonialism and Infant Feeding in the English Atlantic World,” Journal of Early American History, 10 (2020): 147–178, quotation on 162.
    2. Jessica Martucci, Back to the Breast: Natural Motherhood and Breastfeeding in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
    3. Recent works include Marissa C. Rhodes, “Tender Trades: Wet Nursing, Urban Domestic Economies and the Intimate Politics of Inequity in the Anglo-Atlantic, 1750–1815” (PhD Dissertation, University at Buffalo, SUNY, 2019); and Nora Doyle, Maternal Bodies: Redefining Motherhood in Early America (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), Chapters 3 and 4.
    4. See, for example, Lisa Forman Cody, Birthing the Nation: Sex, Science, and the Conception of Eighteenth-Century Britons (Oxford University Press, 2005); Ruth Perry, “Colonizing the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 2, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Oct., 1991): 204–234; and Mary E. Fissell, Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2004).
    5. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, “‘[S]he could…spare one ample breast for the profit of her owner’: White Mothers and Enslaved Wet Nurses’ Invisible Labor in American Slave Markets,” Slavery & Abolition 38, No. 2 (2017): 337–355; Emily West with R.J. Knight, “Mothers’ Milk: Slavery, Wet-nursing, and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South,” Journal of Southern History 83, No. 1 (February 2017): 37–68; Jennifer L. Morgan, “‘Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500–1770,” William and Mary Quarterly 54, No. 1 (Jan., 1997): 167–192; and Sasha Turner, Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
    6. Teresa A. Toulouse, The Captive’s Position: Female Narrative, Male Identity, and Royal Authority in Colonial New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Lorrayne Carroll, Rhetorical Drag: Gender Impersonation, Captivity, and the Writing of History (Kent State University Press, 2007); June Namias, White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (University of North Carolina Press, 1993); and Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (Yale University Press, 2018), Chapter 7.
    7. Brooks, Our Beloved Kin; and Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

Featured image caption: 19th-century nipple shield. (Courtesy Wellcome Collection)

Cassandra Berman is an archivist and historian specializing in the history of women and gender. She holds a PhD from Brandeis University and an MLS and MA from the University of Maryland. Her historical research focuses on maternity and print culture in colonial America and the early United States.