Sally the Midwife: Enslaved Medical Practitioners and Historical Erasure

Guest blog post by Linsey McMillan, PhD Student in History, University of Edinburgh.

This article was written by PhD student Linsey McMillan in conjunction with the current exhibition Call and Response: The University of Glasgow and Slavery. The exhibition seeks to explore the unknown or unexpected ways collections can be related to racial slavery, and continues the conversation by widening the range of responses to these historic legacies. McMillan’s research uniquely considers the role of undocumented histories and the impact that has on our understanding of the transatlantic slave trade today.

At first glance, this 1829 appraisal of the Invera Estate in Tobago appears to be nothing more than a cold, cursory account of the value attributed to the estate’s enslaved labourers, stock, and buildings. Alone it provides little to no evidence of the lives of the enslaved men, women, and children included in it.

Figure 1: Appraisement of the slaves, stock, buildings and land of the Invera Estate, Tobago, 28 March 1829, MS GEN 946/4, University of Glasgow Library, Items Collected by Thomas Fraser Campbell, (MS GEN 946).

Figure 1: Appraisement of the slaves, stock, buildings and land of the Invera Estate, Tobago, 28 March 1829, MS GEN 946/4, University of Glasgow Library, Items Collected by Thomas Fraser Campbell, (MS GEN 946).

But it is a reminder that we face many challenges in attempts to uncover enslaved voices. Extensive accounts of individuals are rare and fragmentary. Ethnocentric, white sources obscure or altogether ignore the experiences of enslaved people. The result is conjectural, representative narratives of people sewn together using scraps of material found buried within the archives, and it remains vitally important that historians continue to dig deep to expose such narratives. We must face the continued violence and oppression of the archives head on and challenge traditional “British colonial discourse” in order that we might learn more about the experiences of those who lived, laboured, and died under slavery.[1]

In real terms, this often means utilizing a variety of sources, and borrowing information from accounts of different groups of enslaved people to create a piecemeal picture. Take for example, forty-one -year old Sally, a creole woman living on the Invera Estate. Number fifty-five on the list of enslaved women, and one of three women with the same name on the same estate, Sally held the highly necessary but sometimes controversial role of a plantation midwife. From the record we know that Sally was born in the Americas, if not in Tobago itself, so we can assume she gained her medical knowledge from working with other enslaved practitioners. According to the record, Sally was “healthy” and held an “appraised value” of £38. From the perspective of the enslaver, this made her more valuable than four -year old Susan of the same plantation, whose young age and inability to labour rendered her estimated value at £18. By similar logic, Sally and her midwifery skills were still worth less than a healthy young field labourer such as eighteen-year old Quasheba, appraised at £66.[2] And yet, Sally’s medical know-how provided invaluable support both to enslaved women in the throes of labour, and profited her enslavers through the introduction of new enslaved bodies into the plantation workforce.

Figure 2: Appraisement of the slaves, stock, buildings and land of the Invera Estate, Tobago, 28 March 1829.

Figure 2: Appraisement of the slaves, stock, buildings and land of the Invera Estate, Tobago, 28 March 1829.

Life in the Caribbean for enslaved people like Sally was hard. Across much of the region, life expectancy was low, as were birth rates, and mortality rates were often consistently high. As historian Deirdre Cooper Owens has argued, “to birth a living and healthy black slave was rewarding for all members of slave communities.”[3] Enslaved populations did not self-reproduce effectively, but were constantly repopulated with new enslaved Africans. For the most part, mortality rates remained higher than birth rates in the West Indies, even in the later period when conditions slightly improved. And so, after the abolition of the slave trade, British enslavers in the Caribbean found themselves in greater need of medical attendance for their enslaved populations, and even more particularly for reproductive women and young children.[4]

Figure 3: Appraisement of the slaves, stock, buildings and land of the Invera Estate, Tobago, 28 March 1829.

Figure 3: Appraisement of the slaves, stock, buildings and land of the Invera Estate, Tobago, 28 March 1829.

Enslaved midwives were highly sought after by both black and white women for their medical expertise, and often even by white medical practitioners. Writing of his experiences in Jamaica in 1817 John Williamson, MD, remarked that “the prosperity of the institution [of slavery]” was “materially depend[ent]” upon the skill and actions of plantation midwives. More than this, Williamson expressed that “the plantation midwife [should] be competent to the performance of all that is necessary” during the process of labour, and was of the opinion that they should be held accountable for the care of birthing mothers held within estate facilities specifically designed for labour.[5]

In her role as a midwife and as a slave, Sally would have had to battle against a pervasive belief in her inability to perform her duty as well as a white doctor. On this, Williamson wrote, “the midwives must have the weight of authority exercised against them, to prevent trespasses of a nature so criminal and fatal.” Their directions were clear; should a woman’s labour turn dangerous, enslaved midwives were to call the plantation doctor “without delay; and hope that his qualifications for that duty are such as to enable him to… save the mother and child.”[6] She might have found herself, on multiple occasions, at the centre of power struggles over the course of treatment of a labouring mother, competing against her enslaver or their employees to have her opinions heard. On some plantations, those with particularly large enslaved populations, Sally might even have been in charge of her own team of assistant nurses and midwives, training them with the skillset she herself gained from fellow slaves and practitioners. Whatever her reality, it seems clear that Sally would have been chosen for this role in part due to her affinity for the duties of a midwife, and for her skill in birthing slaves.

We may never know the truth of Sally’s experiences; how she gained her knowledge, how successful she was in her duties, and what kinds of battles she had to fight on a daily basis will likely remain unrecovered. But it is possible to write about her and other enslaved people in a manner that destabilizes colonial rhetoric and challenges the “tragic permanency of historical silence and erasure.”[7] Historians can revive their stories and recover their voices, even if through processes of conjecture, substantiated by the available. The legacy of slavery is alive and well; these are not just the stories of historical figures, they are the stories of modern society and ongoing inequality.


Find out more about the exhibition Call and Response: The University of Glasgow and Slavery here: https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/humanities/slavery/callandresponse/


[1] This methodology is utilized and discussed within a gender and urban history framework in the work of Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p.3. For a related discussion, see Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[2] Appraisement of the slaves, stock, buildings and land of the Invera Estate, Tobago, 28 March 1829, MS GEN 946/4, University of Glasgow Library, Items Collected by Thomas Fraser Campbell, (MS GEN 946).

[3] Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), p. 43. Whilst Cooper Owens is referring here to enslaved reproduction within a North American plantation setting, the same was also true, especially in the post 1808 period, in the British Caribbean.

[4] As historian Randy Browne explains in his work, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), “slaveowners… faced a severe labour crisis as slave populations rapidly declined once the ban on the British transatlantic slave trade went into effect,” leading them to encourage the creation of nuclear family units amongst enslaved populations, and to “promote fertility,” in a variety of invasive ways, p. 105.

[5] John Williamson, Medical and Miscellaneous Observations Relative to the West India Islands, (London: A. Smellie, 1817), p. 223.

[6] Ibid, pp. 226.

[7] Fuentes, p. 144.



Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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