The experience of enslaved Black women using the peacock flower (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) as an abortifacient had been hidden from common understanding of this plant. When in bloom, the eye-catching peacock flower grows up to 9-feet tall, and is hard to overlook. By drinking the seeds, leaves, or flowers of the plant in tea-form, enslaved women could induce a miscarriage.
Under the legal regimes of the antebellum United States and Greater Caribbean, enslaved people were considered property, unable to claim ownership over their own bodies. Plantation owners sought to grow their investment in human bondage through encouraging reproduction within enslaved labor forces. Refusal to reproduce became an illegal and political act. Despite efforts to limit the practice, enslaved women passed on this vital plant knowledge within their own communities.
“The black slaves from Guinea and Angola must be treated benignly otherwise they will produce no children at all in their state of slavery… Indeed, they even kill themselves on account of the harsh treatment to which they are ordinarily subject. For they feel that they will be born again with their friends in a free state in their own country, so they instructed me out of their own mouths.”
Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705)
Maria Sibylla Merian
Maund, Benjamin, (1790-1863)
The Botanist: containing accurately coloured figures, of tender and hardy ornamental plants.
London : R. Groombridge, 1840
NYBG William & Lynda Steere Herbarium.