In June 1970, a doctor was called to the bedside of a seventeen-year-old woman in a small, poor village of Réunion Island. She was bleeding profusely, the result of a botched abortion. For more than a year, the newspapers of the local Communist Party and of the Catholic Church had reported rumors about a clinic owned by a powerful white man where thousands of illegal abortions were supposedly performed. The reported rumors were met with official silence. This time, though, since the doctor had called the police, an inquiry was ordered. The police learned that every year since 1966, in a clinic owned by a Dr. Moreau, 6,000 to 8,000 women had been given abortions without their consent. They entered Dr. Moreau’s clinic three to seven months pregnant; they left after their abortions commenced, many also sterilized. They were sent to the clinic by colonial government institutions in charge of birth control and prenatal care. In France, meanwhile, at exactly the same time, abortion and contraception remained illegal and criminalized; doctors who performed abortions, as well as the women who aborted, could receive long prison terms.
Moreau, who was born a blanc sale, had become a member of the local white elite thanks to his marriage to the daughter of a wealthy owner of a dozen sugarcane factories on the island. Soon he would himself preside over many of the island’s stores, resorts, and clinics, and he became an active member of the local anticommunist and pro-colonial parties. In 1952, Moreau was elected mayor of the same city in which he operated his clinic, with 98 percent of the vote. He was a supporter of Michel Debré, a former prime minister of the Fifth Republic fiercely opposed to Algerian independence and women’s rights, who had come to Réunion Island to “save” the island from communism and decolonization. The postcolonial powers did not want to indict Moreau. He was a powerful white businessman, a pillar of the local conservative party. In August, the police made two arrests: a doctor of Moroccan origin (and there was a constant reminder in the media of his origins) and a nurse descended from Indian indentured workers. Both were sent to prison and forbidden to exercise their trade. Moreau himself was never investigated, and his political career continued unblemished. At the end of 1970 he was unanimously elected to the island’s general council, where he remained as vice president for twenty-three years. The victims of Dr. Moreau received no reparations.
I cannot help but invoke H. G. Wells’s 1896 novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. In the book, the fictional Doctor Moreau has fled England under the suspicion of his nonethical use of dissection. He has found refuge on an isolated tropical island where, with the help of two other white men, he performs cruel and painful surgical procedures on the “Beast People,” a half-animal, half-human species he has created and whose description echoes descriptions of colonized nonwhite peoples: intellectually inferior, obeying only the whip, speaking gibberish. Wells’s novel was a metaphor for colonialism, imperialism, and racism published in a year full of important events in the history of racial imperialism. Among them, consider the defeat of the Ashanti Kingdom in West Africa by British troops, the first Italo-Ethiopian war, and the “separate but equal” decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in the United States, which upheld the constitutionality of institutional racial segregation in the American South.
In Wells’s novel, Moreau’s victims call his laboratory the “house of pain.” In their prayer, the Beast People repeat endlessly a series of sentences that end with the refrain, “Are we not Men?” “Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?” Their recitation has echoes of the abolitionist maxim: “Am I not a Man and your Brother?” The politics of forgetfulness also play a pivotal role in the novel. The book’s narrator, Edward Prendick, who is shipwrecked on the island and exposes Doctor Moreau’s violence there, finally escapes to England and tells the story of what he has seen. His narrative is met with accusations of madness, so he eventually pretends to have amnesia. Nevertheless, the real Dr. Moreau had more luck than the fictitious one, who was finally killed by his creatures. It appears that justice in real postcolonial society was more difficult to obtain than in nineteenth-century fiction.
In addition to the thousands of pregnancies aborted without the mothers’ consent in Réunion, other polices were developed in French overseas territories to control the birth rate. In 1962, a law authorized the use of contraceptives in overseas departments with special regulations: free distribution of contraceptives included IUDs imposed on teenagers without parental consent, and Depo-Provera was also largely used. Meanwhile, offices of birth control opened everywhere. The story of French state policies of abortion and contraception in its overseas colonial territories is a corrective to the French feminist history of abortion and contraception that goes thus: a courageous struggle of French feminists against patriarchy and misogyny. Let us recall some of this latter struggle’s landmarks. A year after Réunion’s abortion-clinic scandal, on April 5, 1971, the “Manifesto of the 343” (also known as the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts”) was published in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. In it, 343 French women declared publicly that they had had an abortion, signing a text written by Simone de Beauvoir. In October and November of 1972, the “Bobigny affair” became a landmark case for the right to an abortion. A minor who had been raped and had aborted was on trial with her mother. Feminist demonstrations were held in France, testimonies were published, abortions were performed in public defying the law. This led to the law, enacted in January 1975, that decriminalized abortion in France. In this story, the situation of poor and nonwhite women in overseas French territories was ignored; it did not fit the dominant narrative of exclusion and patriarchy. The struggles of feminist movements in the colonies were also ignored; they too did not fit the narrative of white European women’s emancipation. Neither the logic of exclusion nor patriarchy could fully explain the kind of social subjection operated by the French state on impoverished and nonwhite women, who were made an object of public policy.
But the politics of birth control must be understood by crossing the local with the national, the local with the global. On the local level one found a racialized politics of contraception contemporary with a new division of labor and a new politics of migration. On the national level, home birth and large families were encouraged, while simultaneously contraception and abortion were encouraged in overseas territories. Nonwhite children were not desired. On the global level, one encountered politics that, in the second half of the twentieth century, saw international institutions pay close attention to female fertility in developing countries, where it became (and remains) the most studied aspect of women’s lives. The link made between poverty and birth rate was central to national and global policies that did not address the woman’s right to exercise control over her sexuality but rather sought to enforce the power of the state or international institutions to impose programs of birth control.
Behind this history stands another forgotten site: female reproductive work in racial capitalism. Historians have told us that among the 15 million Africans shipped into slavery in the Americas, the Caribbean, and the European colonies of the Indian Ocean, nearly five million were women. If in the United States plantation owners chose to organize an internal trade and the social reproduction of the workforce after abolition, this was not the case in all colonies. Most plantation owners counted on the constant arrival of slaves to compensate for the high mortality rate on their land (the rate of survival among slaves was initially eight to ten years). In other words, there was a need for a constant supply of African bodies. For the supply to be guaranteed, slave traders had to steal African boys and girls from their mothers. Though female reproductive work was not directly organized by a state, the burden of reproducing a mobile, gendered, and racialized workforce fell on African women, in Africa. The source of “production” of a bonded workforce was there. Yet the African women who bore and nurtured the more than 15 million Africans (and this number represents the number of those who arrived—it does not take into account those who died en route) are totally forgotten. Forgotten because despite the long struggle of feminists to have women’s reproductive work recognized, this history is either ignored or commodified.
If the law of slavery recognized the role of the enslaved woman in producing future slaves, yet fully denied her rights as mother, slave trade was pure predatory politics. During the rise of racial capitalism, the most important part of the social reproduction of a racialized and gendered workforce was located in Africa, and the legitimate focus on the situation of enslaved mothers on the plantation has obscured that predation. As Karl Marx wrote, “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signal[ed] the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.
The unacknowledged “delegation” of the social reproduction of a bonded workforce division on non-European women did not end with abolition, however. Following the end of slavery in European colonies in the mid-nineteenth century, European powers organized a massive displacement of Indians, Chinese, Southeast Asians, Malagasy, and Africans across the world to work in its mines, railways, and plantations. Nearly 30 million Indians and 50 million Chinese were moved from one colony to another, a vast south-south movement of racialized bodies. The ratio was again two-thirds men and one-third women. Women were often shared as “wives” by four or five indentured men, though their working conditions were as harsh. In the meantime, 60 million Europeans left their continent fleeing famine, pogroms, and poverty, leading to the creation of “countries of white and free men” in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and Argentina. They settled in countries whose native populations had been decimated and dispossessed. Europeans used the notion of terra nullius to justify the appropriation of lands; the systematic politics of land dispossession were inseparable from the denial of rights and the reconfiguration of masculinity and femininity in these territories.
The historians Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have shown evidence of how during this time Western states, in spite of their divergent interests, found common ground in the racialization of the workforce throughout the world, and in a new reordering of the globe between consumers and producers, fit and unfit peoples. Moving a racialized workforce across continents with the aim of preserving and enhancing European economic interests and its need for new resources and goods followed the steps of the slave trade: conventions between European powers, use of the national maritime industry, gendering and racializing sexualities and work. Further, transport conditions, as well as living and working conditions, were barely different from those of colonial slavery. In the meantime, however, Western workers in France, the U.S., and England were winning important labor victories. The importation of indentured peoples in European colonies changed forever the cartography of trade, labor, and race. While the enslaved had to fight against the silence imposed by the West and to find their own voice, the mother of the captive had no voice. In the Western tradition, the enslaved was heard only if she or he spoke through the vocabulary of Western human rights. The freedom and dignity of the enslaved remained framed by the vocabulary of pity. The voice of the enslaved could not be angry or loud, full of insults and shouts. But the sorrow and rage of the slave’s mother was even more silenced. We still need to unearth her muted voice, because her mourning sounds what is at the heart of predatory economy, the will to power.
But if “colonial societies work[ed] through race,” so did the metropole. Following decolonization and the return of the colonizers to the metropolis, the discourse of racial whiteness was brought back to European countries. It became clear that memories of colonial history “do not simply vanish from social landscape, but appear—unasked—at unexpected moments. They can be discerned too in other stories, which on the surface might seem to have little to do with the imperial past. In the post-WWII reorganization of capital and the international division of labor, however, female reproduction by nonwhite women was no longer needed. Third-world women’s fertility was said to be responsible for poverty, an obstacle to development and modernization. It became a source of concern, a threat to global well-being, debated in World Population Congresses where, in the early 1950s, the United States was able to impose its views that third-world women were having too many children, which was a threat to world security, a potential menace of revolts and insurrection. The West would save women of color for a millenary servitude; the wombs of African, Indian, and Chinese women were no longer needed. And women who had been deported to the colonies were said to have too many children too. They were the cause of their own poverty; they had the wrong kind of families. Consequently, nonwhite women constitute the majority of precarious workers in the world today, and they are the first victims of new forms of colonization. They constitute 55 percent of trafficked people, and they play an increasing role in new medical industries such as stem-cell production, which requires high volumes of human embryos, fetal tissue, and umbilical-cord blood. Thus do poor and nonwhite women’s bodies still constitute a site of exploitation for racial capitalism.