Pain Pollen: The Story of Cotton

Claudia J. Ford, PhD

Cotton (Gossypium sp.)

White faces, pain-pollen settle downward through a cane-sweet mist and touch the ovaries of yellow flowers. Cotton-bolls bloom, droop. Black roots twist in a parched red soil beneath a blazing sky.

–Jean Toomer, Cane

Besides sugar cane, Saccharum sp., no other plant is more iconic of the vile economic and social conditions of American slavery than cotton. It is a compelling irony that cotton seeds and root were widely known and used by enslaved African women as effective abortifacients, used in small personal acts of agency and resistance against a heinous system and the unwanted pregnancies that resulted from rape and enforced breeding.

The genus Gossypiumis an herbaceous perennial shrub in the family Malvaceae. Gossypiumis described by E. Barrie Kavasch in her book, Herbal Traditions, and she says, “Of the two New World cotton species cultivated by early Indian cultures, Gossypium hirsutumthe oldest cotton grown in this hemisphere, can be dated back to about 2500 B.C. in prehistoric Mexico.” Due to the ancient history of cotton domestication, cultivation, and transport there are many modern species synonyms, hybrids, and varieties of this plant, and by the 1600s many different species of cotton, native and introduced, were already known in the Americas.

Gossypium sp.was documented to be in use by Native, African, and European populations for menstrual regulation, childbirth, postpartum, and gynecological disorders. Lyda Taylor’s study of southeastern Native groups lists Gossypium herbaceum, and the plant entry states: “Common cotton. Koasati – childbirth – The whole roots are boiled and the decoction is drunk during labor to ease childbirth. Medicinal Properties: Cotton is an excellent oxyto[xic] and is valuable in arresting hemorrhage and ameliorating the other symptoms of uterine fibroids. Comments. This is a most valuable medicine as used by the Koasati.”[1]

Clarence Meyer, in American Folk Medicine, assigns the use of cotton root to African slaves: “The decoction made from the bark of the root of cotton plant was used by slaves for painful and obstructed menses.”[2]William Ed Grimé quotes botanist Laurence Johnson to explain the history of Gossypium, and he states,

“Cotton root was introduced to professional notice as a specific uterine tonic after having long been used among the negroes of the Southeastern States as an abortifacient. Its action upon the uterus is similar to that of ergot, and it is used instead of the latter in cases of uterine inertia during parturition, and in amenorrhea, dysmenorrhoea and scanty menstruation. Whether its action upon the system at large be also similar to that of ergot is unknown but worthy of investigation.”[3]

Herbert C. Covey begins by offering a general explanation of the undervalued contributions of Africans to American plant knowledge and practice. Covey argues,

“Slaves brought with them African knowledge of Cesarean sections, midwifery, a method of small pox inoculation, and other effective medical practices . . . Despite their introduction and use of these effective treatments, Whites generally failed to recognize African contributions to medical and health care in the antebellum South and in the years that followed. This is particularly true for their contributions in plant and herbal remedies that were adopted by White physicians.”[4]

Covey’s ethnobotanical entry for Gossypium herbaceumincludes its use by both Native, African, and European communities, and provides the following information:

“Native populations in Alabama used cotton roots to ease labor pains. Folk practitioners used cotton root bark, inner root bark, and seeds, which they believe were the medicinal parts of the cotton plant . . . Folk practitioners made tea out of cotton roots to ease labor. The root bark and seeds also cause uterine contractions . . . Modern medicine has concluded that cotton root bark does, in fact, promote abortion or the onset of menstruation and the seeds lower sperm production. In general, slaves found limited medical use for cotton. However, some used it as an abortifacient. In the nineteenth century, some slaves used the plant to induce uterine contractions and hence abortions.”[5]

John Uri Lloyd (1849-1936), a chemist and pharmacist, was well known for his eclectic medicine sympathies and profound knowledge of herbal medicine. Lloyd published prolifically, authoring thousands of academic articles, 14 books, and 8 novels. Lloyd credits African American sources with the practice of using cotton root as an abortifacient:

Gossypii cortex (Cotton Root Bark) Introduced into U. S. P. in 1860, Secondary List. Cotton root bark, Gossypii radiciscortex, is used as a stimulant and emmenagogue, the decoction being considered, in the days of American slavery, capable of producing abortion. It was thus introduced by the negroes, and from thence came into the hands of the profession, being first employed by physicians of the Southern United States . . . The credit for the discovery of its uses must be given to the negroes of the South. Cotton fiber and root bark are obtained from one or more cultivated species of Gossypium herbaceum.”[6]

Historian John M. Riddle (1937-) has written a definitive text on the history of the use of plant medicines for contraception and abortion, Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Riddle claims African origins for the use of cotton root as an abortifacient, “The use of cotton root (Gossypium arboreum) for abortions appears to have been discovered in Africa and was brought to America by slaves. The active substance is identified as gossypol . . . Negro slaves drank a preparation made from its root for an abortion, which became widespread in the southern United States.”[7]

Moerman has a short ethnobotanical entry on Gossypium herbaceum, referencing Lyda Taylor: “The Alabama and Koasati Indians boiled cotton-plant roots and gave the tea to women to ease labor in childbirth, which is one of the uses to which it has been put by whites . . . In slave days a decoction of it was considered an abortifacient.”[8]

RobertVoeks explains the conditions under which ethnogynecological knowledge for terminating unwanted pregnancies would have been sought and shared. Voeks claims,

“There were significant social and political dimensions to the use of medicinal species by African slaves. In Suriname and the Caribbean, for example, African and Indian slave women were forced to submit sexually to European planters, sailors and soldiers, as well as to free and enslaved African men. The use of herbal treatments to induce abortion was, however, suppressed by the Crown authorities for fear of injuring female slaves. In spite of prohibitions, abortion was common . . . Indian and African women, confronted with similar hardships, somehow crossed their cultural and language barriers in order to share their knowledge of herbal abortifacients.”[9]

The conditions under which African female slaves would desire to abort a pregnancy were many, including rape, maltreatment, brutal labor, and the tragedy of enforced separation from young children sold away to other masters. 

The story of cotton, used for women’s reproductive health and specifically in use by enslaved women to abort is made more interesting by knowing related stories about another plant, Viburnum prunifolium, black haw. The Canadian Pharmaceutical Journalreported in 1882 on the use of black haw, considered it an effective remedy, and provided a detailed entry, referencing African ethnobotanical practice:

“This article [plant], which has for many years been known to the people, and especially to those of the southern states, for its property of preventing miscarriage, was first introduced to the profession in 1866 by Dr. Phares, of Mississippi, but was not accorded a very extensive trial until in 1876 by Dr. E.W. Jenks, of Detroit, Mich, discussed its merits with favorable conclusions in a paper read before the American Gynaecological Society. Dr. Phares described it as, “Particularly valuable in preventing abortion and miscarriage, whether habitual or otherwise; whether from accidental cause, or criminal drugging.” He [Phares] further adds, in the same connection, to the habit common among the negro women on some of the southern plantations, of taking a decoction of gossypium, or cotton root, for the purpose of procuring an abortion, and says: “Some farmers on whose plantations I have used the medicine, and who have seen much of its effects on negro women who had always managed to miscarry, declare their belief that no woman can possibly abort if compelled to use the viburnum.” As already indicated, black haw was largely employed in slavery times as a preventive of abortion, and to counteract the effects of cotton root taken with criminal intent by the negresses. Its efficacy in preventing threatened miscarriage in certain conditions is undoubted.”[10]

Medical information on black haw and hemlock continued to be reported and debated, and from February through April 1886, three articles were published in The British Medical Journalon the ethnogynecological effectiveness of Viburnum prunifolium, or black haw, responding to an original article published in the Liverpool Medico-Chirurgical Journalin January 1885, authored by obstetrician John Henry Wilson. Drs. Wilson, Campbell and Napier report on successes with their patients using black haw to stop miscarriages. “On some of the plantations in America, it is the popular belief a woman cannot abort if she be under the influence of black haw, although she may be taking medicine with a criminal intent. My experience would go so far as to confirm that opinion.”[11]

The stories of Gossypium sp. point to the likelihood that the knowledge and use of this ethnogynecologically important plant circulated among and between Native, African, and European communities in the New World. It is probable that Native groups were using cotton root for menstrual regulation before Africans and Europeans arrived on the continent. If, as Riddle indicates, Africans brought the knowledge of the species’ properties with them to the Americas, they urgently put it to use exercising some agency over the inhumane breeding practices of slave owners. Cotton root induced abortions could be seen as an act of African American women’s resistance. Even as slave women bloodied their hands picking the masters’ bolls, they could chew the roots of the cotton plant to impede unwanted conception. Knowledge of the use of the cotton plant spread through the slaves’ practices and the European botanists’ publications, hence even while slave owners attempted to thwart African women’s resistance by forcing them to drink Viburnum prunifolium, or black haw, Native and European communities shared in this additional knowledge of the ethnogynecological uses of the cotton plant.

Bibliography:

Covey, Herbert C.African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-Herbal Treatments. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2007.

Grimé, William Ed. Ethno-botany of the Black Americans. Algonac, MI: Reference Publications, Inc., 1979.

Lloyd, John Uri. Origin and History of all the Pharmacopeial Vegetable Drugs, Chemicals and Preparations with Bibliography: Volume I.Cincinnati: The Caxton Press – American Drug Manufacturers’ Association, 1921.

Meyer, Clarence. American Folk Medicine. Glenwood, IL: Meyerbooks Publisher, 1973.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2009.

Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Taylor, Lyda Averill. Plants Used as Curatives by Certain Southeastern Tribes. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University, 1940.

Voeks, Robert. “Traditions in Transition: African Ethnobotany in Lowland South America.” In Mobility and Migration in Indigenous Amazonia: Contemporary Ethnoecological Perspectives, edited by Miguel N. Alexiades, 275-294. New York: Berghahn Books, 2009.


Notes:

[1]Taylor, Plants Used as Curatives, 38.

[2]Meyer, American Folk Medicine, 174.

[3]Grimé, Ethno-botany of the Black Americans, 122; citing Laurence Johnson, A Manual of the Medical Botany of North America (New York: William Wood & Company, 1884), 108.

[4]Covey, African American Slave Medicine, 47.

[5]Covey, African American Slave Medicine, 9.

[6]John Uri Lloyd, Origin and History of all the Pharmacopeial Vegetable Drugs, Chemicals and Preparations with Bibliography: Volume I (Cincinnati: The Caxton Press – American Drug Manufacturers’ Association, 1921), 155-156.

[7]Riddle, Eve’s Herbs, 198.

[8]Moerman, Native American Medicinal Plants, 295.

[9]Robert Voeks, “Traditions in Transition: African Ethnobotany in Lowland South America,” in Mobility and Migration in Indigenous Amazonia: Contemporary Ethnoecological Perspectives, edited by Miguel N. Alexiades (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), 283-184

[10]Ontario College of Pharmacy, “Viburnum Prunifolium,” Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal, edited by E.B. Suttleworth, volume XV, no. 9 (April 1882): 275-277.

[11]John Henry Wilson, M.D., “Viburnum prunifolium, or Black Haw, in Abortion and Miscarriage,” The British Medical Journal (April 3, 1886): 641.