Put this on your list when you visit Brazil. It is a monument to Black mothers, a monument remembering the Black women who struggled against the brutality of slavery. Monumento Mãe Preta (The Black Mother Monument) is located in Sao Paulo, Brazil next to a church known as Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Homens Pretos (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Black Men).
The church was built by African-Brazilian Catholics in 1906 and it is said to be the oldest African-Brazilian institution serving followers in Sao Paulo. Beside the church is the Monumento Mãe Preta. It stands specifically in the square of the Largo do Paiçandu neighborhood of Sao Paulo, showing an Afro-Brazilian woman breastfeeding a baby.
The Black Mother Monument sculpted in the 1950s by Júlio Guerra highlights the disturbing history of enslaved mothers forced to breastfeed white babies in the 1600s. Thousands of Afro-Brazilian women who were enslaved were forced to breastfeed their owners’ babies, and they became known as the “Black mothers.”
History of enslaved women being used as wet nurses
In addition to their plantation duties, many female slaves during slavery in the 1600s were taken into the homes of their masters to serve their mistresses, cook, clean and wash for them. If a mistress had too many children, the domestic worker was made to help in caring for the child. After a while, female slaves were made to take the place of low-class women paid to breastfeed babies, a practice known as wet nursing.
By the 17th century, wet nursing by slaves had become very popular in Europe. The practice soon reached America through British settlers. The practice was an excuse for many white mothers to avoid breastfeeding with hopes of maintaining their stature and avoiding the “messy” part of motherhood. Women who were seen breastfeeding were often thought of as uncultured, poor and often shunned. The practice became very popular when doctors of the time did all they could to prove that breastfeeding was an unhealthy act for women. It is believed that doctors were paid huge sums of money to write such reports.
The children of slaves grew healthy while many white families lost their children to ill health. This made many westerners force slave mothers to breastfeed their white children so that they could develop better and survive the early months of childhood.
By the 18th century, the trend had become very popular. Once a slave mother had a child, she was quickly assigned to a white mistress and forced to breastfeed her white baby instead of her own. Young and healthy slave women were also forced to breastfeed white babies after doctors discovered that the continuous sucking of a sexually active female breast could result in lactation.
While they breastfed white babies at the expense of their children, enslaved mothers tried to keep their children alive by feeding them with concoctions they believed will be good substitutes for milk. This resulted in the high deaths of babies of slaves throughout the slave trade. At the peak of the forced wet nursing, slave traders often kidnapped newborn babies from their slave mothers. The pain in the breasts left these women with no choice but to breastfeed other babies who were often white. Some reluctant slaves were beaten and often milked like cows to feed white babies.
Enslaved mothers usually kept the white babies in their homes until the child’s family felt it was time to take them back. Later, they were forced to move in with the family where they could be monitored. The practice started to die down after slaves were slowly getting their freedom. Most of the wet nurses were saved by their families or lovers who bought their freedom for them.
Walk by the Monumento Mãe Preta any time you are in Brazil to learn more about this sad but true story.