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The History of Abortifacients

By Stassa Edwards

The peacock flower (or flos pavonis) is an arresting plant, standing nine feet tall in full bloom, with brilliant red and yellow blossoms. But it’s more than beautiful; it’s an abortifacient, too. One of the most striking records of the plant comes from German-born botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian who, in her 1705 book Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, recounts:

The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds [of this plant] to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are. The black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be well treated, threatening to refuse to have children. They told me this themselves.

Merian wrote this account after traveling to Surinam, then a Dutch colony, for the purpose of recording the country’s plants and insects. She had hoped to make a major discovery by uncovering a plant like quinine, which had made both planters and botanist rich. In the early eighteenth century, applied botany was big business. Advances in the field had opened a new world of medicines. But Merian made no such discoveries, recording instead the little-valued knowledge of slave women whose use of the peacock flower was deeply political.

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