The site connects a cluster of artists, writers and researchers around the figure of midwif as a knot at the centre of an entanglement of ideas around women’s medicinal plant knowledge and practices, and histories of their striving for reproductive autonomy.
Midwif is the Old English form of midwife, with mid, meaning together with + wif, woman. In Dutch this becomes clear when translating mid with met and wife with wijf, meaning woman. A midwif was a “with-woman” – that is, “a woman who is with another woman and assists her in giving birth.” But midwives did much more than assist women in birthing. They helped them with contraception, menstrual regulation and abortion too.
The midwif at the heart of this story is a woman born in Angola in 1645 and transported against her will, as a child in 1658, first towards Brazil on a Portuguese slaver, and then, when that was hijacked by a Dutch VOC ship, to the Cape of Good Hope, to become a slave of the Dutch East India Company. Claesje, as she was renamed, eventually became midwife of the Slave Lodge. In 1689 she accompanied pregnant Geertruyd van Chastelein to Batavia, assisting with the birth of Chastelein’s child aboard ship. In exchange for this service Maaij (mother) Claesje was able to negotiate her freedom and, on her return to the Cape, was listed in the census as a Free Black.
The project Nothing of Importance Occurred: Recuperating a Herbal for a 17th century enslaved Angolan Midwife at the Cape (2018-2023) is the multimedia, collaborative artistic research project of Wendy Morris, descendant of Maaij Claesje.
The midwif site is a branch of this project. It is a resource and forum for writers, artists and researchers who are collaborating on, and extending, the project of recuperation through a focus on the historical roles, and difficulties, of women who assisted women – midwives, healers and doctors without license. The site collects traces relating to fertility and its desired suppression that was transmitted, often vocally, between women. The focus is on plant-based emmenagogues (menstrual stimulators), contraceptives and abortifacients.