In a birth class my partner and I attended earlier this month the teacher emphasized the importance of physical rest after pregnancy. The teacher explained, in graphic detail, the risk of uterine prolapse after the birth if a woman doesn’t refrain from work. The teacher outlined the importance of laying still and nursing your newborn on demand, so that milk supply is set high in the first weeks. The teacher warned us of the dangers of allowing an infant to “cry it out” by withholding physical and emotional warmth. Everything she was teaching was in accordance with current understanding of best practices, but everything she was teaching went against recent (and current) cultural norms.
Over five hundred years ago, on December 27th, 1512, the Law of Burgos was signed. This was a long document outlining the treatment and conversion of the indigenous people of the Americas. It codified how the indigenous people, primarily the Taíno people from Hispaniola (current day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), could be treated by Spanish colonialists. There was conflict over just *how* awful the Spanish settlers could be towards the indigenous people, and these laws were intended to clarify how bad Spanish people could be. The laws were atrocious, of course. They were based on the assumption that Spanish settlers could relocate groups of Taíno people and force them to mine for gold, raise crops, and mandate conversion to Catholicism.
Reading over the decrees of the Law of Burgos, however, a few lines stick out as unexpectedly humanitarian, given the time and place. The Spanish settlers were told, for instance, that the Taíno people were allowed to continue their ritual dances and retain their Chief hierarchies. Compare that to the way that indigenous people’s children in the United States were later forced into schools designed to eliminate every aspect of their culture.
The one that really stunned me while reading through the laws, however, was regarding the treatment of pregnant women. Basically, after women are four months pregnant, they could no longer be forced to work in the mines or plant crops in the fields. They are able to do the housework chores of the Spanish settlers, but they have to stay near the home. Then, after they give birth, they are given three years of similar restrictions to nurse their child, before returning to the mines. Now. Let’s be clear. This is a slave state. This is atrocious. This is completely unacceptable colonization and these people were treated in an absolutely inhumane way.
And yet the Spanish lawmakers understood that women in late pregnancy and women with infants needed extra consideration. They understood that a woman couldn’t be expected to work the same sort of physical labor immediately after the birth of a child as they might be otherwise Hell, they understood that breastfeeding a child took three years. And here, five hundred years later, it is confusing to people that women might need six weeks off after the birth of their child to recover. People are shamed for keeping their infant close, for “spoiling” them, for refusing to keep them in a crib in another room. Women are pumping on their lunch breaks, struggling to make it to a year of nursing, because employers will only let them pump once a day while they simultaneously try to feed themselves.
Maybe it isn’t that the Spanish colonialists were particularly humanitarian, particularly forward looking in their treatment of women and infants. Perhaps it is just that our culture’s views on this plane are so backdated that they find themselves seemingly harsh when compared to facets of five hundred year old violently religious imperialist laws dictating the treatment of slaves and serfs.