In a 19th-century notebook full of handwritten medical recipes from St. Martin, there is an interesting entry on the fifth page. It describes a medical preparation “For a young woman who has not menstruated.” The recipe is as follows:
“a large hand full of Doodledoo Roots, as much of Cankerberry roots, & the same quantity of Cashia roots, put with 6 pints of water, & boiled down to three, a tumbler taken three times a day, & plenty of exercise taken. a tablespoon full of Yucca in each tumbler of drink, & sweetened if necessary.”
This medicine is different from most in the notebook. It is one of the only recipes that is entirely made of local plants. Doodledoo is a name still used for the columnar or candlestick cactus growing on St. Martin. Cankerberry can refer to a couple different plants on St. Martin, the Bahamas nightshade and the rouge plant or jumbie basil. Cashia is another name for the acacia tree.
The exact purpose of this cure is unclear. Was it used when menstruation was delayed or irregular, which was seen by some doctors as a problem at the time? Was it for a young woman who had never menstruated? Or a young woman who had stopped menstruating because she was pregnant? It isn’t clear from the text.
Most of the cures in the book are actual remedies given to people on the island. In several cases, they were named in the description of the remedy. In this case, we don’t know who the young woman is. We also don’t know her age, her background or whether she was free or enslaved.
Was this medicine used to end pregnancies? There is a long history of abortion as a form of resistance for enslaved people. By not having children, enslaved people were able to hurt slaveholders economically and keep a future generation from suffering under slavery. The enslaved women who were midwives and healers also had some of the best knowledge about plant medicine.
However, this book was not written by an enslaved person. For economic reasons, a slaveholder would not want to end the pregnancy of a person enslaved by them. Abortion was also illegal and against the rules of the church, so it wasn’t allowed for free people at the time, either.
The plants used don’t offer immediate clues, either. Cankerberry and Cashia both have plant medicine uses in the Caribbean and beyond. But there isn’t clear evidence that they were used for anything related to menstruation, particularly on or near St. Martin. Perhaps further research can reveal more about this recipe and its purpose.
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