Gender & Re/Production in British West Indian Slave Societies, Part I

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Cecilia Green

IN 1776, ADAM Smith (1978: 451) wrote, in an authoritative and proprietary voice: “Among our slaves in the West Indies there is no such thing as a lasting union. The female slaves are all prostitutes, and suffer no degradation by it.” Thus, and in a multitude of other ways, as I point out later in this three-part essay, did the alleged “culture” of the oppressed come to constitute a subterranean cesspool in which ruling whites disposed of and concealed their refuse of culpability, conferring it instead upon their victims as the latter’s “native” heritage.

Two centuries after Adam Smith recorded his beliefs about Caribbean slave women, Black, Caribbean-born historical sociologist Orlando Patterson (1982: 141) writes that “Slaves [in the West Indies] mated promiscuously and sometimes in outright prostitution; in sporadic unions; in relatively stable unions; in quasi-polygamous unions; and rarely, in marriage … Promiscuity was common, especially among the women …” (emphasis mine). Patterson’s only voiced regrets are for the male slaves–who “had little authority generally, this being one of the major indignities of slavery”–and in respect to the presumed loss of patriarchy.

Moreover, Professor Patterson appears to have carried over those regrets into his more recent defence of Clarence Thomas as a misunderstood black man whose “down-home style of courting” was unfairly transposed from a subcultural setting where it “[carried] only minor sanction” to an “overheated cultural arena of mainstream, neo-Puritan America, where it incurs professional extinction” (New York Times, October 20, 1991, Op-ed: 15).

What I, and other Black women, heard from this was that (a) among Blacks, abuse of women was no big deal; (b) once more a Black man was being betrayed by an “uppity” Black woman, who was handing him over to white middle-class neo-Puritan America so that the project of his emasculation could be resumed (a.k.a. Black female complicity in white emasculation of Black men); and (c) once more, too, the right of Black men to sexually impose on Black women (and have a bit of fun) was being interfered with by people outside the “community.” This reaction from Patterson seemed to be much more about (contempt for) Black women than about (support for) Black men, his claim to be a feminist and his plea for Black men notwithstanding.

Farfetched as all this may seem in an introduction to a historical essay, it was Patterson himself who constantly brought up the link with history and slavery in his Thomas/Hill discussions, pointing, in another context, to “the compensatory behavior on the part of Black men in the face of their own humiliation–domination and objectification of Black women, sometimes seeing conquest of Black women as a means through which they could repair their wounded pride” (“Roundtable,” Tikkun, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1992, 25).

The historical rationalizations Patterson brought to bear on the Thomas/Hill “affair” were the identical ones he had long been using in his scholarly discourses on slavery in the Caribbean: wounded Black men as the primary casualty of White Patriarchy; non-intellectual Black women (Black female bodies) as the sensuous medium (or objects?) of “a nonpuritanical [orgiastic?] Caribbean culture” (“Roundtable,” 25). If Black men had it both ways–and the images of victim and stud looked suspiciously like a white ruling class invention–where did this leave Black women?

Ironically, while I shudder at the misogyny inherent in Patterson’s entire repertoire of ideas, I “agree” that a certain critique of bourgeois puritanism and its hypocrisies is essential to the project for women’s liberation. I also agree in part with his critique (1982) of B.W. Higman, Caribbeanist historian and historical demographer, who compulsively misreads West Indian slave household data to fit in with his theory of the primacy of the stable, nuclear family as an organizing principle of the slave community. What I find most troubling about Higman’s work is the way in which something of an exclusive identity is established between (male-headed) nuclearity, stability, and moral superiority. At the same time, all evidence of female prominence or woman-centeredness tends to be relegated to non-history, to the blank parts of the page.

This particular kind of reinterpretation of history is also linked to a certain genre of inversion that takes place in “petty bourgeois” and masculinist Black nationalism, leaving the structures and institutions of Eurocentrism intact, but shifting the personnel around. Thus in the Caribbean, as the madonna/whore class-based ideological dichotomy of feudal Europe gave way to the accreted symbolism of the White madonna and the Black whore, the impulse of the male nationalist was often to press for another shift, to the symbol of the Black Madonna.

Hence, Ford-Smith (1991: 75, 76) finds that the “sacred role of woman as Black Madonna and mother of the race was promoted in Garvey’s poetry, speeches and other writings.” Marcus Garvey, anti-colonial and anti-racist champion, promoted women’s leadership and participation in the UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) in a way that no other male nationalist leader had before, but he nonetheless “upheld with reverence the notion of the woman as the homemaker, culture bearer and as someone who intrinsically carried the memory of the race.”

What Adam Smith, Orlando Patterson, B.W. Higman and Marcus Garvey all have in common, in spite of the critical divisions of race, class and ideology which separate them, is that, as men, they have been the privileged makers of history, and in all their accounts or praxes, women have figured, to varying degrees, as objects or reflections of male ubjects, the raw material of male invention. Note that it is not my intention to trivialize the differences between these men; Garvey is my champion too.

This piece is an attempt not just to “factor women in” but also to begin to re-write West Indian/Caribbean history from the point of view of Black women, specifically during the period of slavery, and to do so through a critique of masculinist interpretations and
manipulations of the historical data. It is a project which has already been initiated by a small but growing group of Caribbean feminist or womanist historians–notably, for the Anglophone Caribbean, Erna Brodber, Honor Ford-Smith, Joan French and Rhoda Reddock. It is their foundation, therefore, which provides the spirit and guiding principles for this essay.

A Conceptual Note

In talking about West Indian slave women’s economic roles I am going to have recourse to the concept of re/production. The economy of a social formation is reproduced by the activities and processes of what I call, in short, “re/production.” Re/production refers to the combined activities of goods-production and human-reproduction. Goods-production is a general reference to the production and servicing of consumer and producer goods. Human-reproduction is a combined reference to biological reproduction (which strictly speaking, includes childbearing and breastfeeding) and non-biological reproduction (which includes childrearing, the day-to-day physical and emotional nurturance and “servicing” of human beings, typically within a family-household, and household maintenance activities).

A mode of re/production assumes a particular articulation between these “two productions” within a sexual division of labor closely correlated with a class division of labor, the entire ensemble having a historically specific character.

I. Slave Women and Re/production

The first thing that strikes one about the origins of Afro-Caribbean women’s economic roles is the extent to which their lives as slaves were defined by the imperatives of extra-domestic, gang- based field production of export staples for an “alien” class and “alien” community of consumers.

Where most women’s histories appear to “begin” with the family or domestic-based re/production and move outwards extra- domestically or further inwards towards an inner sanctum of reproductive specialization, privacy and seclusion or isolation, Afro-Caribbean women begin their history as coerced, “public” laborers alienated from their own bodies and “birthright” in a system based on reproductive artificiality. Thereafter, they appear to move back and forth between alienated production or service for others and attempts to restore or reconstitute, often singlehandedly, that birthright.

Four critical features of the colonial-capitalist slave mode of re/production on the West Indian sugar islands provide an insight into the constraints and possibilities that helped to forge Afro- Caribbean women’s identities:

(a) Unremitting field labor; sexual division of labor. Field labor was the prevailing occupational, and, indeed, life, experience of a majority of the slaves; moreover, it was a predominantly female experience. Slave women quite regularly made up 60-70% of the First or Great Gang–the gang responsible for the hardest and greater part of the field work on sugar plantations. Lucille Mair (1974: 295) notes for Jamaica that even before 1820 when men tended to outnumber women in the slave population, “women nevertheless outnumbered men in the most menial and least versatile tasks on the plantation.”

Women were also domestics, and a few occupied the valued and higher-status positions of midwife, “doctress,” and driver (mostly of the “hogmeat gang,” composed of small children). But, according to Higman (1989: 41), “it was rare for domestics to constitute more than 10 per cent of the slave labor force on large plantations” (usually, the proportion was far smaller), and, in any event, most of the domestic positions were reserved for “coloreds” or mixed-race slaves; so that, for better or for worse, the overwhelming majority of Black women had to contend with the rigors of field labor.

A smaller proportion of the male slave workforce was tied to field work and, even in the harshness of slavery, in spite of (not entirely unfounded) claims to its imposition of a “negative equality” upon men and women or its “neutralization of gender,” men enjoyed monopoly access to the most skilled and highest status slave occupations, as the technicians in the factory, the plantation artisans or craftsmen, and the head drivers in the field.

(b) Workers or breeders? Re/productive coercion. West Indian slave women’s fertility was notoriously low. As much as 50% of them remained childless, and the other 50% had small families. For most of the British West Indian territories, slave populations failed to reproduce themselves right up until the end of slavery (or somewhat before, as for the older plantation colony of Barbados).(1) Certainly, this tended to be true for the territory (or island) as a whole, even though sugar and non-sugar plantations displayed different patterns, with the dominant sugar plantations having by far the most notorious anti- natalist and high-mortality conditions. Slave populations were regularly “re-stocked” by means of the slave trade until its abolition in 1807.

This systemic anti-natalism of the sugar plantation economy emanated from the structural prioritization of women’s producer over their reproducer role, the intensive and relentless use of the slaves as workhorses, the concomitant deprivation of the physical, social and psychological conditions required to generate and support healthy childbearing and family life, and the ready availability of slaves through the African trade. At least up until the 1780s, the slavemasters deemed it “cheaper to buy than breed.”

Indeed, when this calculated conveniencewas threatened by abolitionist pressure and the prospect of an end to the external supply of slaves, women’s reproductive usefulness grew by leaps and bounds in the estimations of the planter class. The ending of the slave trade in 1807 persuaded even the most intransigent of planters to join the trend towards a pro-natalist regime and offer inducements to women, such as cash bonuses, extra material comforts and reprieves from field labor, to have more children. But it was too little too late, and the planters, for the most part, continued to encounter demographic failure with regard to their workforces. This was partly due to a refusal on the part of slave women to respond positively to the demand to produce more slave children.

Barbados, with its larger resident planter class, smaller plantations, and longer and more judicious tradition of slave/plantation management, was the first to register a surplus of births over deaths, gradually followed by the Leeward Islands (and for less clear reasons, St. Lucia and the Virgin Islands), in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Virtually all the other sugar-related islands and territories, comprising the vast majority of slaves, showed natural decreases up to the final years of slavery (Higman, 1976: 67-70).

(c) Sex objects; denial of spousal, parental, and family rights. The sexual exploitation of slave women by white men was very high in the Caribbean.(2) The tendency for sexual victimization by dominant males to be an integral part of the experience of slave women was aggravated by the system of absentee proprietorship that became the norm in the British Caribbean (again, with the limited exception of Barbados) from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. This meant that many of the plantations–and this was less true of the (less important) non-sugar plantations–were not the locus of resident planter class families and communities, but were run by supervisory staffs of single white men, who aggressively and at will selected sexual “partners” from among the female slaves on the plantation.(3) However, the predisposition of all white men, with or without white wives, to abuse the prerogatives of absolute ownership is well explained in the following quotation:

“Since economic interest was found in both her productive and reproductive labor, the slaveholder asserted rights of ownership over his female slaves’ sexuality. The slave woman was deemed sexual property not just as an instrument of reproduction, but along the full range of her sexuality. She was owned as both a procreative and a sexual object. Thus, she was available to be raped and sexually abused with impunity by the slaveholder, his sons, the overseer, or any other white man. And here, racist and sexist ideology combined to justify the wrong.” (Burnham, 1987: 198-199)

Just as the slavemaster upheld his dominion over slave women along “the full range” of their existence, he denied slave men access to the source of patriarchal power. This led to a situation which differed quite dramatically from many others in that slave women’s relationship to the master was not mediated through a private patriarchal family: it was an “immediate” and fused class/patriarchal relation of forced re/production and sexuality, with no intervening “paterfamilial” rights reposited in slave men. Indeed, the master’s absolute “third party” rights abrogated or dissolved the potential for the formation of an intervening and ‘organic’ conjugal community of entitlement.

The real tragedy, of course, lay not in the denial of the rights of “paterfamilias” (of which slave women were perhaps well rid) but in, among other things, the negation of conjugal and parental (maternal and paternal) rights, especially through the planter’s indiscriminate right of sale of family members. We must fully acknowledge the assault, not just on maternal rights, (that, the most grievous, surely), but also on the general right to be (or have) a social father/male parent, and the right to form and sustain families and sexual/spousal partnerships of one’s choosing.

Both slave women and slave men suffered from the fact that relations of concubinage between the white master and slave woman always took precedence over de facto relations of spousehood between slave men and women. And, although “[slavery] was inherited in the female line,” and the “child of a slaveowner was born in servitude, irrespective of the status of the father” (Cousins, 1935: 37), no parental rights resided in that fact for the slave mother, except by indulgence of the absolute owner/patriarch of the entire slave “family.”

Slavery represented an extreme individuation and objectification of human beings, regardless of gender, as units of labor power and property, and objects of ab/use and exchange. In such a system, there was no room for human and civil, and therefore family, rights. The law was quite explicit in this regard. The case against legally and socially entitling the slaves in their family relations was based on the double-sided principle that (i) the slaves had no civil existence, and therefore, could not assume “the civil benefits and burdens of husband and wife” (Burnham, 1987: 212), and (ii) they were “naturally” immoral, and could be expected neither to adhere nor be held by others to a code of sexual morality: “they were therefore exempt from the natural moral strictures of marriage and family” (ibid.: 222).

Denied family rights (“the father of a slave is unknown to our law”) and the conditions for self-sustaining family life, slaves were nonetheless condemned for being innately incapable of the finer sensibilities, commitments and competencies of parenthood. Slave women were said to lack a maternal instinct, and slave men, to be brutal and indifferent fathers. Both, condemned for their lack of parental solicitude and skills, were themselves equivalently reduced to Slave Children of the White Master/Father or White Patriarch. The persistent ideological infantilization of the slaves–their relegation to a state of perpetual childhood–was a critical element in the process of dehumanization and deculturation.

Women bore the brunt of this multiple jeopardy. Burnham (1987: 221-222) notes that the slave woman in the American South, in a situation representative of all American slave societies, was considered legally inviolable, meaning that she could not legally be raped (for some time by either a Black or a white man), since she had no virtue or moral personality to be offended or legally defended; indeed, her “natural lasciviousness” invited what might constitute “rape” for white women, but not for her. Beckles has confirmed this as the case for Barbados as well:

“In the laws of the island during the 17th and 18th centuries, a man could not rape his slave; the slave had neither legal rights nor personal identity, and masters could do as they wished with slaves. Rape was considered a private matter and, until 1805, murder carried at law only a <156>15 fine. The slave codes, then, were designed to ensure that slave owners’ rights to `enjoy’ property were not undermined, either by other individuals or by government.” (Beckles, 1989: 142-3)

In a (perhaps not so) contradictory twist, the system often upheld the assertion of proprietary claims by slave men over particular slave women, i.e., vis-a-vis other slave men. In the Caribbean, this was particularly true for elite male slaves, who were allowed a wider range of patriarchal prerogatives (e.g., the practice of polygamy). Finally, however, any such prerogatives must be weighed against the fundamental vulnerability of the Black male to be criminalized in his very being as a “natural” and scarcely restrainable threat to that most sacrosanct and potent of white patriarchal symbols–“virtuous” white womanhood.

(d) Autonomy and resistance; provision grounds, Sunday markets, and cultural reconstitution. Slave women must be understood not just as victims but as historical subjects and social agents who placed certain limits on the assault on their dignity and the level of humiliation they were prepared to endure, who fought back, who refused to cooperate with planter class designs and directives, who participated in efforts to bring down the system, who asserted their own identities and cultural mores, and who seized hold of opportunities offered by the system to widen and deepen their sphere of entitlement, agency and autonomy.

Enslaved women engaged in (gendered) class struggle against their masters and gender struggles against/with their male counterparts. These struggles involved modes of dignified accommodation to, resistance against, and separation or autonomy from/within the plantation system. They encompassed two major “sites”: the dominant site of the plantation–including the canefields, the factory, the master’s house, the master’s bed–and the marginalized reproductive or domestic niche of the slaves themselves, including their famous provision grounds or kitchen gardens and Sunday markets, as well as their families and communities.

Slave women repeatedly refused to comply with re/productive and sexual coercion. The low birth rate among them was partly the result of their own resistance to bonded childbearing and to bringing children into the hell of slavery. In defiance, in misery, and out of respect for life, they practised abortion and even infanticide. As workers, women were routinely regarded as more recalcitrant and harder to control than men. Their trademarks were “insolence,” “verbal abuse,” and persistent insubordination, and many a plantation overseer had also to be on guard against physical assault by a sufficiently provoked female slave.

Barbara Bush (1982; 1986; 1990) and others have explored the full range of women’s resistance to slavery, including the poisoning of whites by domestic slaves in particular, their participation in slave revolts and maroon wars, their centrality to Africanist religious and cultural practices that gave the slave community its strong sense of existentialist autonomy and spiritual and “subterranean” power. Noteworthy here is the fact that women were known to be more suspicious than men of Christianity and more adamant in their resistance to conversion, the rate of cooptation being highest among elite male slaves.

By far the greatest clue to the particular structure of subaltern women’s agency in Caribbean economies, however, is provided by the ways in which they maximized the possibilities and minimized the constraints of the slave system in an effort to make lives of their own. These ways are particularly legible in their roles as provision ground cultivators and “hucksters” or marketers of slave produce or acquisitions. The contradictory duality of their identity, defined by the demarcation between plantation labor for the master and own-account activities, is well expressed in the following description of one slave woman:

“She was a domestic servant, who, `although a clever and superior person’ was `next to impossible to manage.’ Relegated to field work for insubordination, she one day made such a commotion that she was placed in the stocks. When this failed to subdue her rage, the driver was obliged to admit that she would never work for him `or any other Massa.’ But despite her intransigent attitude to her official role as a slave, in her private domestic life she was energetic and positive, owning extensive provision grounds, kept `in beautiful order’ and running `a complete huckster’s shop’ on the estate.” (Bush, 1982: 22)

There were two main systems of slave subsistence in the British West Indies–the weekly allocation of food rations to each slave from central plantation stores, and the raising of food crops for personal consumption (and local exchange) by the slaves themselves on individual garden plots or “grounds” alloted to them by their masters. Every single island and most plantations maintained some combination of the two methods, but the islands came to be distinguished according to which method constituted the primary means of slave subsistence and which played a supplementary role. In either case, the supplementary system (together with the slaves own exploitation of hunting, fishing, foraging, stealing and exchange opportunities) was critical to the survival of the slaves and could make the difference between adequate nourishment and undernourishment, malnutrition or even starvation.

Thus, Jamaica and the Windward Islands, where huge tracts of mountainous land were available to be given over to slave provision grounds, were largely “home-fed,” while Jamaica’s coastal lowlands and most of Barbados and the Leewards were brought almost exclusively under cane cultivation and depended heavily on food imports (or were largely “foreign-fed”). The most “humane” system, modestly successful in Barbados and Antigua in the later period of slavery (the alleged “amelioration period”), was one which included, as a back-up, some food production within the temporal and spatial boundaries of the regular plantation enterprise.

While the granting of provision grounds formed the basis of an increasingly significant sub-economy controlled by the slaves, the conditions of such entitlement must not be romanticized. From the planter’s point of view, the granting to the slaves of grounds unsuited to cane cultivation at the margins or outside the boundaries of the estate, to be cultivated, moreover, on the slaves’ own time, (a) hardly constituted a major sacrifice of land and labor resources, (b) greatly reduced the costs and other burdens of feeding the slaves, and (c) contributed to social stability by giving the slaves a stake in the system.

Indeed, the convenience of topography and slave self-sustenance was always tempered by other considerations, such as the state of the sugar market. A boom in sugar prices led to a further concentration on sugar and a withdrawal of land and labor from food cultivation. In allocating the resources of the plantation, the greatest priority was given to sugar export production, the life-blood of the enterprise.

In this context, too great a reliance on either foreign feeding or slave self-subsistence imposed untold hardships on the slaves and provoked periodic crises of subsistence resulting in starvation or severe undernourishment among them. Imported supplies could be interrupted and suspended for long periods by wars (which could raise the price of sugar and cause an expansion of cane cultivation), trade rearrangements, and hurricanes, all of which were endemic to Caribbean reality. The planters repeatedly ignored legal stipulations to plant part of their estates in food crops as a safety net in the matter of slave subsistence. Conversely, the slaves were expected to sustain provision grounds on the basis of an extremely precarious niche in terms of energy, time, distance, space, crop security and quality of land.

The slaves were generally given one Saturday a fortnight or a half-Saturday every week for the cultivation of their grounds out of crop-time. Crop-time, the harvesting and sugar-making period, extended from December or January through April or May, and encompassed the dry season. During that time, which entailed the longest work days of the year and included regular night work, the slaves had only their free Sundays–also their market day–to tend their crops.

The bulk of provision cultivation took place during the planting season (the “hard time” or “hungry time”), also the wet season, when the slaves were occupied with the most gruelling and unhealthy tasks of cane-holing, fertilizing and weeding. It was during this period that the danger of starvation constantly stalked the plantations, since there were few food crops to be harvested, no ripe cane to suck on, hurricanes and disease epidemics threatened, and shipping came to a virtual halt. Moreover, provision grounds were often located at great distances from the plantation and up mountainsides, and contained poor soils.

These challenges had to be confronted during alternative periods of physical emaciation (the planting season) and round-the-clock field-to-factory labor (crop-time). For women, who, it must be remembered, made up the bulk of the field slaves, the requirements of childcare, however marginal to their compulsory plantation schedules (childcare often being centrally organized), constituted an additional burden.

Given the conditions under which they were cultivated, therefore, the relative success of the provision grounds must be held as testimony to the will, initiative and extraordinary effort of the slaves. Indeed, those contemporary observers who went against the unreflectively celebrationist grain of many travellers’ and sojourners’ accounts of slave “polinks” or “little Guineas,” seeing in the relinquishment of responsibility for slave reproduction to the slaves themselves an instance of downright neglect and abuse, rather than of liberal or generous endowment, were not far off in their judgement.

Still, for the slaves, there was no question that the provision grounds provided the greatest opportunity for creating a base of power and autonomy in the colony. The slaves were given “managerial authority” over their unsupervised provision farming, and they subsequently came to dominate the internal food market in all the islands, even the foreign-fed ones (Beckles, 1991: 32-33). Through their struggles, they converted the status of the provision grounds and Sunday markets from a convenient concession motivated by planter self-interest into a customary right invested in themselves and not to be trifled with.

For decades, they “struggled to maintain their marketing rights against hostile legislation” and “persistent efforts to criminalize huckstering” (Beckles, 1991: 40). They were legally prohibited from competing (or collaborating) with small white planters and shopkeepers, so that, in a number of islands, they were not allowed to grow or sell ginger, cotton, coffee, cocoa, indigo==all secondary plantation crops–or to sell various dry goods (the cultivation or sale of the major plantation staples being quite out of the question).

Once the planter legislatures had demarcated and enforced the areas of colonial economic life from which the slaves were to be absolutely excluded, the terms of the internal division between their own-account activities and their regular plantation labor became relatively institutionalized (though constantly embattled and contested), and came increasingly to resemble the arrangements of feudalism and its customary contracts. One writer speaks of the “peasant breach in the slave mode of production” (Lepkowski, 1968-69), and another has made famous the concept of the slave as a “proto-peasant” (Mintz, 1989 [1974]).

The slaves gained the right to pass on their customary tenures of particular plots through the family line, to the point where relatives from other plantations would come forward to claim their inheritance with the consent of the master. By the end of slavery, many slaves had secured outright ownership of the provision plots, sometimes bolstered by laws granting such property rights. Moreover, any attempt to modify, transform or abrogate the unspoken contract governing their provision grounds or Sunday markets became subject to a process of negotiation, either forced upon the planter by the slaves, or entered into voluntarily by him.

Marshall (1991: 60) reports that “[slaves] would not move from their ground without notice or without replacement grounds being provided,” and Gaspar (1988) has offered a graphic account of widespread, organized slave protests and “disturbances” following the 1831 abolition of Sunday markets in Antigua.

The colonies came to rely on the slave provision markets for a substantial portion of their food. The slaves sold the surplus from their ground provisions, plantains and corn, a variety of vegetables and fruits, fresh meat, poultry and fish, milk, eggs, firewood, charcoal, fodder, specially processed cash crops or agro-products such as cassava flour and arrowroot starch, their plantation allowances of imported salt meat and fish, and crude handicrafts fashioned from calabash, leather, straw and wood, as well as more refined artisanal work. Some slave products, such as cassava flour, were regularly purchased from the slaves by their masters for plantation supplies, and, others, including–most prominently–arrowroot, became export items (Tomich, 1991: 313-14; Handler, 1971).

Slaves not only dominated internal food markets, they also accumulated an impressive proportion of the locally circulating coin currency, as a regular means of exchange and as savings. They participated in a limited but thriving market in imported consumer goods, “the largest traffic being in clothes, household wares, and other items of comfort and convenience not provided by the estate owners” (Mintz and Hall, 1960: 17).

There is even evidence that more slaves had the wherewithal to purchase their freedom than in fact chose to (Tomich, 1991: 316; Beckles, 1991: 38), indicating, at least for some, a decision to cast their lot with (what was perceived as) the relative security of the slaves’ reproductive niche–as afforded by the institutionalized gains of customary rights and partial freedom from supervision, scrutiny and interference, as well as bonds of extended kinship and community–rather than expose themselves to the risks, vulnerabilities and unknown dangers of the “freedmen’s” lot.

Most accounts of the slaves’ reproductive niche have been gender-blind or gender-neutral. A major recent comparative collection on “the slaves’ economy” (Berlin and Morgan, eds., 1991) provides not even a passing reference, in its island-Caribbean material (comprising four articles by prominent Caribbeanists), to fundamental implications for gender. Relatively well (if recently) established historical facts such as the predominance of women in huckstering(4) and their prominence and leadership in slave protests against moves to abolish Sunday markets in the 1820s are duly noted without any further exploration of the gender dimension along the full range of reproductive, family and intra-community practices and relations. Admittedly, the evidence is scant–one historian has pointed out that the lack of evidence is itself an indication of the relative autonomy and separateness of the world of the slaves (Tomich, 1991: 312)–but already the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) interpretative slant seems pre-emptive of an open and dialectical explanatory investigation.

If anything, there tends to be an underlying assumption that the slaves responded to and countered the planters’ fragmenting and individuating policies and practices with monolithically and “conventionally” familist and corporatist strategies (across gender). There has been very little attempt to problematize or interrogate the ideological or historical construct of “family,” and the gender contradictons related to it. Furthermore, the tendency is to naturalize not just “family,” but a particular kind of family, so that the noblest defence of the slaves against charges of promiscuity, immorality and disorganization–as if they really needed to be defended against such charges–is presumed to be provision of “proof” that they lived, after all, in stable, monogamous and nuclear families, and that the (rather large) extent to which they did not is of only negative or residual significance, and is not deserving of its own explanation.

In keeping with this tendency, the work of a number of prominent Caribbean historians has been marred by a masculinist over-correction of the so-called Frazier-Moynihan thesis (itself reproduced in the more contemporary work of Orlando Patterson) which ultimately accepts the latters androcentric, ethnocentric and elitist terms of reference (see Reddock, 1988: 125-32).

A question I posed rhetorically nearly a decade ago remains relevant today: What are “the sexual- and class-political implications of `stable’ slave families”? (Green, 1983: 27) The question could have been more properly and inclusively asked about class, gender, sexual and ethnic implications. One of the few Anglophone Caribbean historians addressing such questions is Rhoda Reddock (1985; 1986; 1988; 1989), who re-writes Caribbean history from a feminist perspective, or at least problematizes and centralizes gender in her historical accounts.

Certainly also, two recent seminal texts on British West Indian slave women, by Barbara Bush (1990) and Hilary Beckles (1989), have furnished us with rich and indispensable resources in the critical project of historical reinterpretation. Reddock’s work, however, most boldly occupies and highlights the contentious three-way boundary between history about women, women’s history or “herstory,” and “engendered” or genderized historical accounting or interpretation.

It is to the last of the latter two neglected projects that I turn in the next two sections, selectively exploring and suggesting some connections between the economy of the slaves, family forms, and culture, in relation to gender as well as, to some extent, slave and non-white hierarchy. It will be necessary to approach this, however, by first understanding the dominant principles structuring the context within which slave women attempted to make lives of their own.


  1. This situation was not unique to the British West Indies. In fact only the U.S. South as a whole seems to have avoided the “demographic disaster” of New World slavery. The full range of reasons is still being debated, although the sugar plantation regime appears to be a major factor, as evidenced by plantations in the West Indies and sugar plantations in Louisiana. Fogel and Engerman (1979:567) report: “The United States received about 6% of all Africans arriving in the New World during the period of the slave trade (1500-1870), but had about one quarter of the New World black population in 1825, and about 31% in 1950. The British West Indies received 17% of all slave imports, but had only about 10% of the black population in 1825, and about 5% in 1950. The other Caribbean islands had patterns similar to the British, with a large excess of the accumu
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  2. lated total of slave imports over the black population living at the end of the slave era.”

  3. Citing other sources, Ward (1988: 183n) notes that “in Jamaica 1829-32 the percentage of slave births fathered by white men stood at about 15 in the western sugar parishes, 10.7 in the island as a whole, 9.2 in Port Royal Parish, and 6.9 in Manchester …. ln the early 19th-cantury USA the proportion was ‘less than 5% ….”
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  4. Absentee planters had local legal and financial representatives, called “attorneys” (not usually real lawyers), who tended to be part of the merchant and planter upper class, resided in the towns, and might be responsible for twenty or more estates (or one or two in the case of “lesser attorneys”).
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  5. Sidney W. Mintz (1989: 212, 216), considered to be one of the most seminal and most important (Pan-)Caribbeanist historical anthropologists, has a problem with the attribution of the tradition of local marketing in the Caribbean to both West African origins and the predominant role of slave women. Without making even the slightest gesture in the direction of an explanation, he feels the first claim to be exaggerated (“We feel that a tendency to overattribute features of Jamaican peasant culLure to the African culture stream may have slighted the role of European culture and cultural history”) and the second to be inaccurate (as [it] is the writers opinion, that male marketers may have been more important). Beckles (1989) gives an excellent portrayal of the special role played by slave women in huckstering in Barbados. A critique of Mintz’s ohften sketchy, impressionistic, and Eurocentric writings on the English-speaking Caribbean in particular is perhaps overdue (and would not necessarily diminish his worthy contributions). Furthermore, Mintz’s remarks are ironic because Caribbean scholars lag behind their U.S. counterparts in the exploration of the African roots of Afroamerican/Caribbean culture, only partly because they take them more for granted (e.g., as everyday, living components of Creole languages).
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References for Part 1

Beckles, Hilary McD., “An Economic Life of Their Own: Slaves as Commodity Producers and Distributors in Barbados,” Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1991, 31-47.

_________, Natural Rebels. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Berlin, Ira and Philip D. Morgan (eds.), Special Issue: The Slaves’ Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1991.

Burnham, Margaret A., “An Impossible Marriage: Slave Law and Family Law,” Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, 5, 1987, 187-225.

Bush, Barbara, “Defiance or Submission? The Role of the Slave Woman in Slave Resistance in the British Caribbean,” Immigrants and Minorities, Vol. 1, No.1, 1982, 16-38.

__________, “‘The Family Tree Is Not Cut:’ Women and Cultural Resistance in Slave Family Life in the British Caribbean,” in Gary Y. Okihiro (ed.), In Resistance. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

__________, Slave Women in Caribbean Society 1650-1838. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Cousins, Winifred M., “Slave Family Life in the British Colonies: 1800-1834,” The Sociological Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1935, 35-55.

Fogel, Robert W. and S.L. Engerman, “Recent Findings in the Study of Slave Demography and Family Structure,” Sociology and Social Research, Vol. 63, No. 3, 1979, 566-589.

Ford-Smith, Honor, “Women and the Garvey Movement in Jamaica,” in R. Lewis and P. Bryan (eds.), Garvey: His Work and Impact. New Jersey, Africa World Press Inc., 1991.

Gaspar, David Barry, “Slavery, Amelioration, and Sunday Markets in Antigua, 1823- 1831,” Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1988, 1-28.

Green, Cecilia, “Towards a `Weapon of Theory’ for Black and Working Class Women’s Liberation–Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class,” Fireweed, Issue 16, 1983, 21-31.

Handler, J.S., “The History of Arrowroots and the Origin of Peasantries in the British West Indies,” Journal of Caribbean History, 2, 1971, 46-93.

Higman, B.W., “Domestic Service in Jamaica Since 1750,” in E. Chaney and M. Garcia Castro (eds.), Muchachas No More. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

__________, “The Slave Populations of the British Caribbean: Some Nineteenth Century Variations,” in Samuel Proctor (ed.), Eighteenth Century Florida and the Caribbean.
Gainesville: University of Florida, 1976.

Lepkowski, Tadeusz, Haiti, 2 vols., Havana: Casas de las Americas, 1968-69.

Mair, Lucille Mathurin, “A Historical Study of Women in Jamaica from 1655 to 1844,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, 1974.

Marshall, Woodville K., “Provision Ground and Plantation Labour in Four Windward Islands: Competition for Resources during Slavery,” Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1991,

Mintz, Sidney W., Caribbean Transformations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989 [1974].

__________ and Douglas G. Hall, “The Origins of the Jamaican Internal Marketing System,”
Yale University Publications in Anthropology No. 57, New Haven, 1960.

Patterson, Orlando, “Persistence, Continuity, and Change in the Jamaican Working-class Family,” Journal of Family History, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1982, 135-161.

Reddock, Rhoda, “Historical and Contemporary Perspectives: The Case of Trinidad and Tobago,” in Keith Hart (ed.), Women and the Sexual Division of Labour in the Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica: Consortium Graduate School of Social Sciences, UWI, 1989.

__________, “Indian Women and Indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago 1845-1917: Freedom Denied,” Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3&4, 1986, 27-49.

__________, “Women and Slavery in the Caribbean: A Feminist Perspective,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1985, 63-80.

__________, “Women and the Slave Plantation in the Caribbean,” in S. Jay Kleinberg (ed.),
Retrieving Women’s History. Oxford and New York: Berg, 1988.

Smith, Adam, Lectures on Jurisprudence. R.L. Meek, D.D. Raphael and P.G. Stein (eds.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Tikkun, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1992, 25ff. “Roundtable: Sexuality After Thomas/Hill.”

Tomich, Dale W., “The Other Face of Slave Labor: Provision Grounds and Internal Marketing in Martinique,” in H. Beckles and V. Shepherd (eds.), Caribbean Slave Society and Economy. Jamaica and London: Ian Randle Publishers and James Currey Publishers, 1991, 304-318.

__________, “Une Petite Guinee: Provision Ground and Plantation in Martinique, 1830-1848,” Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1991, 68-91.

Ward, J.R., British West Indian Slavery, 1750-1834: The Process of Amelioration. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

September-October 1992, ATC 40