The Contest of Class and Patriarchy, Part II

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Cecilia Green

IT MAY BE NOTED that the only thing “natural” about family is mating (and that may take homosexual as well as heterosexual form), conception, and childbearing. Family forms, and all attendant institutional accretions, are derived from cultural selections within a particular techno-economic base and mode of re/production. Of course, family form is subject to class and gender (and sexual-identity) contestation, but there are certain limits and conditions which shape the options available and the room to be had for maneuvering.

The relatively intimate relationship between class/patriarchal relations of production and property and the family form of the “subaltern classes” acquires particularly acute dimensions in the conditions of coercion and erasure (the so-called “tabula rasa”) upon which plantation slave society was constructed. At the same time, the completely different and far-flung ethnic progenitures of the contending classes, and the overwhelming demographic preponderance of the subordinate racial-ethnic group, made for a particularly vigorous cultural contest as well as some unanticipated consequences.

Racial-gender demographic and social correlates played their part in producing unusual consequences too, as for example in cases where single white males on plantations of well over two hundred or even three hundred slaves (in racial ratios of 50:1 or so), with their considerably reduced ability to sustain and reproduce a “corporate” ethnic niche or identity, presided over a social dialectic which combined brutality and (personal and cultural) intimacy in proportions and complexity probably unheard of in colonial mainland America (i.e., especially the Upper South).

There are two dimensions to gender dynamics in all class societies. One is that of “patriarchy” as a ruling-class project or an institutionalized system of rule; the other is that of gender or “local” gender relations as a concrete, class-diffracted, and sometimes ethnic-specific, mode. “Patriarchy” as a ruling system itself encompasses two critical aspects: in-class organization of male (ruling-class) power and the class/patriarchal system of domination over subordinate groups. Below, I present some highlights of the specific character of British West Indian planter-class patriarchy in terms of both aspects, and, later, I take up some issues relating to the slaves’ own family and gender modes.

Marriage and Property. Marriage was considered to be an exclusive upper class privilege, completely bound up with considerations of race and property, from which the “lesser white” bachelor estate personnel and the slaves were effectively barred. In some islands, marriage came increasingly to be associated with absenteeism, as the richest planters looked to England as a source of marriageable partners and sent their sons and daughters there to be educated, and inevitably to marry and to settle. England became the (residential) home site for the social reproduction of the wealthiest group among the West Indian planters, their transnational niche being materially sustained on the basis of profits from their sugar plantations and the financial backing of British merchant houses.

The small “West Indian” and related mercantile circles in England (and in the colonies) married into each other’s families and effected political alliances that advanced their colonial interests, further securing the transnational niche. Pares (1950: 249) points out that the plantations were “loaded … with legacies and annuities, with widows and old maids quartered upon them from every county in England,” in an extravagant and inefficient system which ultimately redounded to the benefit of the planters’ British creditors. (Fortunately for West Indian slaves, death and marriage within the planter class did not become the occasion for the splitting up of slave families to fulfill obligations of bequests and dowries in the way that they did for the Southern slaves.)

Certain established sugar traders (“factors”) and creditors of the big planters refused to deal with small planters because “they often had coloured families, who might inherit their land and desire a loan from a merchant” (Pares, 1950: 240). They also “declined to lend money to white planters who were likely to leave their properties to coloured heirs” (Ibid.). Obviously, the ultimate concern was economic rather than “moral,” since the big planters were no less likely to have “coloured families,” just either more able to sustain them outside of and without encroaching upon their main properties and enterprises or less willing to acknowledge them (except perhaps as their property).

Just as marriage came to be an exclusive property of the very wealthy and a mechanism for the transnational reproduction of the Euro-creole upper class, concubinage came to be the means by which a “bastard” intermediate class was bequeathed to the societies of the West Indies by the planters and their surrogates as the social superiors of the slaves and, later, of the black working class. In Barbados, for reasons pointed to above, the “colored” (mixed-race) group was less significant and played a less unique function than elsewhere–for example, the so-called “free colored” group was always small in relation to whites and, at least in the years from 1825 to 1829, for which data are available, tended to be almost evenly divided between blacks and mixed-race persons (Sio, 1976: 7).

In Jamaica and the Windwards in particular, demographics were much more skewed (Sio, 1976; Marshall, 1982). Already by 1730 in Jamaica, 76.2% of the white population, which itself comprised only 6.6% of the entire population of the island (compared to a 0.4% free colored component), were servants, “usually working as bookkeepers or overseers on plantations” (Burnard, 1991: 97). One hundred years later, in 1832, only one-fifth of 670 sugar estates on the island had resident proprietors, the ratio of slaves to whites in the entire population was nearly 20:1, and the free colored population (over 80% of whom were of mixed-race origin) outnumbered the white by about 50% (Higman, 1989: 41; Sio, 1976: 6-7).

In Jamaica and the Windwards, white men substantially outnumbered white women throughout the period of slavery. Single status was usually stipulated as a condition of employment in the contracts of the white overseers and bookkeepers, for whom these positions were expected to act as stepping stones to bigger and better things. This (or, frequently, the absence of the resident proprietor’s or government official’s wife), in conjunction with the rigid taboo on interracial marriage and the ready availability of exploitable slave women in predominantly black surroundings, practically ensured the proliferation of a system of concubinage, whereby a selected slave–or a free colored–woman was brought into the (real or surrogate) master’s house as a live-in “housekeeper” and mistress.

But even where white wives were present, the system of concubinage flourished. White planters often became the mediating biological link between two (or more) sets of families, helping to reproduce two different classes either simultaneously (usually, but not always, involving multiple residences) or sequentially (perhaps beginning–or resuming–their legal marital careers after going “home” to England). R. T. Smith (1987: 167) refers to this as the “dual marriage system,” noting that “[from] the beginning of the development of the slave regime, a marriage system was in place that included both legal marriage and concubinage, a system in which the elements were mutually and reciprocally defining and which articulated with the racial hierarchy.”

The “dual marriage system” racialized the age-old pattern of sexualization of the class hierarchy (or class-related hierarchization of sexuality) within gender groups, so that the madonna/whore ideological dichotomy of feudal Europe gave way in the Caribbean to the symbolism of the White madonna and the Black whore, placing the ideological correlation between race and sexuality on an enduring footing.

To a significant degree, upper-class white women were ideologically and symbolically elevated, but in practice marginalized, within slave plantation society in the West Indies. However, the image of the untouchable, isolated and mentally unbalanced white plantation mistress, so sensitively evoked by Jean Rhys in the novel Wide Sargasso Sea, was not monolithically applicable, since even white women were divided by class, as indeed were those who might fall under the general rubric of non-white concubines. Smith (1987: 171) reports that “many of the 4,000 white settlers on small Jamaican farms in 1792 (mostly cattle, ginger, pimento, coconut, and coffee properties) were women,” who might have been active in farm management; and Beckles (1989; 1991) has given us the most developed account of poor white hucksters in Barbados, who were themselves somewhat culturally Africanized.

But sugar was a man’s business, and the West Indies (in spite of its overwhelming black majority) was, after all, a “white man’s world.” Burnard (1991) has done pioneering work on the devolution of family property by gender among landed whites in early Jamaica and has concluded that women, in spite of their scarcity value as wives and in contrast to their Chesapeake (and even their later lower-South) counterparts, tended to be excluded from executive, if not necessarily nominal, ownership and control of their late husbands’ plantation enterprises. This indicates to him that perhaps the West Indian sugar business and its attendant social circumstances did not lend themselves to the economically operative conjugal partnerships of colonial mainland America.

Many historians have noted that the primarily profit-making and get-rich-quick objectives of West Indian investments militated against the development of sexually balanced settler communities with strong residential and extended family continuities and networks. Even where such communities were achieved, as in Barbados, they nevertheless did so within a context that was dominated, in both quantitative and qualitative measure, by the relation of economic and sexual exploitation of black women by white men.

For resident planter-class women, this translated into a relative “hollowing” of their sexual and economic roles, and an inverted displacement of their practical functions onto a subordinate racial female caste. For their own part, white women were subject to the strictest possible double standard, which barred them, on pain of social death, from interracial sex with non-white men of any social category. The latter themselves were under pain of physical death in that regard.

There is no doubt, therefore, that in spite of some exaggeration and dubious choice of expression, the following statements capture part of the existential reality of upper-class white women in the West Indies. Burnard (1991: 112) describes this reality in the following terms:

“White women, freed from menial labor by the exertions of black slaves, were elevated to superior ‘respectable’ status, becoming embodiments of virtue, modesty, and gentility. Safely fixed on their pedestals, white women could then be ignored by white men. The pervasive availability of black and mulatto concubines deprived white women of power in society. White men sometimes even allowed their black or mulatto mistresses to run the plantation household. Thus white women in the Caribbean, unlike their Maryland counterparts, early lost much of their sexual function and economic role to slaves.”

In an earlier article, Bush (1981: 257) had also concluded that, “[unlike] her southern counterpart, the white woman in the West Indies had not only her sexual function, but to some extent her socio-economic function as mistress of the plantation, appropriated by the favoured coloured housekeeper.” But Bush has gone further, enlisting the authority of Michel Foucault to argue that black women sometimes enjoyed “a temporary inversion of power relations” in their sexual relationships with white men, whom “despite their racial and sexual inferiority [they] could at times manipulate … to their own advantage” (Bush, 1981: 246). She suggests, somewhat naively, that “[white] women were the veneer, black women the solid underpinning of the emotional and familial lives of whites” (Ibid.: 257).

Without going into a great deal of detail, it is clear that (a) the “power” of sexual manipulation possessed by slave or free colored women cannot be considered on a level continuous with the fundamental social (and coercive) power of white men; it derived from another source, defined partly and precisely by the limits imposed by their powerlessness; and (b) the “power” of sexual manipulation was not equally available to all non-white concubines; they were not a homogeneous grouping, and they did not all experience sex with white men under the same social circumstances.

Here, I turn my attention to another feature of the class/patriarchal system of domination.

Patriarchy and Non-white Hierarchies. I pointed out before that white men refused to legitimize their offspring with black and “colored” women but nonetheless endowed them with superior social status vis-a-vis blacks, slave and free, and bequeathed them to the unfolding West Indian social system as (the foundation of) a new intermediate class that was to play a critical role in the shaping of post-emancipation society.

Not all the liaisons that produced these “bastard scions” had the same social standing. Indeed, the range crossed the hierarchies of (male-gender) white and (female-gender) non-white society, moving from the regular form of rape experienced by any number of female plantation slaves in the casual, irregular or random sexual encounters forced upon them by masters in the course of their everyday lives, through the semi-regular, sometimes semi-permanent–and more or less coercive– “housekeeping” arrangements which brought a “favorite” slave into the household of an overseer or proprietor or continued to involve dual residences on the plantation (slave women sometimes being specially purchased for such “housekeeping” purposes), to the semi-respectable or at least openly “alternative” liaisons between planter-class men and relatively high-status “free colored” women, who might be either independently situated or “kept” in their own establishments, residential and/or commercial.

Late eighteenth-century observer Bryan Edwards (1793, II: 22) allowed of the latter that the “terms and manner of their compliance … are commonly as decent, though perhaps not as solemn, as those of marriage; … giving themselves up to the husband (for so he is called) with faith plighted, with sentiment, and with affection.” Others were more cynical and given over to racial and sexual stereotyping in their observations:

“Though the daughters of rich men, and though possessed of slaves and estates, they never think of marriage; their delicacy is such, for they are extremely proud, vain and ignorant, that they despise men of their own colour; and though they have their amorous desires abundantly gratified by them and black men secretly, they will not avow these connections.” (Moreton, 1790: 124-25)

What was true was that, white “keeper” patronage or no, most of these mixed-race women were economically active in their own right, dominating, according to one analyst, the urban trades of “huckstering, small shopkeeping, and the management of hotels and inns” (Smith, 1987: 180). Of course, not all urban-based women of color were free or (relatively) privileged, and female urban slaves were often hired out as prostitutes by their owners. Beckles (1989: 141) notes for Barbados that “[in] the towns, organized prositution and resident mistresses were the general pattern, while on the estates the sexual use of black women took a less structured form.”

If the gap between urban free colored women of independent means and plantation slave women seems rather obvious, differences among the latter were less so, but nonetheless keenly felt. A perfect example, currently popular with historians partly because of Douglas Hall’s (1989) important recent study of his prodigious and unusual memoirs, is provided by Thomas Thistlewood, sixteen-year overseer (and resident surrogate master) of a Jamaican sugar estate in the third quarter of the eighteenth century.

Thistlewood became the protagonist of two kinds of informally institutionalized master-slave sexual encounters: those involving an almost routine summoning of different slave women at different times to the beds of Thistlewood and his planter friends, depending on their sexual “tastes” of the moment, and those involving a more permanent and potentially life-long relationship with a favored slave mistress, like the one into which Thistlewood eventually settled with Phibbah.

Both types of “liaison” were fraught with danger for slave women and involved varying levels of compulsion and humiliation, but the latter type could go beyond the resigned and accommodative participation of the “chosen” slave mistress to involve elements of initiative, encouragement, manipulation, and desire (if not real choice) on her part.

The matter seems to hinge as much on the slave woman’s specific condition as on strategic accommodation. Everyday accommodation (in the interests of basic survival)–and the struggle to achieve with it a modicum of dignity and room to maneuver–was probably as regular a part of the anguish and humiliation of the slave experience as everyday resistance.

But there were also differences of condition internal to slavery that produced important variations in the way it was all experienced. Thistlewood was an overseer, for whom the prospect of legal marriage to a white woman or return to Britain may have been sufficiently remote, and his own sense of power–as resident master in the isolation of a predominantly black world–sufficiently challenged, to considerably complicate the terms of a relationship with a special slave woman.

Phibbah herself was a “housemaid” or domestic slave, who was “[not] without a measure of economic independence;” she had “various plots of ground; she possessed at least one horse, some hogs, and fowl; and she earned money by selling handmade items of clothing and the produce from her grounds” (Morgan, 1987: 69). The tension and turmoil of their relationship derived partly from Phibbah’s strong sense of herself and the respect she demanded as a de facto member of a small slave elite and as one who refused to be reduced to the common status of sex object suffered by the more vulnerable and less “privileged” female members of the plantation community.

The latter were unequivocally exploited as a sexual reserve, to be tapped into on white male demand. Some slave women, especially those most favorably situated to do so, resolved to stay out of or rise above the reserve “sexual force.”

Skin color preferences and the correlation between color and work status on the plantations virtually ensured that domestics of mixed race would be the slaves most consistently sexually favored by both resident proprietors and overseers, although it goes without saying that the proprietors got the first choice. These and other slaves, willingly or not, became the principals in the creation of a stratum of mixed-race slaves who were allocated to the less servile positions on the plantation and were accorded relatively privileged status among the slaves. They were not allowed to go into the fields, the women most often becoming upper-level household workers and the men, skilled workers.

Among domestic slaves, privileged domestic status was sometimes passed on generationally, perpetuating whole family traditions of household service and management as well as sexually-based ties with white male patrons. The women in such families, like many of their urban free colored counterparts, rejected long-term unions with black or “colored” men of comparable status and presided over extended matrifocal families, trading lower-status respectability for higher-status aspirations, at least for their children, and a location on the periphery of the white group. This location, usually accompanied by some form of economic entrepreneurship, did entitle them to a species of respect from all quarters.

Although some white men manumitted their slave progeny, and some wealthy planters sponsored the education of their freed or free colored children and transmitted property and slaves to them, the numbers involved were never great. Most mixed-race slave children were not manumitted, and “[most] white males who manumitted their coloured children did not free their black mothers” (Beckles, 1989: 135). Still, the tendency was for females to be manumitted in greater numbers than males, and in most of the islands free colored women substantially outnumbered free colored men.

According to Goveia (1965: 231-2), the free colored class was generally recruited from among the elite of the slave class, and the “women, especially, who were usually mistresses to white men, often earned their own freedom and the freedom of their children by faithful attachment to their `keepers.'” Reddock (1988: 121) suggests, however, that many female manumissions might have been by self-purchase, not gift.

The majority of free coloreds were also very poor. In an 1826 report, “[of] an estimated 28,800 free coloured in Jamaica at this time, 400 were classified as `rich,’ 5,500 were `in fair circumstances,’ and 22,000 were `absolutely poor'” (Sio, 1976: 12). The ambiguity of the situation of the free coloreds was partly sustained on the basis of laws restricting their civil, property, inheritance and employment rights on the one hand and, on the other, such institutions as the famous Jamaican exemption law which allowed a propertied, preferably phenotypically near-white, free colored person to petition for the “privilege” of becoming legally white.

Within the slave community, therefore, sexually favored and exploited women became secondary and more or less unwilling protagonists in the “dual-marriage system” of white males, and generators of an intermediate or potentially intermediate class between slaves and whites. But patriarchy hierarchized the slave community in another form through the practices of elite male slaves as well. “Elite” male slaves on the plantation, drivers and artisans, were provided with special privileges not granted the ordinary field slaves. They received a double allowance of the centrally distributed food staples and were among the only slaves to regularly wear shoes and hats, and to live in “regularly boarded and shingled” wooden houses (Goveia, 1965: 138-9).

The elite slaves had superior earning ability to the other slaves, since they were allowed to hire out their labor in their spare time and were even given access to the labor of other slaves for the cultivation of their own grounds. The indulgence of their masters extended to certain social concessions, and their predilection for maintaining multiple spousal households was respected or even sanctioned by their masters in recognition of their strategic social location.

Beckles (1989: 115-140) claims that polygamy was the dominant form of slave unions in Barbados until around 1720 and “the norm” right up to 1780, but provides little evidence for this assertion, noting himself that “[possession] of more than one wife was a status symbol in the slave community, reflecting authority and money-earning power.” (Ibid.: 121)

A major part of the period that Beckles assumes to be dominated by polygamous family structures was also one of generally higher proportions of males than females in the plantation labor forces of Barbados (Ibid.: 7-23); moreover, it has been pointed out that “it was unusual for an ordinary field slave to be able to keep more than one woman as a `wife.'” (Goveia, 1965: 235) Divorced from the context of corporate kinship in which it was embedded in much of West Africa, with its carefully and collectively organized senior/junior relations and paced “exchange of women,” polygamy could be expected to radically contract and shift into an “elite” mode, especially in a situation of scarcity and general male disempowerment.

Beckles’ argument about family forms is inconsistent, and seems prompted by a desire to show that the slaves moved from one orderly, patriarchal family form to another: from polygamy to a nuclear, increasingly Christian, family type (Beckles, 1989: 117, 131). He talks about “matriarchal” or “female-dominated families” (Ibid.: 123-9), but does not integrate them into his proto-explanatory schema.

If Beckles at least recognizes the probable West African progeniture of polygamous forms in the Caribbean, thus implicitly rejecting what can be referred to as the “total cultural erasure” thesis, R.T. Smith sees these forms as a case of elite male slaves mimicking the behavior of their masters. He says:

“What is important is that black and colored men in positions of prestige, either members of the slave elite or freedmen, reproduced the whites’ pattern of marital behavior. That is, they might marry–either legally or according to some customary form …–but they would also have `outside’ unions, and those usually with women of lower status in the racial hierarchy.” (Smith, 1987: 177)

Smith may have a point in relation to free men of color, but it is hard to see how his assertions would apply in the case of slave men. Smith, who is a specialist in contemporary family and kinship structures in the English-speaking Caribbean, has long taken a structural-functionalist or ultra “unitarist” position on the subject. He sees class/kinship systems as characterized by a unitary and continuous hierarchy, held together by and emanating from the dominant level. He grants very little cultural autonomy to the subordinate classes (except in a passive sense, as a differential effect of the impact of external conditions). Thus they are seen to essentially reproduce “bastard” and besieged versions of the dominant culture. In this he stands in stark contrast to cultural pluralist, M.G. Smith (1965; 1984), who sees “lower-class” West Indian family forms as quite autonomous and separate vis-a-vis those of the elite.

It seems almost too easy to say that neither position is correct. In a sense, the realities they represent both figure into the picture, but as coexisting in complex, dialectical tension with each other. Of more immediate importance is what seems to be a general failure to factor in either gender or ethnic contestation, or both, in the discussion of slave family forms.

[The third part of this essay will survey the discussion of the full range of family practices among slave women, including the majority who were neither concubines of white men nor partners in formally sanctioned polygamy.]

References for Part 2

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.

Burnard, Trevor, “Inheritance and Independence: Women’s Status in Early Colonial Jamaica,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.XLVIII No.1, 1991, 93-114.

Bush, Barbara, “White `Ladies,’ Coloured `Favorites’ and Black `Wenches;’ Some Considerations on Sex, Race and Class Factors in Social Relations in White Creole Society in the British Caribbean,” Slavery and Abolition Vol.2 No.2, 1981, 245- 262.

Edwards, Bryan, “The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies.” 2 vols. London: Publin, L. White, 1793.

Goveia, Elsa V., Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1965.

Hall, Douglas, In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86. London and Basingstoke: Macmillian Publishers, 1989.

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.

Marshall, Bernard, “Social Stratification and the Free Coloured in the Slave Society of the British Windward Islands, Social and Economic Studies, Vol.31 No.1, 1982, 1-39.

Moreton, J.B., Manners and Customs of the West India Islands. London, 1790.

Morgan, Philip, “Three Planters and Their Slaves: Perspectives on Slavery in Virginia, South Carolina and Jamaica, 1750-1790,” in W.J. Jordan and S.L. Skemp (eds.), Race and Family in the Colonial South. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

Pares, Richard, A West-India Fortune. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1950.

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

Rhys, Jean, Wide Sargasso Sea. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Sio, Arnold A., “Race, Colour and Miscegenation: The Free Coloured of Jamaica and Barbados,” Caribbean Studies, Vol.16 No.1, 1976, 5-21.

M.G. Smith, Culture, Race and Class in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies, 1984.

—–, The Plural Society in the British West Indies. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

Smith, Raymond T., “Hierarchy and the Dual Marriage System in West Indian Society,” in J.F. Collier and S. Yanagisako (eds.), Gender and Kinship. Stanford: Stanford University Press,

November-December 1992, ATC 41