White Women in British Caribbean Plantation Societies (Topical Guide)

White Women in British Caribbean Plantation Societies (Topical Guide)

Cecily Jones

Institute of Gender and Development Studies, Mona Unit, University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Kingston, Jamaica

Cecily Jones of the University of the West Indies offers H-Slavery the most recent in a series of topical guides concerning the study of slavery. A preliminary draft circulated to the subscribers of H-Slavery for feedback on May 2, 2016 (available here). We thank Dr. Phillips for his comment. This revised version was published May 30, 2016. 

 

Introduction

Starting with Lucille Mathurin Mair’s now classic study of Jamaican women’s lives in slavery and emancipation, gender history of the Caribbean has rapidly expanded, birthing a rich body of scholarship critically exploring colonialism as a gendered process (Mair 1974). Mair’s study of women and slavery in Jamaica was the catalyst to the engendering of Caribbean history, mapping as it did the complex reconfigurations of gender identities, relations, and roles of African and European women. Following in Mair’s footsteps, historians Verene Shepherd and Hilary Beckles have revealed the pivotal, multi-layered productive and reproductive roles of enslaved and freed, black and coloured women in Jamaican and Barbadian slave economies (Shepherd 1998; Beckles 1993). While many studies now acknowledge the significance of gender in shaping the experiences of women of African heritage, similar rigor has not been brought to bear on the recovery of white creole women’s experiences (see for instance Shepherd, Bailey and Brereton’s Engendering History: Caribbean women in historical perspective, 1995). Over twenty five years ago Beckles critiqued an evident Afrocentric tendency to relegate white creole women to the conceptual and analytical margins of gender and race histories, a paradigmatic approach that elides the heterogeneity of white women, leaving them undifferentiated by social class, marital status, national origin, age, and religion (Beckles 1993). In doing so, gender historians of slavery leave unexamined a critical dimension of the interplay of race, gendered whiteness, sex and sexuality, and social class in structuring colonial relations of power (see for instance Morrisey 1989; Scully & Paton 1985). This is not to suggest that gender historians have entirely overlooked the specificity of white women’s material experiences. Exploratory studies by Bush (1981), Jones (1998), Sturtz (1999, 2010), Brereton (1995), Burnard (1991), and Zacek (2009) have probed aspects of their material realities, while my own comparative study of white women in Barbados and North Carolina (Jones 2007), represents the sole full-length monograph to privilege white Caribbean women of Anglophone heritage as central analytical actors. Much of Beckles’s argument retains validity today, though we need also note the near-exclusion from Caribbean gender history of other women of non-African heritage – Indigenous, Chinese, Syrian, Jewish, Portuguese – who resided within the colonial Caribbean.

 

White Women and Slave Historiography

In some ways, white creole women remain among the most elusive and invisible of colonial social actors, shadowy figures on the colonial Caribbean landscape. Few left behind biographical or literary traces of their existences, and the limited data sources are largely the products of elite and middle class residents and visitors to the region (Long 1774; Nugent 1907; Carmichael 1834; Schaw 1921; and in scholarship see Brereton 1985; Callaghan 2004). To some extent their general historical invisibility also stems from their demographic scarcity; numerically, white women represented the smallest (non-indigenous) demographic group throughout the region for most of the era of plantation slavery. Barbados represented one of the few Caribbean colonies to have achieved a balanced sex ratio by mid-eighteenth century for African and European communities (Beckles 1993).

White creole women’s relative scarcity in the Caribbean has fostered assumptions of their insignificance to the socioeconomic and cultural reproduction of their societies. Eighteenth-century historian Edward Long was generally complementary of their personable qualities, yet dismissed their social significance and value (Long 1774), a trope that arguably still influences historical approaches. Mair’s suggestion that white women were “peripheral to the consciousness” of their society is encapsulated in her oft-cited assessment of the differential social worth of Jamaican women: the “black woman produced, the brown woman served, and the white woman consumed” (Mair 1974). Mair’s words point to the knotty intersection of race and gender in shaping the contours of colonial women’s realities; by virtue of their gender, all women were “second-class” citizens, but as Linda Sturtz argues “in a world where the triumvirate of race, class and gender ordered society, the white woman simultaneously occupied a position of power based on race, class, and condition of freedom yet one of subordination based on gender” (Sturtz 2010). Sturtz’s insightful analysis should prompt more rigorous interrogations into the lived realities of white womanhood, and its strategic importance to the reproduction of white hegemony. This would substantively enrich our understandings of the racialised and gendered dynamic of colonialism and slavery, as well as the pernicious lingering contemporary effects of what Hartman (2007) refers to as the “afterlife” of slavery.

 

Race-ing Gender, Gendering Race

The history of white women in Caribbean plantation societies has to be understood within the larger Atlantic imperial context. Scholars agree that the rise of New World plantation slavery from the seventeenth century onwards was increasingly systematised through a nascent rhetoric of racial difference (Jordan 1968). “Race” increasingly functioned as the principal mode of colonial hierarchical social relations, but it was always intricately entangled with and inseparable from relations of gender, sexuality, and class (Jones 2007). Colonial slavery was a system of social control, and the patriarchal plantocracy’s authority rested on their stringent regulation of socio-sexual relations between women and men, black, coloured and white, wealthy and poor alike (Morrisey 1989).

As the transatlantic slave trade advanced, and African slavery replaced white indentured servitude, colonists increasingly drew on biblical theories of difference to provide moral justification for enslaving Africans (Fredrickson 1971). Europeans magnified the perceived physical, moral, cultural and religious variation between themselves and “others” to construct hierarchical racial taxonomies. They drew on the biblical Great Chain of Being, reasoning that whites represented the epitome of human perfection and superiority, and relegating Africans to a liminal inferior status somewhere between humanity and primates (Malik 1996), as moral justification for the enslavement of an estimated thirteen million Africans. The “natural” right of European patriarchal authority over inferior “others” was increasingly upheld by some Enlightenment philosophers whose sophisticated deliberations on the nature of human variety undergirded discourses of Africans as an uncivilised, inferior species (see Hume 1742 and Kant 1775 in Eze 1997).

Yet, as Anglo-Europeans mused on the ontological status of Africans and blackness they at the same moment engaged in existential meditations on the meanings of whiteness (Fredrickson 1997). That whiteness should logically represent the antithesis of blackness was clear. The subsequent valorisation of whiteness as the zenith of human perfection went hand in hand with the devaluation of blackness, with gender playing a crucial role in their deliberations and praxis. White masculinity epitomised rationality, culture, civilisation, and authority, while the feminine moral imperatives of virtue, piety, and purity were constitutive of ideals of white womanhood, which was dialectically opposed to meanings of black womanhood. The purported grotesque and bestial sexuality of “hot constitution’d” African women – inherently possessed of a voracious bestiality that they would even copulate with orang-utans – their monstrous, ugly black bodies, and excessive fertility – itself a metaphorical trope for the Dark Continent – cast African women outside of normative womanhood (Bush 1990; Morgan 2004), their bodies representative of the very extremities of race and gender difference (Morgan 2004). And yet, as Young (1995) argues, white males’ avowed repulsion of black women’s alterity coexisted in uneasy tension with eroticised representations of and sexual desire for the primitive hyper-sexualised black female body. These imaginings of black women’s unrestrained sexuality would serve to justify white males’ flagrant sexual exploitation and abuse of African women, alongside their repression of white female sexuality.

 

White Women and Economic Agency

Colonial slavery was never, as Kamua Braithwaite (1971) suggested, an exclusively white male enterprise or prerogative. European women were also deeply implicated within its structures, both “at home” and “out there” in the colonies. Subordinated subjects by virtue of their gender, their racial identity conferred on European women superior social status and the attendant privileges of whiteness – though that whiteness was at all times mediated by social class. Colonialism created opportunities for socioeconomic advance for some white women, particularly the unmarried and widowed (Beckles 1993; Jones 2007). Wealthy women made profitable investments in the infrastructure of slavery, financing ship building, London’s burgeoning coffee houses, insurance and banking houses, and associated trade industries that underwrote and facilitated the enterprise of slavery. Many invested in the slave trade and/or owned slaves and plantations themselves. Women of the poorer classes also found opportunities for economic and social advancement in the colonies. They farmed small plots of land, operated breweries, taverns, and shops, sold imported consumer goods, while others made a meagre living through hiring out slave labour. Some found work as needlewomen, nurses, and domestics on plantations, hustled as itinerant traders, while others exploited black and coloured women in these regions’ sex markets (Beckles 1993). Walker (2014) situates colonial markets within the broader imperialist economy that created diverse opportunities for free colonists. In pursuit of strengthening the economic power of their societies, patriarchal colonial authorities assumed a more pragmatic approach to gender, accommodating the economic aspirations of all free people. Neither gender nor race proved barriers to entrepreneurial women’s vigorous participation within this globalising economy; and the entrepreneurial spirit of white women of all classes aided Jamaica’s growth as an important economic hub. The records of the Slavery Compensation Commission underscore white women’s significant investments in slavery – between 40 and 45% of compensatory claims were submitted by women (Butler, 1995; Draper, 2007).

 

Representations of White Creole Womanhood

The presence of white women within colonial societies was understood in terms of problem and peril, both for individual white women and for the racial category of whiteness. Contemporary commentators displayed a measure of ambivalence about white women. Long (1774) sympathetically portrayed white Jamaican women, describing them as “lively, of good natural genius, frank, affable, polite, generous, humane,” a view shared by Janet Schaw for whom they represented “the most amiable creatures in the world” (Schaw 1921).Yet, always, their creolity posed a persistent threat to the reproduction of white hegemony. While holding white Jamaican women in esteem, Long nevertheless lamented the contaminating effects of close daily association with “a herd of Negro-domestics” manifested in indifferent mothering skills, corrupt speech, and indolence. Maria Nugent despaired of the degenerative effects of “creolisation” on white women, whose dubious domestic and social manners marked them out as neither “European” nor “Caribbean” (Wright 1966). Nugent shared Long’s belief that proximity to coloured and black female domestics represented the source of white creole women’s degeneration, evidenced in their disconcertingly corrupt drawl, debilitating languor, and unrestrained self-indulgence. Such women were intellectually barren, “perfect viragos,” slatternly housekeepers, poor wives and mothers and shrewish mistresses of enslaved peoples. Mrs A.C. Carmichael of St. Vincent shared Long’s condemnation of the rudimentary female education which fostered “listlessness” of spirit and inability to sustain intellectual conversation. Contemporary representations of creole women were profoundly coloured by class prejudice. Long fulsomely praised elite women – especially those raised or educated in England – but was severely critical of rural and poorer class women. Lack of exposure to the refining influences of elite society tainted their morals and manners, undermining ideals of white womanhood, and by extension, the fictive superiority of whiteness. Long’s view of poor white women as the embodiments of an ambiguous inferior “other” whiteness, of their lax socio-sexual morality as key to the vulnerability of the boundaries of whiteness, was widely shared by white creoles and visitors alike.

 

Regulating White Womanhood – Reproducing Whiteness

Long and Nugent’s criticisms of white creole women echoed broader patriarchal colonial anxieties over the potential for white women to become the conduits of white racial degeneracy (see Stoler 1995; McLintock 1995). The fiction of white supremacy rested on the belief that human beings belonged to discrete, easily identifiable racial groups, a fallacy that could be sustained only by preventing the emergence of an intermediate class of coloured peoples, whose presence would give the lie to the impermeability of racial boundaries. Moreover, the colonial patriarchs worried about the profound threat that unfettered sexual relations between white women and black men posed to their hegemonic dominance. Left unchecked, the coloured progeny of white women and black men might invoke their white heritage to demand a share of political and economic power. Authorities throughout the colonies thus invoked law and custom to forestall such an eventuality. The enactment of the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, which dictated that childrens’ legal status followed that of their mothers, represented one such measure. This peculiarly colonial law enshrined African women’s bodies as the literal reproducers of unfreedom, while white women’s wombs served as the incubators of freedom. Moreover, the law of matrilineal descent secured the ability of white males of all stations to freely appropriate, exploit and abuse the sexuality of black and coloured women with impunity.

As the biological reproducers of freedom, white women were made the subjects of socio-sexual regulations proscribing sexual liaisons with black males. Colonial patriarchs strove to exert control over white women’s sexual agency and reproductive capacities. White male anxieties surrounding the potential degeneracy of the white population, attended by fears of a future, populous free coloured community could be assuaged by confining white women’s sexuality to the institution of marriage. Possibly, the closer physical and social proximity to ruling-class white males served to distance most elite white women from the possibilities of interracial sexual relationships. Policing the sexuality of poorer class women, long regarded in elite white imaginations as potential sources of white racial degeneration, however, proved more difficult to enforce. Many poor women subsisted on the fringes of plantations, throwing them into regular contact with enslaved women and men, and from these encounters emerged intimate relationships. In a previous study, I have shown how seventeenth and eighteenth century Barbadian vestry authorities deployed the dispensation of poor relief as a regulatory mechanism to control the socio-sexual behaviours of poor white women (Jones 1998). Despite the penalties for transgressing the rigid strictures against interracial sexual relationships – social ostracism, loss of status, and race privilege – some elite and poor class women asserted their rights to sexual agency, entering into sexual liaisons with, and bearing children for, enslaved and free black and coloured males (Burnard, 2007; Jones 1998, 2007). Such efforts by the all-male vestry committees at this early stage in the colonial development of Barbados are suggestive that the regulation of white female sexuality was understood to be the essential axis upon which whiteness would stand or fall even before nascent ideologies of racial difference had become widely entrenched.

 

Conclusion

This topical guide has outlined some dimensions of the complex material realities of white colonial women, indicating their positioning at the crossroads of race and gender politics in British Caribbean plantation societies. Its limitations are many; I have not, for instance, addressed their tangled relationships with and to enslaved and free black and coloured women (but see the rich corpus of scholarship by Mair 1974; Bush 1990; Beckles 1993); neither does it incorporate a broader discussion of their familial roles, especially within the context of a gendered private-public dichotomous ideology that stressed white women’s belonging within the private sphere. Indeed, the relatively narrow attention paid to the dynamics of white family households in this era suggests fruitful possibilities for future research. Moreover, its narrow geographic focus on Jamaica and Barbados, the two most successful of British Caribbean colonial slave societies, reflects a historiographical Anglo-centricism. Further comparative research might illuminate significant commonalities and differences in the material realities of white women in other English-speaking Caribbean territories and in Spanish, French, or Dutch colonies. There is some helpful work by Barbara Bush (1981, 1990) on the role of white women in shaping enslaved women’s cultural practices, but the field lacks comparative research on this topic. As a social category, white women were until recently invisible actors within the gender history of the Caribbean, but the decidedly elitist focus on planter class women – perhaps a function of the nature of available sources – renders poorer class women doubly invisible; as a category, poor white women literally disappear from abolition-era and post emancipation gender histories, even though they represented a numerically sizable demographic on some islands, such as Barbados. If, as has been argued, the end of slavery contributed to enslaved women’s greater spirit of independence, and the reshaping of their gender identities, how did emancipation impact on poor white women (and indeed, planter class women), many of whom had depended for their livelihoods on the labour of enslaved peoples? And, in this era, as colonial administrators strove to reconfigure and ‘civilise’ the gendered identities, roles, and expectations of the freed peoples, how did these transformations impact on white women of all classes? We know that women represented a significant minority of slaveholders who submitted claims for compensation as the institution was abolished, but we do not know how the loss of their property impacted on white women’s economic fortunes. How did female former slaveholders – and poorer class women whose livelihoods had been secured through their ability to ‘hire’ enslaved labour – whose economic security and livelihoods had rested on the appropriation and exploitation of enslaved labour adjust to indentureship and emancipation? Perhaps such women invested in Indian and Chinese indentureship – we just do not know. We know also that in the aftermath of abolition, many former white slaveholders migrated to other colonies in hopes of rebuilding new lives. But we remain ignorant of the nature or extent of white women’s participation within these migratory streams of former slaveholders seeking to rebuild their fortunes in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. In short, the gender history of Caribbean slavery and emancipation, as it pertains to white women, exhibits significant elisions and erasures. Further research on white women in slavery, abolition, and emancipation would substantively enrich not only Caribbean gender and race histories, but also would substantively contribute to the field of critical whiteness studies.

 

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