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By nikalee17 Apr 11, 2013 4206 Words
Women in the Caribbean from emancipation to national independence


This is a new topic for me, so please consider this outline as a work in progress. The economy, society and culture of the Caribbean has been shaped by the period of slavery that brought people from Africa, Europe and India to the area and by the poverty and unemployment of the post-emancipation period that resulted in the migration of many Caribbean people to the USA, Canada, Europe and other parts of the world - the Caribbean diaspora. See essay by Ruel Johnson

Slaves in the Caribbean receiving news of emancipation in 1834 Engraving in Cassell's Illustrated History of England 1820-1861 (1863). Image Reference cass2, as shown on sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. URL: and Post-Slavery Life&theRecord=0&recordCount=13 Apprenticeship

1834 Slaves 'emancipated' - but had to work 40.5 hours a week unpaid for former owners for 4 years - called 'apprenticeship'. Owners got 20 million pounds compensation - slaves got no compensation (Fryer 1988) Apprentices got free food, clothing and shelter and could work extra hours for wages.Flogging made illegal. But planters imposed extra unpaid work for minor infringements of plantation rules and sent apprentices to the workhouse for punishment e.g. treadmill. Apprenticeship was a brutal system. Boa (2001) points our that the 'British Government underestimated the scale of the planters’ resentment towards abolition. Therefore, they failed to provide mechanisms to adequately protect apprentices from abuse. In addition, many of the special magistrates sympathised with the planters and imposed heavy punishments on apprentices' (401). The lives of women with children was made harder because they lost the nurseries, food and clothing allowances and reduced working hours that they had had as slaves. They used many of the protest methods they had used as slaves to resist the harsh conditions (Boa 2001).

Vasconcellos (2006) says that because children under 6 became free immediately in 1834, plantation owners had no obligations to them, no need to provide food or nurseries or medical care. Mothers could have got these facilities back if they had made their children apprentices but only nine children under six became apprentices in Jamaica between 1834 and 1838. In addition, the lives of children 6-15 got harder – planters worked them as hard as they could and made no concessions.

Vasconcellos (2006) also makes a link between the control over small children that the planters had lost and their support for expansion of primary education. Planters were eager that free children should be socialised into being docile workers. Working mothers needed schools to care for their children.

'All couples witnessed a decline in the time that they could spend together and their ability to carry out their gender roles as a result of the legal and illegal punishment practices adopted, such as time in the estate dungeon and repaying time lost in caring for a sick child. The punishment practices also affected the ability of couples to attain the attribute of monogamy as the most common form of female punishment— time in the workhouse—increased the risk of sexual abuse. In other words, while some couples found it easier to live up to the metropolitan ideal during the Apprenticeship System, the majority found it as hard as or even harder than under Slavery' (Altink 2004: 99). Condition of ex-slaves

After apprenticeship ended, plantation owners tried to keep labour costs down for both men and women workers. Women generally paid half of what men were paid for equivalent work (Reddock 1985). Planation owners also started to charge rent for the houses and provision grounds that their workers had built and cultivated when they were slaves. Some plantation owners charged rent according to how many people lived in the house (Sheller 2003). Women involved in protests against these practices and sometimes won concessions (Wilmot 1995). For example, at Spring Hill coffee plantation in Jamaica in 1839, workers refused to pay rents and resisted bailiffs who tried to seize their goods in lieu of rent – women central to the protest and only stopped resisting when soldiers sent in. Sugar Cane Cultivation, British West Indies, 1840s (after slave emancipation) Engraving in The Illustrated London News, 9 June 1849).

Image Reference NW0272, as shown on sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. URL: World Agriculture and Plantation Labor&theRecord=91&recordCount=114 In 1838 women workers in Trelawny in Jamaica threatened violence when they believed planters plnned to kill Baptist ministers – violence averted by magistrate that workers respected as fair.

Urban women also resisted magistrates for court decisions deemed unfair e.g. mayor of Kingston in Jamaica who banned John Canoe celebrations in 1840 and 1841 – women threw stones and rioted. Sheller (2003) recounts how women were involved in pulling down toll gates in Jamaica in 1859 after petitions to have them removed ignored. Thousands of people demonstrated When those responsible appeared in court, up to 10,000 people took to the streets and then attacked the police station. In 1859, women prominent in another riot during a court case - freed prisoners from the local jail, attacked police and magistrates and stormed the police station. Police inside opened fire killing two women and fatally wounding another.

‘Working women’s right to speak publicly, to make claims against employers and before magistrates, became central to the transition to wage labour; the everyday verbal skills of challenge and protest - once used by slaves - were now turned to more overt forms of public claim-making and resistance to the new order of free labour’ (Sheller 2003: 5). French (1995) says that immediately after emancipation, women were advised by the missionaries to stay at home while their men worked. Both British government and missionaries wanted to promote family arrangements based on a male breadwinner and a female home maker. However, few women could afford to do so even if they wanted to and many looked for other ways of supporting their family away from the plantation. Cultivation of their own land and selling the produce was the main alternative (Wilmot 1995).

Planters destroyed provision grounds on which slaves had grown food and used their influence in local government to prevent freed slaves buying fertile land collectively - many ex-slaves returned to work on the plantations. However, when more machinery introduced, e.g. plough in Jamaica 1841, it reduced the demand for field labour and particularly affected women. Apart from farming and market-trading (higglering), dressmaking and domestic work were the main alternatives for working class women.

Osirim (1997) says that 80% of women of African descent in Jamaica employed on plantations post-emancipation – many men began to migrate elsewhere to work because only needed in the harvest season – this meant that women undertook main financial responsibility for children and that the proportion of people legally married or in long-term cohabiting relationships remained low until people were middle-aged.

Sheller (2003) says that the aim of many Afro-Jamaicans after emancipation was not simply to flee the estates, but to combine wage work on the plantations with small landholding. Turner (1982) says that ex-slaves ‘were driven from the estates post-emancipation by low wages, high rents, competition from cut-rate contract workers and the discovery that to become an estate-based wage earner was to remain, in social terms, a slave. They turned to the land for want of a different option’.

Baptist missionaries in Jamaica attempted to establish free villages by buying large holdings of land and then dividing it up into smaller lots to sell to ex-slaves (Satchell c. 2000)

'The visible chains of slavery were replaced by invisible chains of poverty, poor education, deprivation and racial prejudice' (McDonough 1994). ‘Despite the treachery and inhumanity of the plantation experience, it brought to the fore the potential for production, self-sufficiency, rebellion and the relentless quest for personal autonomy still present in Caribbean women today’ (Reddock 1994: 11). Indentured labour scheme

Slave labour replaced with bonded labour through the Indian Indentured Labour scheme 1838-1917 - 500,000 Indians, the majority men, went to the Caribbean under this scheme. There were other indentured labour schemes in the British Empire at the same time, mainly involving Indian and Chinese workers. Reddock (1998) says that planters' demand for indentured labour really about depressing wages and not about a shortage of labour. Rural unemployment and under-employment in India led the labourers to take this option. Many died on the outward journey Indentured labourers badly paid, did not get enough to eat, could not change jobs, flogged for lateness & refusing to obey orders – low fertility rate and high death rate. It is estimated that 15% of the indentured labourers in in British Guiana were Muslim, a few Christian and the rest Hindu - 40% of latter were 'untouchables'. Entitled to free passage home after period of indenture. Costs of the scheme met mainly by the government - so indentured labourers and ex-slaves were indirectly paying some of the costs through taxation.

Reddock (1998) says that the scheme started in Trinidad in 1845. Women indentured labourers came from the beginning - may have been widows or unmarried mothers or with other family difficulties - averaged 40% of identured labourers coming to Trinidad. Women restricted to labouring and paid 60% of male rates in 1845. As slave women had been, they were denied the higher paid jobs on the plantations. This meant that Indian women became economically dependent on men.

Shepherd (1995) says that planters did not see Indian women as efficient agricultural labourers and did not value them for their reproductive capacity (as they had women slaves after the slave trade abolished), because parents had to give consent for children to be indentured. When plantation owners did not provide creches or nurses, women had to take children to the fields and this reduced their earning capacity. There is some evidence of women putting successful pressure on some plantation owners. As the scheme came under criticism from Indian nationalists, more proposals to reduce the burden on women before and after childbirth.

In the 1860s, there were strikes and riots by indentured labourers in British Guiana. Also passive resistance such as pretending to be ill, deliberately doing poor work and self-mutilation practised. Because indentured labourers scattered across British Guiana, no scope for large scale resistance. In 1884, Trinidad troops fired on procession of Indian indentured labourers celebrating a religious festival (Kale 1995). It was a Muslim festival but many Hindus taking part too. 1891 census of Indian population shows only a tiny minority of women (6%) not in paid employment - all the rest in agriculture. Planters defined the work that women did as 'light' and used this to justify much lower wages.

Because of the sex-imblance in the Indian population, girl babies were highly prized by their families. Child marriage was practised - bride price and not dowry had been practised by lower castes in India and became common in Trinidad. Women could leave undesirable husbands and find a new partner quite easily. But high level of wife murder - in Trinidad 27 murders of women by husbands/partners between 1859 and 1863 and 87 between 1872 and 1900. In British Guiana there were 33 murders of women by husbands/partners between 1885 and 1890. Also high suicide rates among Indian men in general.

Towards end of 19th century, there was a reduced demand for labour because of the economic conditions. In Trinidad the government encouraged small-scale subsistence level family farms - increased dependence of individual women on individual men. Also meant that coast of reproduction of labour (childbirth and child rearing) rested with family.

Indentured labour scheme ended in 1917 due to pressure from Indian nationalists. Gandhi led the campaign against indenture and often used the argument that the system degraded Indian women. He wrote: 'The system brings India's womenahood to utter ruin, destroys all sense of modesty' (cited in Niranjana 1999: 231).

'Indeed, slavery and indenture showed remarkable similarities. Both the slave and the indentured worker were subjected to laws over which they had no control and no part in their formulation. The power of control was exercised by a minority white élite, principally comprised of planters and merchants, who dominated the political institutions in the colony. Both systems were designed to restrict the mobility of labour, to anchor the work force on the estate so that labour would be readily available. It was on the employer's property that he lived, cultivated his provision grounds (small plots of land for the growing of root crops), raised feathered stock or sought medical attention when sick. The right to collective bargaining or even to strike was non- existent under slavery and indenture' (Mangru 1986). Economic and social change

Satchell (1995) says that peasant production increased from the 1840s to the 1880s in Jamaica - peasants grew food for local consumption and for export. Until 1882, married women could not own property in their own right, but the records show that many single women were buying or selling smallholdings. 1846 British Parliament passed a law for the gradual removal of the lower duty on British West Indian sugar products imported into Britain. Made Caribbean sugar production much less profitable. The sugar plantations were in decline from emancipation to the 1880s. So were the coffee planations but production shifted to independent peasants.

Up to the 1880s, bananas grown almost entirely by peasant farmers but around 1880 new agrarian capitalists established banana plantations on abandoned sugar estates – the peasants could not compete.

1880-1920 nearly 150,000 people, mainly Afro-Caribbean men, migrated to Central America and USA for jobs – opportunities ended in 1930s with the Great Depression.

Gradually a coloured middle class and then a black middle class developed in the Caribbean. And, by the beginning of the twentieth century, more Caribbean women had been educated, while others had moved out of the agricultural sector into industrial and commercial jobs.

When the labour rebellions of the 1930s broke out, the sugar industry employed the greates number of workers in Antigua, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts and Trinidad. The oil industry was also important in Trinidad, banana plantations in Jamaica banana plantations, bauxite production in British Guiana and logging in Belize (Hart 2002).

1943 Census (in Jamaica?) did not fully reflect women’s employment because of the categories it used – women farmers and farm workers not included as employed, for example.

In 1950s, attempts to diversify Caribbean economies - textile and garment industries introduced into Jamaica and Trinidad. Transnational corporations started to invest in the oil industry in Trinidad and the production of bauxite in Jamaica and British Guiana (Osirim 1997).

Chronology 1834-1962

1834 Emancipation of the slaves
1835 First free black men (5) elected to Jamaican Assembly

1838 End of apprenticeship

1838-1917 Indentured Indian labour scheme.

1865 Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica - result of unrest among rural w/c - women centrally involved - rebellion brutally repressed

1865 Direct rule by Britain imposed on Jamaica

1860s Strikes and riots by indentured labourers in British Guiana

1870s Beginnings of demands for political rights by black population of British Guiana

1876 Riots in Barbados - against restrictions on freedom of black people, against the lack of voting rights and against bad living conditions on plantations - rioters attacked police and were suppressed by soldiers.

1879 Lady Musgrave Women’s Self Help Society founded in Jamaica to develop local industries and provide employment to poor craftswomen.

1897 Trinidad Workingmen's Association formed although trades unions were not legal.

1898 Peoples Convention established in Jamaica by Robert Love to promote the collective interests of black people. Love advocated women's rights in general, education of black women, universal adult suffrage.

1900 1st Pan-African conference held in London - organised by Henry S. Williams from Trinidad. Williams advocated women's rights in general and education of black women.

1901 H. S. Williams founded the Pan African Association in Trinidad

1901 Peoples Convention Conference - Catherine McKenzie spoke on the subject of women’s rights.

1901 Trinidad Home Industries and Women's Self-Help Association founded by women - concerned with providing earning opportunities for women

1903 Riots in Trinidad over proposed measures to control the use of water. Mainly an issue for wealthier people but it was working class people, women and men, who rioted and burned down the Council House. Police shot rioters, kiled 12 men and 4 women.

1904 Riots on British Guiana

1909 National Club formed by Robert Love - it was the first Jamaican nationalist organisation.

1914-1918 WW1

1914 Marcus Garvey and Amy Ashwood Garvey established the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica. Amy Ashwood Garvey founded a ‘ladies division’. UNIA was one of the few early nationalist organizations which always had positions for women in its executive.

1916-1919 series of strikes in St Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, Antigua, Trinidad, Jamaica and British Guiana – some strikers shot and killed. Strikes partly inspired by local grievances, partly by anger at the racist treatment of black soldiers during and after WW1 and partly by the example of the 1917 Russian revolution.

1918 Mutiny at Taranto by soldiers of the British West Indian Regiment. Following the mutiny, a group of 60 non-commissioned officers met to discuss black rights, self-determination and closer union in the West Indies. Formed the Caribbean League and decided to hold a general strike for higher wages on their return to the West Indies.

1918 Society of Peoples of African Origin formed by F.E.M. Hercules from Trinidad

1918 Jamaica’s Women’s Social Service Club (WSSC) was founded,

1921 Audrey Jeffers founded the Coterie of Social Workers in Trinidad - aimed at improving the status of middle class black and coloured women - social work was the preserve of middle class white women at the time. Reddock (2007) says that it was the main organisation for black and coloured middle-class women in the 1920s-1940s. They established social work programmes focussed on women and children and also campaigned for women’s secondary education, for increased access to white collar jobs for black women, for the introduction of women police and for the Divorce Act. The Coterie's Jamaican counterpart was the Women’s Liberal Club. Gema Ramkeesoon was one of the few Indo-Trinidadian women associated with the Coterie and the Caribbean women’s movement. She had been influenced by Beatrice Greig, a white feminist labour and literary activist. Greig had raised issues of education for girls and child marriage

1924 deputation of women to Governor of Trinidad to discuss votes for women

1928 Marcus Garvey founded the Peoples Political party in Jamaica. Hart (1972) says that the work of Garvey inspired 'a new sense of racial self-respect....He laid a foundation without which the the organized nationalism, commencing in the late 1930s, could not have been securely built' (283).

1929 Una Marson became editor of Jamaica’s first women’s publication, The Cosmopolitan. It was the official organ of the Jamaica Stenographers Association and called for increased employment opportunities for working-class women

1929 Age at Marriage Act in Jamaica made it illegal for Indian girls to be married before they were 16.

1935-6 Women in Trinidad got the vote in local elections

1936 The Coterie hosted the first conference of women social workers in the British West Indies held in Trinidad - formed the Association of Women Workers.

1936 Audrey Jeffers was the first woman elected to the Port of Spain City Council in Trinidad.

1936 Married women teachers barred from employment in Trinidad

1937 Jamaican Women’s Liberal Club formed

Labour unrest, strikes and riots had been occuring across the Caribbean since 1933 in response to extensive unemployment and underemployment, low wages, the high cost of necessities and racist attitudes of colonial administrator and employers. While trades unions had been legalised in some countries of the Caribbean, there were no collective bargaining mechanisms to settle industrial disputes. Despite the use of armed police and soldiers and many deaths of those who challenged the power of the employers and the government of the colonies, the unrest continued and culminated in a general strike in Trinidad in 1937, strikes across Jamaica for many weeks in the same year and thirty disputes involving over 12,000 workers in British Guiana in 1938 (Hart 2002).

After uprisings of 1938, wages increased, unions made lawful in all Caribbean countries, black middle class got more access to civil service and professions and formed political parties.

1938 The Bustamante Industrial Trades Union (BITU) founded by Alexander Bustamante in Jamaica - see The Founding Of The BITU & The JLP

1938 The People's National Party (PNP) founded in Jamaica by Norman Manley.

1938 Following the labour unrest, a Royal Commission (Moyne Commission) set up to investigate social and economic conditions in British-ruled Caribbean. French (1995) says that many feminists gave evidence to the Moyne Commission and 2 women served on it.

1939-1945 WW2 - men and women from the Caribbean joined the British forces

1939 women barred from night work in factories in Trinidad

1940 Moyne Commission published its recommendations but full report not published until 1945 for fear of further rebellion or because it could be used as propaganda by the enemy in war time. The Commission recommended male breadwinner, stable monogamy and a campaign against promiscuity, voluntary social work for m/c women, as well as opportunities in the professions and civil service. Education in domestic science was advocated for w/c girls. Distinct bias towards m/c women - nothing about equal pay, for example.

1942 Jamaica Youth Movement formed

1943 Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) founded by Alexander Bustamante. Kramarae and Spender (2000) say that the JLP and the PNP had strong support from women rght from their formation.

1944 Adult suffrage and a degree of self-government in Jamaica

1944 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (Jamaica)

1944 Jamaican Federation of Women founded by wife of Colonial Governor – modelled on British Women’s Institutes. The aims of the JFW were consistent with the Royal Commission report. JFW also opposed universal adult suffrage - wanted literacy qualification.

1946 Audrey Jeffers appointed to the Legislative Council of Trinidad by Governor. As member of the Franchise Committee, voted against immediate Universal Adult Suffrage.

1946 Universal adult suffrage in Trinidad

1948 JFW had 30,000 members

1950 Universal adult suffrage in Barbados

1951 Women got same voting rights as men in St Vincent

1951 Universal Adult Suffrage in Dominica

1952 National Workers Union (NWU) founded in Jamaica by Norman Manley and others. The NWU became an affiliate of the Peoples National Party (PNP)

1953 Women got the vote in British Guiana (renamed Guyana at independence)

1956 Audrey Jeffers initiated a Caribbean Women’s Conference, aimed at forming a Caribbean Women’s Association (CWA). One of the aimes of the CWA was to encourage women’s active participation in all aspects of social, economic and political life in the Caribbean and to work for the removal of the remaining restrictions on the legal, economic and social rights of women.

1957 Self-government (Jamaica)

1958 Jamaican Women's assembly formed on initiative of left wing men

1962 Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago gained independence from Britain 1966 Barbados and British Guiana gained independence from Britain. Latter became Guyana. 1978 Dominica gained independence from Britain

1979 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines gained independence from Britain

Members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) from Trinidad 1943 Commentary

Scholars seem to agree that the women's movement in the early twentieth century in the Caribbean was closely associated with Pan-Africanism and with demands for national independence. For example, Reddock (2007) says that Catherine McKenzie, secretary of the Kingston Branch of the Pan African Association (PAA) of Jamaica, was one of the earliest public feminists in the region. French and Ford-Smith (1985) also argue that Garveyism was a major influence on the early 20th Century women’s movement in Jamaica.

The links between nationalism and feminism can be seen in the work of Una Marson, editor of Jamaica’s first women’s publication, The Cosmopolitan (see chronology above). She lived in London between 1932 and 1935, was secretary of the League of Coloured Peoples and met feminists the Women’s Freedom League, the Women’s Peace Crusade, the British Commonwealth League and the Women’s International Alliance. She returned to Jamaica in 1936.

'The UNIA [United Negro Improvement Association] was the training ground for almost all the women active in on feminist issues in the 1930s. From its ranks came both the feminist liberals and the women of the working classes who were active in the 1938 period. It offered a chance for both to organise in women’s arms and to be in the leadership of the organisation internationally and locally. It did not however challenge the image of woman as essentially a housewife and social worker. For this reason it did not offer a completely clear path of resistance to the colonial definition of woman (French and Ford-Smith, 1985: 226, cited in Reddock 2007: 7).

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