The anthropology of the Caribbean has been called “the battle ground for competing theories regarding family structure” (D’Amico-Samuels 1988: 785). Anthropologists were confounded by a distinct regional family structure, including late age at marriage, high rates of births to single women, matrifocality, child dispersal, de facto polygyny, serial monogamy, and severe beating of children. Early scholars dismissed these patterns as “disintegrate” (Simey 1946), “uncivilized” (Matthews 1953: 302), “normless,” “distorted” (see Smith 1996: 35, 54), “promiscuous,” and “dysfunctional” (see Smith and Mosby 2003). Subsequently, no comprehensive and satisfactory explanation for the patterns was ever achieved.
In this article I revisit the literature and illustrate how enigmatic traditional Caribbean Family patterns can be understood with regard to four simple material factors: the value of the household in surviving a harsh natural and economic environment; the role men played as financiers in the establishment of these households; the role women played as managers of these households; and the role children played as laborers in making the households productive. It is this later point, the economic utility of even very young children—a point that many scholars seeking to understand Caribbean family patterns documented but largely neglected and even denied as causal factors—that completes the insights other scholars have made and makes traditional Caribbean family patterns logical. In reinserting the importance of children into the analysis, Caribbean family patterns make sense as a logical outcome of the basic material challenges impoverished people of the region face.
Dysfunctional Family Patterns
One of the patterns that most concerned and perplexed scholars was a seemingly contradictory complex of behaviors toward reproduction. Girls were kept in the dark about the processes of how pregnancy happens. Two-thirds of Blake’s (1961) ninety-nine female Jamaican respondents said they knew “nothing” of sexual relations and pregnancy before their first union. Typical were women who said, “Me did know that boy and girl can do it. But I didn’t know you would have baby” (Blake 1961: 52) and, “when I find myself with a child I never know what happen” (Blake 1961: 53). Young female Barbadians that Greenfield (1966) interviewed complained that “repeated admonitions about ‘staying away from boys’ never included a discussion of ‘what to stay away from’” (Greenfield 1966: 109); many of the girls “were angry at their mother for not preparing them for motherhood” (Greenfield 1966: 109).
In contrast to the treatment of daughters, Caribbean parents did nothing to punish the sexual aggressiveness of their sons or, for that matter, the sexual aggressiveness of men who seduced their daughters. Indeed, they encouraged it. As Wilson (1969: 71) noted early on, “almost every ethnographic report from the Caribbean mentions a double standard of sexual morality.” In Jamaica, “the proof of a man’s maleness is the impregnation of a woman” (Clarke 1966: 96). In Guyana, “for a man to have children all about is a matter of pride” (R. T. Smith 1956: 141). In Andros Island “boys are like dogs”; they are expected to have sex; if they don’t they are “sissy;” and “in order to attain adult status a man must have premarital as well as extramarital sex relations” (Otterbein 1966: 67). In Martinique, fathers impress on their sons “expectations of masculinity” (Horowitz 1967: 64). In Trinidad, “It is a glory for a man to dupe a woman into having sexual intercourse with him. If you can’t . . . you are not a ‘famous man’” (Freilich 1968: 962; see also Clarke 1957: 91, 96; Smith 1956: 141, 1988: 137). The behavior is such that a UN report on the subject concluded that “it is reasonable to argue that in the Caribbean as a whole sexual harassment represents behavior which is largely normalized” (Lewis 2003).
Ignorant of the mechanics of conception and confronted by sexually aggressive males of all ages, young Caribbean women were left defenseless in preventing unwanted first pregnancies. For those who might try to “break the vicious circle” (Kerr 1952: 81; see also Freilich 1968: 52), there was censure, ridicule, punishment, and intimidation. Adolescent girls were terrorized with the specter of what could happen if they took contraceptives or resorted to abortion: contraceptive use was considered sinful and associated with physical and mental disorders (Buschkens 1974: 223; Kerr 1952: 25; Cohen 1956). Coitus interruptus was abhorred, as illustrated by one of Blake’s informant who equated it with murder, “it is a sin, because you are destroying your blood, it is like killing a child” (Blake 1961: 201).
When young women did get pregnant for the first time, the “almost ritualized” reaction of her mother provided more evidence for those scholars who saw the entire process as dysfunctional (Senior 1991: 76). The discovery was accompanied by violence and quarrelling; and the girl was often thrown out of the house, but then quickly taken back in (for Barbados, see Greenfield 1966 and Handwerker 1989: 62; for Providencia, see Wilson 1961a: 128; for Suriname among the Paramaribo, see Buschkens 1974: 225; for Guyana, see R. T. Smith 1988: 145; and for Jamaican examples, see Kerr 1952).
Clarke (1966: 99) described the scenario in Jamaica:
The discovery is greeted with noisy upbraiding, the girl is severely beaten, and in many cases turned out of the house. In the second stage the girl takes refuge with a neighbor or kinswoman. After a period, which may be quite short, the kinsfolk and neighbours intercede with the mother on her behalf, and the girl is taken back into her mother’s home for the birth of her child.
It was precisely these types of seemingly contradictory behaviors—keeping girls in the dark about the mechanics of pregnancy, encouraging male sexual aggressiveness, and beating daughters when they did get pregnant—that early scholars were referring to when they described Caribbean family patterns as “dysfunctional.” But what I try to show in the rest of this article is that in the context of the importance of households, children, and the challenges confronted by impoverished people of the Caribbean, these practices were anything but dysfunctional. On the contrary, the view of them as dysfunctional was the consequence of a presumption by social scientists that children were a material burden. But for impoverished people of the Caribbean, quite the opposite was the case.
In Jean Rabel, Haiti, it was of the greatest importance that a woman bear children (see Schwartz 2009). In St. Vincent it was believed that a woman who cannot have children is “tragic, sad, and pitiable” and similarly, “a man who could not have children is equally scorned, and his masculinity and virility are called into question” (Gearing 1988: 235). In Jamaica, “a child is God’s gift,” “nothing should be done to prevent the birth of a child,” and “no woman who has not proved that she can bear a child is likely to find a man to be responsible for her” (Clarke 1966: 95–96). In summarizing the results of 1,600 interviews from the extensive Women in the Caribbean project (WICP 1979–1982), Senior (1991: 68) noted that “childless women are scorned,” they are “mules” and “beyond the pale of society.”
The “dysfunctional” behaviors described above evolved not as an aversion to high fertility, but as a mechanism of guaranteeing it. By keeping young women in the dark about the mechanics of reproduction, making them afraid of birth control, and encouraging male promiscuity, one could argue that impoverished people of the Caribbean, especially mothers, were setting up the conditions that made pregnancy unavoidable. By intentional design or simply the consequences of radical pronatalism, daughters were rendered defenseless against the processes that initiated their reproductive careers. As for the beatings, mothers were arguably not punishing daughters so much as they were assuring their control over the newborn child. Indeed, as will be seen, throughout the Caribbean, elder mothers deliberately tried to commandeer the offspring of their nubile daughters. The behavior of parents can ultimately only be understood with respect to dependency on households, female control over those households, and the value of child labor in making the household productive. To begin assessing the pattern, I want to first show how changes in the plantation economy that dominated the region for more than four hundred years gave way to the primacy of the Caribbean household as a unit of production and survival.
The Plantation Economy and the All-Important Household
Plantations were so much a part of the Caribbean that anthropologist Charles Wagley (1957: 8) defined the region as “plantation America.” In the colonial economic heyday of the region, massive importations of labor from Europe and Africa helped make corporate plantation economies such as Saint Domingue (the French colony that would become Haiti) and later Jamaica and Barbados the most productive on earth. But in the shadow of the plantation emerged another economy, one based on the household and linked through the informal economies found throughout the Caribbean with their internal rotating market systems. The system emerged from the corporate plantations money saving tactic of allotting slaves provision grounds where they planted staples for consumption. The slaves also traded the goods, giving birth to rotating daily markets. The Caribbeanist scholar Mintz (1974: 130–55: 1985) called this the “slave proto peasantry” and it gave way to an economy so dynamic that in Jamaica, one-fifth of all the colony’s currency was in the hands of slaves (Barickman 1994).
In most of the Caribbean the transition from proto to more developed peasant economy began in the 1830s postemancipation era. Through purchases, squatting, share-cropping, and government land reform programs, the impoverished semi-subsistence market producers acquired more land, the regional rotating market system expanded, and households became an important hedge against starvation, uncertain employment, and the economic vicissitudes and predatory wage labor strategies of the plantations. As in the colonial times, plantation owners granted or rented workers “provision grounds” encouraging “peasant” production, but Caribbean low-income farming adaptation can be understood not only as a “mode of response” to the plantation system, it can also be understood as a “mode of resistance” as well (Mintz 1974b: 131–56). The household and regional subsistence economy provided a haven from onerous and low-paid plantation labor. Haiti was an exception to other countries in the Caribbean. Because the country obtained independence earlier than other colonies, because of the extremity of the social upheaval and near absolute victory of the slaves (if not political victory, their de facto economic liberty) the process of transition from proto- to full-blown peasant economy began much earlier in Haiti (with the 1791 revolution) and the transition became more complete than in any former Caribbean colony.
But for the Caribbean in general, it was with emancipation that the transition began and with it a kind of struggle was born. On the one hand, the plantation economy, although weakened, continued to exist: managers continued to encourage workers to reproduce their own means of existence; they paid meager wages; recruited new migrants from India and Asia; and used vagrancy laws and restricted access to the most productive lands in an effort to force ex-slaves and the newer immigrants to work. On the other hand, many prospective workers retreated into the regional household-based farm economies. As in the case of Haiti, on some islands the farmers seemed to win with the full-blown “peasant” domination of regional rotating market systems and the near-total disappearance of plantations. But what emerged on most islands was a system where plantations still controlled the best and most productive lands while the impoverished ex-slaves were left the steeply sloped, rocky, and eroded marginal lands upon which they underwrote their own costs of reproduction. They planted survival-oriented crops such as sweet potatoes, yams, manioc, peanuts, millet, taro, and plantains; and they fished, foraged, hunted feral animals, tended their own small stocks of chickens, goats, pigs, cattle, and traded intensely with other households in weekly rotating markets.
Typical was the former British Caribbean, a region that included Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Trinidad and Tobago. As late as 1988, plantations held the best lands while 70 percent of all people lived in rural areas on small plots (Heath 1988: 431; Sahlins 1972; Beckford 1972). The same pattern prevailed throughout the lower Caribbean Basin. Even in cases of Amerindians such as Miskitu in Nicaragua—traditionally dependent on fishing, foraging and swidden agriculture—classic Caribbean household subsistence strategies took hold (Nietschmann 1979). But the growth of the informal household-based economy was tempered by another major demographic trend: male wage migration.1
Male Wage Migration
Wage migration entered into the plantation versus household equation in a powerful way. Following emancipation in 1838, men in the Lesser Antilles migrated to Trinidad and Guyana to work on sugar cane plantations (Richardson 1975: 395–96). The period between 1880 and 1924 was what Brereton (1989: 101) referred to as “the great age of migration” when men throughout the islands migrated to work on the Panama Canal, first for the French (1880 to 1893) and then for the Americans (1903 to 1914); they built the trans-isthmus railroad (1851 to 1855, 1904 to 1912); they migrated to work in the massive U.S.-engineered fruit empires of Central America (1870s to present), the British sugar empire in Guyana (1800s to 1970s), the originally U.S.-engineered sugar empire of Cuba (1890s to 1950s), the Dominican Republic (1880s to present), and Florida (1960s to present); up until 1924 they migrated to New York and even as far away as Ontario to pick apples. Beginning in the 1940s they went to the oil fields of Maracaibo and refineries of Aruba and Curacao; those from the British Islands went en masse to rebuild Britain after WWII. They migrated to U.S. mining operations throughout the region, such in bauxite mines in Jamaica (1944 to present) and Guyana (1940s to 1970s). During the 1960s and up until the present they continued to travel to England to work in factories, dig tunnels, and lay pipe; to Guyana to work in bauxite mines; to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands to build hotels; and to the United States to work as itinerant agricultural laborers.2
Many if not most of the migration patterns continue and new ones have been added such that Deere et al. (1990) could justifiably write that today the Caribbean exports more of its people than any region on the planet. While the migrants were sometimes women—an increasing phenomenon in recent years (Aymer 1997; Barrow 1997; Springfield 1997; Quinlan 2005)—the vast majority were male. The result was that reproductive-age women remaining on Caribbean home islands often outnumbered men as much as two to one (see table 1).
An integral part of the social pattern that emerged was that men were expected to use migration as a source to underwrite the establishment of a family and homestead. Richardson (1975: 398) would write that in Carriacou “often a young man is not considered an appropriate suitor by parents of a prospective bride unless he has completed a sojourn working overseas”; and in Guyana, R. T. Smith (1956) reported that “if men wanted to fully participate in adult social life they often had to migrate.” The outstanding manifestation of this trend was male house building.
Caribbean low-income households may sometimes have passed generation to generation in a matrilineal fashion, as with Solien’s (1959) “consanguineal female headed households,” but they came into being and only came into being in association with a union between a man and woman. Caribbean men were always the ones who underwrote the construction of the house and they held titular right to the homestead for life. The pattern was so consistent that we can elevate it to the status of a rule: in a review of twenty Caribbean ethnographies for twenty different Caribbean countries, Keith Otterbein (1965) found that in every case for which there was data (fifteen of twenty islands), the primary ingredient for conjugal union was that men provided a house (see also R. T. Smith 1956: 146; M. G. Smith 1961: 465; Philpott 1973: 120–21, 142; Sutton and Makiesky-Barrow 1970: 310).
Thus, what anthropologists found when they began studying family patterns in the mid 20th century was the consequence of over 150 years of adaptation to the weakening of the plantation economy, the importance of the household in surviving a harsh natural and economic environment, and the importance of male wage migration as a means to financially underwrite the household. These are points upon which anthropologists have always agreed. After all, it was not an argument; it was a description of Caribbean island economies. After that point, however, consensus crumbled such that social scientists were never able to agree on the determinants of Caribbean conjugal patterns and kinship.
I believe that I can show why scholars never agreed—and in another article I attempt to do so (see article here and also see here) —but for the remainder of this article I want to show how seemingly dysfunctional behaviors such as keeping girls ignorant of the mechanics of pregnancy, encouraging male sexual aggressiveness, and ritual daughter beating, are linked to the plantation-peasant-migration economy, specifically through the critical role of children as a domestic labor source. The important thing is to keep our eye on the household. But in doing so, in showing the causal connection between the Caribbean household and the value of children in making it productive and family, courtship, and childrearing practices in governing the work regimes of children, it is also necessary to dispel a series of academic myths that have emerged over the more than fifty years of anthropological study in the region.
Matrifocality and the Myth of the Female Bread Winner
Caribbean men have sometimes been portrayed in the literature as failures (Blackwood 2005: 8–9); as “victims of their social environment” (Quinlan 2006: 476); as aggressive, sexist, and disrespectful (Lewis 2003); and as feckless and deadbeat fathers (Massiah 1982, 1983; Jackson 1982; Barrow 1986: 162; Brodber 1986: 46; Ho 1999). Certainly there are some Caribbean men, perhaps even many, who neglect their familial responsibilities, and in all fairness to feminist activists, this trend of male irresponsibility has without doubt increased with the recent transformation of the Caribbean economy from one based on traditional household-based subsistence strategies to one oriented toward industry and tourism, a transformation that was occurring precisely at the time that feminist scholars entered into the region (1960s to the present). But for the traditional Caribbean, the conditions were different.
The role of the Caribbean male not only as financier for the construction of homesteads but also as significant source of cash in the growth of the homestead and rearing of children should never have been in doubt. Barrow (1986: 161) found that all her informants “at some stage in their life histories received support from male partners.” Senior (1991: 154) noted that “husband/partner is cited most frequently as a source of additional income.” But it was much more than “additional income”; in most cases it was the principal source of “income.”
Philpott (1973: 143) found that in the two communities he studied, fifty-four of eighty-one (66.8%) of female-headed households depended on remittances that came largely from men. George Cumper (1961) surveyed 1,296 Barbados households (5,364 people; a random sample of 2 percent of the Barbados population). In only two of Cumper’s categories of female-headed households (White Collar and Landless Labor) did males contribute less than 50 percent of all income; and in no category of male-headed households did men contribute less than 75 percent of family income.3
Male spouses were important, but in lieu of late age at marriage and even conjugal unions, it was “baby fathers” who stood out most as monetary contributors to household upkeep. In Montserrat, Stuart Philpott (1973) found that fathers of young children in the household sent the most money; this meant fathers who had not yet set up an independent homestead with the mother and therefore the money was being contributed to the grandparents’ household. Over 70 percent of female-headed households depended primarily on remittances from the parents of resident grandchildren. Even in male-headed households, 80 percent depended on remittances from parents with resident children in the household (Philpott 1973: 137, 141–42).
The importance of money from baby-fathers was such that a struggle between mothers and girlfriends was common. In Barbados, for example, mothers tried to break up their sons’ unions. As one woman recounted to Penn Handwerker (1989: 63):
There is a saying—I’ve heard it a lot: ‘Mothers-in-law break up most marriages.’ The mother be tellin’ the man he forgettin’ her! And the wife be tellin’ the man “when you going to grow up and cut the apron strings!”
As in most societies, the man’s mother usually lost. Thus, Caribbean parents found their interests best focused on daughters. Where scholars measured preference for daughters versus sons, daughters came out way ahead. In Jamaica, for instance, Sergeant and Harris (1992) found that 79 percent of mothers interviewed preferred to give birth to a daughter. As in Jean Rabel, Haiti, the reason girls were favored was because they were a more dependable source of labor and physical assistance (see Schwartz 2009). Also, as in Jean Rabel daughters were a source of child laborers (i.e., grandchildren), arguably the most important determinant of Caribbean kinship and family patterns. These are points taken up soon. But first, I want to finish with this other important issue, that of money from men, and the fact that the most efficacious way of getting it was via a daughter.
Parents, especially mothers, took a keen interest in prospective sexual partners of their daughters. Parents in Jamaica instructed the girl to, “tell her mother of his advances . . . he will then be investigated . . . and subsequently either be accepted or rejected” (Blake 1961: 69). In Barbados, men were selected at “meet-hims,” church socials where parents could censor suitors. Upon approval, they subsequently had sex in the girl’s home (Handwerker 1989: 62). Similarly, according to M. G. Smith, “Under the Carriacou regulation of mating, young girls may not reply to the addresses of their suitors without the permission of their parents or household heads” (M. G. Smith 1961: 468).
So important were financial contributions from men that there emerged what appeared to outsiders a type of institutionalized prostitution. Women and their families conceptualized female sexuality as a commodity and were unwilling to allow daughters to engage in even casual relationships with men who could not afford to give them money or material gifts (Handwerker 1993: 45; 1989: 77,87; Hill, 1977: 279–80, 282, 305; Ashcraft 1968: 67-68; Freilich 1968: 52; Otterbein 1966: 105; M. G. Smith, 1962: 93,110–22, 226, 234–35; Stycos and Back 1964: 161).
The material demand attached to a girl’s sexual acquiescence often meant that girls engaged in their first relationship with older men. Blake found that in her sample of sixty-five Jamaican women, at least ten of the first female sexual experiences were with a man from five to fifteen years older than the girl; in an additional eight cases the man was at least fifteen to twenty years older; and in thirteen cases Blake could not ascertain the age difference but nevertheless, “whereas for instance, she was only 14 or 15,” the man was “already trained in a trade,” “an itinerant laborer,” “domiciled with another woman,” “had many women,” “and so on” (Blake 1961: 90–91). The pattern prevailed throughout the Caribbean, where men were on average six years older than their spouses (Roberts, 1957: 206–7; Massiah 1983).
On the other side of the equation, if men wanted to enter into relations with a woman or, as seen earlier, to establish a homestead with a woman, they had to find money. To do so they fished, raised animals, foraged, cultivated agricultural plots, built houses, and pursued virtually any gainful opportunity available to them. But as seen, wage migration presented itself as a fast way to bypass poverty on home islands and obtain the money to build a house and begin raising a family. Parents were primary agents in making this a norm; they often refused to allow their daughters to go with men who had not yet been abroad (R. T. Smith 1953: 108; see also Hill 1977: 281; Philpott 1973: 120–21; Ashcraft 1968: 67–68; M. G. Smith 1961, 1962: 113, 117; Wilson 1961b; Otterbein 1965; Kundstadter, 1963). And so, as seen, men migrated. They migrated such that by the latter 20th century Aaron Segal (1987: 44) could describe the Caribbean as having “borne the deepest and most continuous impact from international migration of any region in the world.”
Thus, the reluctance to tell daughters or younger counterparts about the mechanics of pregnancy, the lack of censure of sexually aggressive males, and the beatings upon discovery of a first pregnancy and even male migration itself were arguably related to financial contributions from men. Children were an indispensable part of the equation in that it was the birth of a child that assured the continued flow of money. Suggestions of “secrecy” aside (Handwerker 1989: 62), parents were fully aware of what to expect when they allowed men to hang around their daughter: according to Senior (1991: 75), “pregnancy is expected.” A Vincentian woman in her mid-thirties recalled, “’the fella went home and speak with them so they expect anything. Because if somebody come home and you allow that child to go out with that person, you expect anything to happen” (Senior 1991: 75). “In other words,” Senior clarifies, “if they allow the girl to go out with a boy they are tacitly acknowledging that she is a woman and ripe for womanly experience” (Senior 1991: 75).
Parents allowed girls to go out with specific suitors, but as seen, they did so with an eye toward his ability to provide. When girls did get pregnant, the parents, especially mothers, wanted to know who was responsible so they could demand support. Senior (1991) found that among the 1,600 WICP informants, it was the “greatest disgrace” that a father could not be named:
It’s terrible, one of the worst things in life, it’s a shame you having sexual intercourse with so many men and the next thing you get pregnant and you don’t know who the father.
Do you know girls like that?
Yes, we have one like that. She has two children and she don’t know who the father of both.
So she didn’t call any names?
Yes, she called names. Names! A child got to have names. Somebody got to be the father. (Senior 1991: 79)
In effect, one reason mothers beat daughters upon discovery of pregnancy was so the girl would name a father. This tendency fed another anthropological myth, that of the deadbeat Caribbean father. But naming a father was not as difficult as some Caribbeanists have suggested, for, feminist critiques of the traditionally negligent Caribbean male aside, men were eager to claim paternity.
The Caribbean Father
Caribbean children almost always had fathers. In Andros Island, “most illegitimate children used their putative father’s name” (Otterbein 1966: 76). The same was true in Martinique (Horowitz 1967: 56) and St. Lucia (Crowley 1957); and in the Carriacou community, where M. G. Smith (1961: 470) found that out of more than two hundred children, only five had an obscure paternity. In his original formulation of the “matrifocal family,” R. T. Smith (1956: 133) too dwelled upon the importance of the father’s image; he found it was “inconceivable in British Guyana that a child should be fatherless,” children almost always took the surname of their father, even when illegitimate, and “in the overwhelming majority of cases the father is known and recognized by the entire community” (see also Cousins 1935: 47; Cohen 1956: 668; Charbit 1984: 38). Lazarus-Black (2001), the only anthropologist to systematically study paternity suits in the Caribbean, observed only one case in nine years where a man denied paternity in court.
Male eagerness to claim paternity and the associated prestige gave women power in that they could decide to which man they would assign paternity (Chevannes 2002). This sometimes gave way to a manipulation of the opportunity to choose who the father was; in Haiti this is known as a kout petit. In the British Caribbean, assigning paternity to a man who is not the biological father is known as “giving a man a jacket.” Indeed, some women took the opportunity to assign paternity to two or more fathers, one publicly and the others in secret.
In short, contrary to what has emerged as an almost mythical image of the deadbeat Caribbean father, Caribbean men were often eager to claim paternity. Moreover, while abundant scholarly attention has been devoted to matrifocality, the role of man as underwriter and lifetime member of the household cannot be gainsaid. Otterbein (1965: 75) measured the association between female-headed households and male absenteeism manifest in male skewed sex-ratios and got a .81 correlation. Yves Charbit (1984: 32) got an almost identical correlation with data from surveys done in subsequent decades (.71).
The lessons to be learned are that a male spouse, while perhaps not always present, was the major financial underwriter of the Caribbean household, a household member as well, and if present, was considered the household head. Unless he was dead: when I added widowhood to Charbit’s model above, the equation yielded a correlation of .92 (an R square of .84).4 But as will be seen below, none of this is to say that Caribbean women did not play a dominant role in the governing of the homestead.
Autonomous Caribbean Households Controlled by Women and the Importance of Children
It is with women and their role as decision makers in Caribbean households that it becomes clear how and why the value of child labor played a determinant role in Caribbean marriage and kinship patterns. In Anguilla, “the woman is the family manager; she is subordinate to her husband, but not subservient” (Walker 1968: 114); In Guyana, “the mistress of the house receives money and garden produce . . . she is solely responsible for its management once it has been handed over to her” (R. T. Smith 1956: 138). In Barbuda, “within the household, women take over exclusive management. . . . There are no tasks for men within the physical confines of the house” (Berleant-Schiller 1978: 259, 264). In Jamaica, “of most importance to a woman is her own yard” (Durant-Gonzalez 1976: 39). Even in Barbados, where Handwerker drove home the authority of the father, “authority . . . was not accompanied by men’s participation in household affairs” (Handwerker 1989: 81). In summary, there really was something going on in terms of the prominence of Caribbean women in the domestic sphere: as a consequence of male migration and de facto absenteeism, women were left in control of households.
On many islands, women also controlled local exchange. As in Jean Rabel, Haiti, where the madanm sara and marchann dominate both retail and intermediate exchange (Schwartz 2009), female higglers and hucksters and small vendors from Jamaica to Guyana dominated both retail marketing of farm produce and much of wholesale interisland trade (Mintz 1955, 1971, 1974; Walker 1968; Pollock 1972; Massiah 1983: 12–17; Griffith 1985; Lagro 1990; Lagro and Plotkin 1990; Mantz 2007). And it is here that we can see the significance of children enter into the equation, for the critical component in the adaptation being described was child labor.
In St. John, “women were able to play such an active role in the extra-domestic activities partly because children were used as labor power as soon as they were old enough” (Olwig, 1985: 118–19). In Jamaica, “children lighten the work of adult women . . . by assisting in the easier tasks such as sweeping, watering the animals, collecting kindling, hauling water, picking fruit from the trees, and going to the neighborhood shop” (Davenport, 1961: 436–37). In Barbuda, “by the time a girl is eleven or twelve she can run a household and often does” (Berleant-Schiller 1978: 259). Even in the case of land-scarce Barbados, “growing children help reduce the woman’s work load, and most women are well aware of this fact” (Greenfield 1966: 107).
Female control of the exchange economy was favorable in lieu of male absenteeism and wage migration. But what underwrote this particular configuration of marketing and male wage migration was the household; women were free to control the local retail marketing economy and men to migrate because membership in a productive household guaranteed their security, and what freed them from the tasks of the household were children and the labor contributions they made. Moreover, rather than being a commonsensical observation accepted by anthropologists, the importance of child labor to women is perhaps the most overlooked and consistently denied aspect of Caribbean family patterns, one that has led to a misunderstanding of the process. The point is thrown into stark light when one considers another behavior that social scientists considered “maladaptive” and “dysfunctional”: violence exercised against children, largely by mothers.
Beating the Hell out of Children
The physical beating of children was common. In Jamaica Clarke (1966: 156) reported, “there was hardly a case where our informant did not expatiate upon what he called the ‘floggings’ he or she had received in childhood.” In Suriname, “No part of a child’s body is safe from blows. . . . In some yards it is not uncommon even for older children (especially boys) to be suspended naked by the arms from the branch of a tree and given a thrashing with a stick” (Buschkens 1974: 239). This violence against children has been called “repressive, severe, and abusive” (Leo-Rhynie 1997; Sharpe 1997) and “developmentally inappropriate” (Sloley 1999; see Smith and Mosby 2003 for a summary), but it too was part of adapting to harsh living conditions and it was a direct outgrowth of the critical role of children in household livelihood strategies.
In Curacao, “when a child reaches the age of five or six, parents begin to impose behavior by directing the child’s chores and by using a belt or switch” (Hill 1977: 297). In St. Vincent, children are considered to misbehave if they are “lazy and shirk work,” they receive “corporal punishment . . . discipline is taken seriously” (Gearing 1988: 194). In Barbados, “as the children grow older they help the mother with many of her duties. By the age of five, children have ‘chores,’ the neglect of which is punishable by beating” (Greenfield 1966: 107). In Haiti it was seen that the objective was for the child to be “thinking about the switch in everything he does.”
In an anthropological projection of Western ideals, the Caribbean father was sometimes depicted as the sterner disciplinarian (Clarke 1966: 107, 159; R. T. Smith 1956: 134; Handwerker 1989: 86). But just as it was women who controlled the homesteads, it was women who most often disciplined children. In the Bahamas, “mothers are often the providers of discipline” (Bethel 1993: 7). Among the Black Carib, “the woman had the responsibility of raising the children, caring for their needs, disciplining them” (Solien 1959: 57). In Anguilla4 “child discipline is in the hands of women” (Walker 1968: 114). In Suriname, “it is chiefly mothers who mete out punishments” (Buschkens 1974: 239). In Guyana, “fathers beat their children very infrequently and certainly much less frequently than do mothers and mother substitutes” (R. T. Smith 1956: 13). In Jamaica, “in all aspects of home training the mother is the principal actor . . . the authority of the mother is never questioned any more than the child’s duty of obedience to her” (Clarke 1966: 118–20); and “this part of training is carried out almost exclusively by the mother” (Cohen 1956: 671). In Bermuda, “wives-mothers carry out the most part of the socialization of the children . . . and are also the disciplinarian figures” (Paul 1983: 100).
As the managers of households, women commanded children and they did so with the objective of making the household productive. What underwrote survival was the link between the household, female career as manager of a productive household, and the labor of children. Moreover, older women were at the height of their economic power as market women and heads of mature and productive homesteads stocked with working children. It was these older women who had the greatest interest in the reproductive behavior of their nubile daughters and in assuring the replenishment of the household labor supply.
The stability of Caribbean economies and the continuation of the homestead depended most heavily on the women who managed them. Because women also often controlled the local retail marketing economy of produce, because this economy was based on household production, and because children were a critical source of labor, they, children, were most critical to women. And they were most critical not as adults, as most researchers addressing the issue have argued (Handwerker 1989: 88; Smith 1962: 236; Otterbein 1963: 170; Philpott 1973: 123; Brittain 1990: 57; Murray 1977); they were most important as children. It is this issue of children that makes the rest of “dysfunctional” Caribbean family patterns understandable. Radical pronatalism, a complex of cultural beliefs and behavior from keeping girls in the dark about the mechanics of pregnancy to sending them off alone or leaving them in the house with sexually aggressive but financially capable older men, the entire complex is ultimately underwritten by the fact that children were not the burdens so often presented in the literature.
Even in the case of the mother’s ritual beating upon discovery of a daughter’s pregnancy, seen earlier, close examination reveals that what ethnographers where witnessing was more than simply assuring the identification of the father and procurement of child support; it was part of an institutionalized struggle between mother and daughter for control over children. In Suriname, Buschkens (1974: 226) wrote of the grandmother’s “refusing to part with these grandchildren, which she has come to regard as her property.” In Trinidad, there was a custom for the first child of a marriage to “belong to the grandparents,” something that Stewart (1973: 98) tells us “ensured the continued membership of young workers in each household” (see also Rodman 1971: 82). While calling the grandmother “ma” or “mama” or “muma,” the children were taught to refer to their own mother by her pet name, as if she were another sibling (see Buschkens 1974: 226; Durant-Gonzalez 1976; Greenfield 1966; R. T. Smith 1956: 144–45). In Barbados, if the grandparents fostered the child, the couple was “relieved” of responsibility but they also “relinquished their parental rights” (Handwerker 1989: 63). Even Clarke (1966), who like many of her contemporaries saw children as a burden and the entire institution of high pronatalism, odd marriage patterns, and daughter beating as dysfunctional, went on to explain that, “we found no instance where the grandmother resented the presence of the child in her home . . . they ‘gladden the home,’ they are a source of companionship, they are useful” (Clarke 1966: 100, 180; see also Cohen 1956: 668; and see Philpott 1973: 140, for bitter competition over possession of children for their labor value).
The benefits that accrued to older women who controlled the process are manifest in the sheer demographic weight of grandchildren. Throughout the Caribbean, young women typically began bearing children while still living in their parents’ household; 40 to 75 percent of all births on Caribbean islands are to single women; 25 to 40 percent of children lived in homes where neither parent is present and most of these were homes of grandparents (Philpott 1973: 137; Clarke 1966: 202–4; M. G. Smith 1961: 457,470–71; Cohen 1956: 668). Moreover, while money from men is a preeminent issue, the even greater importance of children is evident in the struggle between mothers and daughters-in-law for support from sons. While mothers tried to break up union and to get support from sons for themselves, it was the mothers of men’s children—and the mother’s mothers—who most often prevailed. Everywhere in the Caribbean, the value of young children to men and women who shared control over them overrode that of contributions from adult children and sons’ loyalty to their own mothers. All of this brings up the question, why did men bother to cooperate with the system in the first place?5
Why Men Cooperated
One reason why men so readily conformed to demands of females for support was pressure. As seen, women and their families promoted a system in which female sexual acquiescence, motherhood, and domestic servitude were associated with remuneration from males. They selectively encouraged relationships with men who had money; and they attached similar values to male migration, encouraging if not compelling men to go overseas in search of money to invest in homesteads and families back home. And so men migrated; they did so in fantastic numbers; and they did so precisely so that they could give the money to the mothers of their children and invest in households. Those who did not, lost respect (Handwerker 1989: 80); they lost rights to inheritance (Philpott 1973: 127); their wives cuckolded them and assigned paternity for offspring to other men (Otterbein 1966: 70–75, 115); their own children refused to help them (Handwerker 1989: 91); they were censured (Philpott 1973: 178-179); they suffered “ridicule,” “isolation” and “abuse” (M. G. Smith 1962: 70; see also Smith 1956: 158; Greenfield 1966: 119; Rodman 1971: 178; Senior 1991: 8).
But male conformance did not derive from pressure alone. Caribbean males had the option of never coming home. When away working as migrants, they could have stayed overseas. And some did. But for the many who returned, the most fundamental reason for conformance was quite simply because investment in a house back home, in the woman who would manage it, and in the children who would make it productive was the best shot most had at dignity, liberty, social security, and financial independence from a system in which corporate plantation enterprises sought to use them at the lowest possible cost. Industrial agriculture, mining, and massive building projects might have paid little, but when men migrated from the poorest regions to distant plantations or construction sites, they were able to save money by sleeping on the sites and bunking in barracks or sharing houses with other men and, in doing so, were able to return home with a sizable savings.6
Summarizing, while many young Caribbean women may have been reluctant to begin childbearing, the ethnographic record suggests that most often older women—and to a lesser extent their spouses—favored the idea of their daughter’s pregnancy and they sought to arrange it so that it would happen with men who could and would provide support. These interests were expressed in the institutionalized complex of behaviors seen above, from encouraging male sexual aggressiveness, to encouraging migration, to keeping young women ignorant of the processes that would allow them to avoid first pregnancies, to censoring financially unsuitable suitors while permitting older, financially capable men to slip through. Moreover, it was precisely the drive to get money from men and male absenteeism that led to rates of illegitimate births as high as 70 percent of all births; it also led to “brittle unions” in the form of polygyny and to serial monogamy; and to the late age at entry into union.
But as we have seen, there was more to it than money. It was ultimately not migration or child support in itself that caused “peculiar” Caribbean family patterns. Money from men does not explain why women did not stick by one man, especially if the man was away earning money and sending back remittances. It does not explain why men and women bothered to get married toward the end of their reproductive careers, after all their children were already born. And it does not explain the high birth rates that until recently prevailed throughout the region. The answer to what ultimately drove pronatalism, distinct Caribbean family, kinship, and courting practices, as well as male conformance, and the pursuit of overseas employment to meet financial responsibilities associated with women and children was not money or sex, per se, but rather dependence on a livelihood strategy in which the household was the foundation and child labor the fulcrum point in making the strategy successful. It is also this causal concatenation of variables with the importance of children as labor at the base that explains one of the most counterintuitive phenomena in the demographic literature, why Caribbean women bore more children when there were fewer men present, i.e., fewer men, more babies, the subject of another blog (see article here).
- For the transformation of islands from plantation economies to dual plantation/peasant economies, see Mintz 1974, 1985, Scarano 1989, Brereton 1989; for Dominica, see Gardner and Podolefsky 1977; for Martinique, see Baber 1982, Horowitz 1959; for Barbados, see Lowenthal 1957, Henshall 1966; for Carriacou, see Richardson 1975, Heath 1988; for Commonwealth Caribbean, see Heath 1988: 431, Beckford 1972; for St. Vincent, see Rubenstein 1977, Grossman 1997; for Antigua, see Augelli 1953; for Barbuda, see Berleant-Schiller 1978, Gaspar 1991.
- For Caribbean migration, see Lowenthal and Comitas 1962, Foner and Napoli 1978; Frucht 1968; Crane 1971; Pollock 1972; Palmer 1974; Sutton and Makiesky 1975; Taylor 1976; Hill 1977; Midgett 1977; Green 1979; Rubenstein 1977, 1979; Plummer 1985; Perusek 1984; Pollock 1972; Richardson 1975: 396–98; R. T. Smith 1953: 93; McElroy and Albuquerque 1988; for U.S.-engineered plantations, Balch 1927; Millspaugh 1931; Montague 1966; Williams 1970; Castor 1971; Lundahl 1983; Perusek 1984; Segal, 1975; Saint-Louis 1988; for Jamaica, see Griffith 1985; Pollock 1972.
- George Cumper (1961) surveyed 1,296 households with 5,364 people (a random sample of 2 percent of the population). Cumper broke his sample into eight occupational groups and male- versus female-headed households. In only two of Cumper’s categories of female-headed households (White Collar and Landless Laborer) did males contribute less than 50 percent of all income and among male-headed households in only the category of Domestic Labor (58%) did men contribute less than 75 percent of family income (table 4 below).
- On average, Caribbean women marry younger and live longer than men. Average age for entry into common law or “consensual union” in the traditional Commonwealth Caribbean occurred at 29.9 for females and 36.4 for males (Roberts 1957; see also Massiah 1983: 14); and Caribbean life expectancy in 1960 was 66.3 for females versus 62.2 for males. These figures mean that compared to men, Caribbean women had 10.6 years more of life after union than their spouse. Congruently, Caribbean households headed by widowed females were high, ranging during the 1960s and 1970s from 11.4 percent in Guyana to 34.1 percent in St. Vincent (Massiah 1983: 19).
- “These people work abroad for awhile and then return to Anguilla to plant crops, build houses, and work at whatever comes to hand. Lack of opportunities for employment, droughts and the slow pace on the island leads to economic need and a restlessness which results in another trip abroad . . . .Despite the large disproportion of women on the island the role of the female is quite apparently subordinate to the man. . . . [But] the total responsibility for day-to-day home cooperation, care of financial resources and child discipline is in the hands of women. . . . As one respondent said, ‘The woman is the family manager; she is subordinate to her husband, but not subservient’” (Walker 1968: 114).
- Wages in Haiti or Jamaica at the turn of the 20th century were ten cents per day, one-tenth to one-twentieth the one to two dollars per day workers could make migrating to work the Panama Canal (Petras 1988: 179–80; Plummer 1985; Perusek 1984). It should also be acknowledged that staying abroad was not always an option. In 1924, a new law cut off immigration to New York; in the 1930s the depression ended migration; in 1937 Cuba, the Batista government brutally rounded up and exported Haitians, and in the same year the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic massacred some twenty thousand of them (Balch 1927; Millspaugh 1931; Montague 1966; Williams 1970; Castor 1971; Lundahl 1983; Perusek 1984; Segal 1975; Saint-Louis 1988).
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