Lucille Mathurin Mair. A Historical Study of Women in Jamaica, 1655-1844. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2006. 496 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-976-640-166-5; $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-976-640-178-8.
Reviewed by Barbara Bush
Published on H-Caribbean (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Clare Newstead
A Classic Study of the History of Caribbean Women
I first encountered Lucille Mathurin Mair's work during the 1970s when I read her seminal article, "The Arrivals of Black Women," published in Jamaica Journal in 1975. Her work, which influenced me and a number of other pioneering historians in the field, was seminal in developing research in gender and slavery. Mair's research, however, went beyond Jamaican slave women of African origin; it also embraced white and mulatto, or "brown," women, slave and free. Her doctoral thesis, supervised by Elsa Goveia, the first woman professor of history at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica, was awarded in 1974. Mair (née Waldrond) went on to become a well-known Jamaican historian, author, teacher, activist, and diplomat, but her dissertation remained unpublished. Verene A. Shepherd and Hilary McD. Beckles, both professors of history at the University of West Indies who have made a significant contribution to gendered perspectives on Caribbean history, are thus to be commended for transforming this monumental study into a published monograph.
The book is divided into three main sections that map Mair's original structure. Part 1 addresses the origins of Jamaican society and examines female arrivals from 1655 to 1770. Part 2 focuses on creole slave society, while the final part, "Postscript, 1834-1844," explores the beginnings of a free society. Each section weaves together the lives of white, black, and mulatto women, and explores their relationships to each other as well as to white, black, and mulatto men. Shepherd and Beckles have skilfully and sensitively edited the original text, making the minimum of changes. Their introduction effectively contextualizes Mair's study in relation to developments in the field of women's, gender, and feminist history since the 1970s, and its impact on the postcolonial historiography of slave and post-slave societies.
When Mair began her Ph.D. thesis, feminist methodology and the concept of gender were in an embryonic stage. It clearly became a massive project and her passion for the subject illuminates the text. As the editors point out, Caribbean writing and academic historiography rarely mentioned women; Mair's study shattered the "maleness" of the colonial canon that was further challenged as women's history evolved into feminist and then gender history. Her dissertation provides a rich and detailed empirical analysis of a comprehensive range of primary sources enhanced by flashes of original and perceptive insight into the dynamics of Jamaican slave society and culture. She includes copious and detailed footnotes, which are invaluable for the serious scholar but should not inhibit the reader who has a more general interest in the topic, as Mair's written style is clear, fluent, and refreshingly free from jargon and the complexities of over-theorization.
Part 1 provides some rich detail about the early white female population, including three women who received land grants, the wives of pioneer domestic farmers "beyond the sugar line," and female indentured servants. By 1750, the poorer female servants were almost lost to records; many had re-migrated or were upwardly mobile. Thus, the white female drunks, bawds, thieves, and adulteresses of the seventeenth century also vanished, and the "discarded vices of the white woman, like her other hand-me-downs, had fallen to the lot of the black woman" (p. 40). White women were now elevated to models of respectable domesticity and became more peripheral to the economy, and thus "peripheral to society's consciousness" (p. 38). In contrast, perceptions of black women had deteriorated to the "venomous" racist language of the planter Edward Long (p. 77). The arrivals of black women, observes Mair, irrevocably changed the path of Jamaican history; they were central to redefining white female identities, and, through rape, sexual exploitation, and consensual concubinage, contributed to the emergence of a mulatto minority. Additionally, they were indispensable to the Jamaican economy and seminal in the formation of new African Caribbean communities and cultures.
Part 2 provides a detailed analysis of creole slave society. The arrivals--slave and master, male and female, white, black, and mulatto--had to negotiate a modus vivendi in an evolving creole society premised on race, class, and gender inequalities; cruelty and dispossession; and complex interrelationships among power, resistance, survival strategies, and collaboration. In this section, Mair provides a path-breaking study of white women that has been further developed by such historians as Beckles and Cecily Forde Jones. The higher up the social ladder and the larger the estate, the greater was the scarcity of white women. This contrasts with the lives of "secondary whites," the middle and lower middle strata of white society that was four times the size of the planter elite and found in a wide range of occupations, which ranged from lawyers to small farmers, traders, and tavern keepers. Women, she argues, were more plentiful in these classes of whites, and most worked alongside their husbands and fathers. Mair illustrates how secondary whites were more vulnerable to debt, drought, hurricanes, slave raids, and militia billeting. More "secondary" white women owned slaves (between one and thirty) than property, and they often hired these out to gain an income (p. 133).
Mair also illuminates the hierarchical divisions on slave plantations and the gendered experiences of slaves. She demonstrates empathy for slave women's sufferings but also celebrates their resistant spirit. Women were rebels and guerrillas, and men and women were "partners in resistance," she notes (p. 58). Slave women had a reputation for quarrelsomeness and skill at using verbal abuse, malingering, raising grievances in courts, and running away, sometimes with their children. Some escapees risked sea journeys and fled to Cuba and Trinidad. Women also led in songs, one of the most important forms of the communications media of "word, drum, horn, chant and dance" that forged African Caribbean identity (p. 235). Finally, Mair turns to women's contributions to family and community, and she challenges the view of the dominant matriarchal female slave and emasculated male. Recent archaeological excavations of slave villages confirm much of the author's assertions about the economy of slave communities and cultural continuities with Africa.
One of Mair's most interesting contentions is that the "original creole matriarch may not have been black but brown" (p. 292). Free brown women, she argues, tended to live in families dominated by women and looked down on black women and brown men, whom they regarded as "helpless." These matriarchies may reflect the particular location of mulatto women in slave societies. Brown women were the cultural conduits between black and white worlds, as the mistresses of white men and as "grog house" keepers. But, observes Mair, their position in Jamaican society was ambivalent. As the object of white male desire, they could prosper but they could never match the ideal of white womanhood and achieve respectability. Religion was the other end of the spectrum of approved means of brown upward mobility, but, argues Mair, before the abolition of slavery in 1838, there does not seem to have been the same development of philanthropy and sense of civic duty as was found among the Barbadian urban free colored population. With emancipation, however, there was a decline in concubinage, a reflection of the pervasive emphasis on "respectability" in post-slavery society that separated the "civilized" and aspiring mulattos and blacks from their "primitive" African past.
The final part of the book takes us through the turbulent period of slave emancipation, apprenticeship (1833-38), and adjustment to freedom after 1838. Here, Mair pioneered study of black women's responses to freedom subsequently expanded on by Swithin Wilmot, Sheena Boas, Diana Paton, and others. Women, she demonstrates, defended their children against exploitation and "voted with their feet" during and after the apprenticeship period. To secure labor, plantation owners had to use forms of coercion, such as raising rents on cottages and bringing in stricter regulations regarding the use of provision grounds.
It has been a privilege to review this book. Mair's unpublished dissertation became a classic before publication, and now that it is published it will gain official canonical status with other seminal Caribbean writings by Eric Williams, Edward Kamau Braithwaite, Orlando Patterson, Elsa Goveia, and others. Given the fact that over thirty years have passed since Mair's study was completed as a Ph.D. thesis, it would be unfair to apply the normal conventions of review critique to this monograph. Certainly, debates have moved on, and some of her statistics--relating, for instance, to the demography of the slave trade and slave populations in Jamaica--could now be contested. However, the mark of a classic is that it retains value and never becomes dated in the way that lesser works do. Mair was the first historian to examine the intersections of gender, race, and class as they affected the lives of white, black, and mulatto women. She opened up new ways of approaching the study of Caribbean slave societies, and many aspects of her comprehensive coverage have been developed by those who followed her. This book will thus be essential reading for all students and researchers with an interest in Caribbean history. It facilitates comparative studies of slave societies in other Caribbean islands and the Americas, and it is a rich source of archival and secondary sources including, in the editors' additional bibliography, key works published since Mair completed her research. As Shepherd and Beckles point out: "The history of Caribbean women continues to attract the attention of modern scholars on both sides of the Atlantic and the historiography is not only vast but, on the whole, empirically rich, intellectually gripping and, frequently, conceptually contentious" (p. xxix). That is Mair's lasting legacy.
. For example, see Laurie A. Wilkie and Paul Farnsworth, Sampling Many Pots: An Archaeology of Memory and Tradition at a Bahamian Plantation (Miami: University of Florida Press, 2005); and Jay B. Haviser, ed., African Sites Archeology in the Caribbean (Kingston: Ian Randle, 1999).
. See Melanie Newton, "Philanthropy, Gender and the Production of Public Life in Barbados, c.1790-c1850," in Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World, ed. Pamela Scully and Diana Paton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 225-246.
. For example, see Susan Lowes, "'They Couldn't Mash Ants': The Decline of the White and Non-White elites in Antigua, 1834-1900," in Small Islands, Large Questions: Society, Culture and Resistance in the Post-Emancipation Caribbean, ed. Karen Fog-Olwig (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 31-52.
. For instance, Scully and Paton, eds., Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World; and Swithin Wilmot, "Females of Abandoned Character? Women and Protest in Jamaica, 1836-35," in Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective, ed. Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton, and Barbara Bailey (Oxford: James Currey, 1995), 279-295.
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