Christine Walker. Jamaica Ladies: Female Slaveholders and the Creation of Britain's Atlantic Empire. Williamsburg: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 336 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-5879-7; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-5526-0.
Reviewed by Alexandra M. Macdonald (William & Mary)
Published on H-Nationalism (December, 2020)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
While there is a vast literature on slavery in British America, much of it overlooks the integral role that free and freed women played in creating and cementing the practices and institutions of colonization and slavery. What scholarship does exist focuses most of its attention on the nineteenth-century US South. As a result, the British Caribbean, and British Jamaica particularly, has been viewed as a hypermasculine space inhabited by male merchants and planters. However, as Christine Walker illustrates in her new book, “Atlantic slavery was never the sole concern of white men acting in isolation” (p. 23).
The first systematic study of free and freed “handmaidens of empire” born in Britain, Africa, and Jamaica, Jamaica Ladies is a richly detailed monograph that seeks to rectify the historiographical lacuna that leaves women’s roles in British Atlantic slavery underexamined (p. 5). Walker shows how in Jamaica, nearly every female endeavor, from small-scale provisioning and domestic management to large trade operations and plantation management, relied on exploiting enslaved labor. A total of 10 percent of all slave owners in Jamaica were women, and nearly 80 percent of women who held any property owned enslaved Africans. Analyzing the ways women were a small, but vital, part of Jamaica’s economy and society between the 1670s and 1760s, Walker argues that through their ownership of enslaved women, men, and children, free and freed women gained access to legal, economic, and social authority that they did not have elsewhere in the British Atlantic. The decisions these female enslavers made both entrenched and undermined any simple binaries between Black and white, free and enslaved, and masculine and feminine authority, calling into question the extent to which metropolitan gender norms were adopted across the Atlantic. Weaving family dynamics into the warp and weft of British Caribbean society and economy, Walker argues that not only did unmarried or widowed women own enslaved women and men, but also families were at the center of Jamaica’s slave society.
Based on extensive research in archives in Jamaica, Britain, and the United States, Jamaica Ladies is organized into six thematic and broadly chronological chapters. The first chapter, a case study of late seventeenth-century Port Royal, opens with a discussion of Elizabeth Doddington, a “member of the pioneering generation of colonists” who settled on Jamaica in the years immediately following England’s capture of the island from Spain in 1655 (p. 25). Modestly wealthy, Doddington acquired land in the town and was a member of the first generation of female colonists to rely on enslaved labor; Doddington owned a bricklayer named Tom, a women named Rose and her children, and seven other enslaved captives who she did not identify by name in her will. Her ownership of these people accounted for a substantial part of her wealth. Upon her death, she manumitted the unnamed captives and offered a conditional freedom to Tom and Rose. Walker’s discussion of female colonists like Doddington and her captives Tom and Rose lays the foundation for the nuanced, granular story Walker tells in this book. Doddington exploited the labor of enslaved Africans to raise her status in the community, increase her economic standing, and cement her position as a free woman, but she also undermined the practice of slavery through the conditional manumission of her captives on her death. By 1690, Walker argues, the loosely regulated and profit-orientated nature of Jamaica offered new economic opportunities for free and freed women, opportunities that cemented their “eager adoption” of slavery and helped to create a lucrative and exploitive, but unstable, society (p. 64).
Chapters 2 and 3, case studies of the town of Kingston and plantations respectively, demonstrate how personal connections—between female friends, male and female retailers and merchants, kinship ties, and the enslaved and their enslavers—underpinned the empire. As they had done in Port Royal, by the 1720s free and freed women living in Kingston not only leveraged kinship networks to build profitable licit and illicit trading ventures but also treated enslaved people as a form of currency that they could draw on to invest in empire. Through the purchase of enslaved children as companions for their children and grandchildren and their investment of revenue from enslaved-supported business endeavors in financial institutions that undergirded the empire, women like Sarah Shanks and her daughter Anna Hassell “normalized slaveholding and strengthened the ties between female heirs and Atlantic slavery” (p. 99). This centrality of slavery to family networks, and familial networks to institutions of slavery, extended to plantation management. Walker argues that while plantation ownerships and management were gendered, they were not exclusively masculine endeavors. Mary Eldridge, who managed Spring Plantation following her husband’s death, was one of a number of women who, in the first half of the eighteenth century, balanced “the complexity of cultivating, producing, and shipping tropical produce abroad while also compelling a resistant, unfree labor force to perform backbreaking work” with the same entrepreneurial zeal to maximize production that has been ascribed to Jamaica’s male planters (p. 118). While some contemporary voices might have criticized Hassell, Shanks, and Eldridge for deviating from metropolitan gender norms, Walker powerfully argues that in Jamaica their managerial skill and status as free slaveholders eclipsed their gender and enabled them to take part in establishing and maintaining “the most productive and exploitive agricultural economy in the British Empire” (p. 165).
Not much is known about the patterns of inheritance in Jamaica during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but like our understanding of other aspects of the island, what does exist emphasizes the masculine nature of property holding. Chapter 4 challenges this view with its discussion of equity—an alternative set of procedures to common law that were designed to shield individual property rights—and marriage settlements. Walker argues that the high mortality rates on the island prevented men from favoring male property holders in their wills. Rather than strictly following metropolitan dictates, Jamaican colonists modified British inheritance laws to suit their local needs, often seeking to protect women’s property claims. Walker argues that this on-the-ground practice was especially important for the transfer of enslaved women, men, and children. By defining captives as a form of moveable wealth, the transfer of enslaved people of African descent was seen as an especially well-suited mode of moving wealth to female heirs, so much so that women became increasingly reliant on inheriting enslaved people to secure their independent economic and social status. This in turn drove the demand for more African captives to be transported against their will to Jamaica, deepening both free and freed women’s and the empire’s commitment to slavery.
As with inheritance practice, Jamaican colonists developed a sexual culture and processes of family formation informed by local, on-the-ground, realities rather than a strict adherence to metropolitan ideas of reproduction and kinship. With 25 percent of the children baptized on the island born to unmarried parents, Jamaica had the largest illegitimacy rate in the empire. In chapter 5, Walker examines the ways free and freed women treated marriage as only one option in a variety of intimate relationships and the role that baptism played in legitimizing diverse kinship structures. Walker argues that because of the “anemic authority” of the Church of England, the limits of the Jamaican Assembly on policing intimate relationships, and the demographic realities of the island, free people constructed complex kinship ties that included illegitimate and legitimate children, as well as free, freed, and, sometimes, enslaved people of African descent (p. 221). Couples where only one parent was free used baptisms as a way to ensure the free status of their child, a practice that not only undermined the institution of slavery but also “highlights the mutability of whiteness as a category of identity” in the first half of the eighteenth century (p. 254). Race, Walker argues, was an unstable signifier of status in colonial Jamaica, which, for a select few, could be overridden by their baptism and their own slaveholding, which validated and enabled them to perform their free status.
The final chapter examines women’s manumission bequests. While sources on manumission are scarce, Walker excavates an impressive amount of information from extant wills to provide a granular look at the demographics of women who manumitted their captives and the enslaved people they chose to manumit. Like baptisms, acts of manumission “transitioned people from positions of marginality to greater belonging and incorporation” in Jamaican society and helped to maintain stability on the island (p. 264). Walker illustrates that while manumission bequests sometimes transformed formerly enslaved people into slaveholders, strengthening control over the island’s enslaved population, the practice subtly undermined a legal system that saw enslaved people as property by implicitly arguing that enslaved individuals were not fundamentally different from their enslavers.
Jamaica Ladies deserves to be widely read not only by specialists but also by students in graduate and upper-level undergraduate seminars. In this highly readable book that deftly addresses a difficult and complex subject, Walker’s treatment of the topic expands our understanding of Jamaica, proving that we cannot fully comprehend the history of the island or the history of British Atlantic slavery without recognizing the complex and conflicting roles that women played in building a society that depended on a brutal system of enslaved labor.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-nationalism.
Alexandra M. Macdonald. Review of Walker, Christine, Jamaica Ladies: Female Slaveholders and the Creation of Britain's Atlantic Empire.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|