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 Kathleen E.A. Monteith (University of the West Indies)
Published on H-Diplo (October, 2021)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Jamaica Ladies explores the roles of free and freed women—white and those of mixed African and European/British ancestry—as both colonizers and slaveholders in Jamaica in the period from the second half of the seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century. Mining a variety of sources, Christine Walker argues quite convincingly that women were an integral part of the creation of a society and economy based on enslavement. Indeed, as stated by Walker, “if merchants and sailors oversaw the purchase and transportation of captive Africans, then free and freed women acted as the handmaidens of empire, weaving these captives into the warp and weft of colonial societies” (p. 5). Walker extricates women’s lives, thoughts, and actions by craftily and deftly employing a “gendered-eye” analysis of information contained in letters, business accounts, wills, parish registers, inventories, maps, and plans to provide deeper understanding of Jamaica’s early society and economy. In so doing, Walker challenges previous interpretations of the lives of free and freed women in early British colonial Jamaica, providing compelling evidence and nuanced analyses of their economic role and lives in this period. Walker convincingly shows colonial free and freed women to have been “powerful agents of enslavement and colonialism,” far from being marginalized and exploited within a dominant male society. Indeed, she shows that “female slaveholders wielded novel and significant legal, social and economic and cultural autonomy, which they enacted wisely and outside the household” (p. 9). Walker argues that they were able to do this because the normative European/British gender ideologies and proscriptions of women’s roles never took root in societies such as Jamaica’s, which were dominated by black African enslavement. Hence the understanding of what a “lady” was, in the European/British context, was not replicated in the colonial slave context.
Jamaica Ladies consists of an introduction and six simply titled chapters, followed by a conclusion. Chapters 1 and 2, titled “Port Royal” and “Kingston” respectively, establish the presence of more free women than free men, in relatively significant numbers, than were previously thought to have existed. Walker notes that in “Port Royal” during the second half of the seventeenth century, free women and children made up one-half of the permanent population; free men, 35 percent; and enslaved people, 16 percent (p. 42). For Kingston, in 1731, the ratio was more balanced, with 516 white women and 607 white men being recorded (p. 72). Within these bustling urban commercial centers, while others lived on the margins, impoverished or just scraping by, some free (both white and women of color) or freed women were active participants in the burgeoning slave economy, participating in the transatlantic trading system, running successful businesses, not only taverns and lodging houses, but also retail textile establishments, providing credit to others, and specializing in the importation of manufactures from Europe, the Middle East and Asia (p. 44).
By providing granular detail on their economic activities, Walker craftily and deftly challenges the stereotypical view of the role of women in late seventeenth- and mid-eighteenth-century colonial Jamaica, when the plantation economy and society was being established and during which time a significant amount of wealth was being generated, in which businesswomen were active participants. That women, including married women, operated on their own account is established, with Walker illustrating that some decidedly avoided coverture to operate as independent agents or “femes sole.” This might very well have been for practical purposes given the high mortality rates of the period, but it also demonstrates their agency in managing their business affairs, forming partnerships with men and other women, and advancing credit to others.
The type of wealth and fortune that some were able to amass is illustrated with reference to Anna Hassall. Walker opens her second chapter with a fascinating description of the extravagant and self-orchestrated burial of Anna Hassall, who died at age thirty-seven in 1750, in London’s Westminster Abbey. Having taken control of her husband’s mercantile business following his death in 1748, Hassall continued the business with skill and acumen, demonstrating knowledge and understanding of the markets for the goods she traded in. Walker suggests that Hassall, who was raised in Kingston, learned the craft of business from her mother, Sarah Shanks, who herself ran a successful business enterprise which among other activities included investments in privateering activity and money-lending to affluent sugar estate owners. Hassall’s wealth and fortune, like that of her white male counterparts, afforded her the ability to become an absentee owner with her relocation to England, from where she continued to manage her Jamaican business affairs until her death.
In “Plantations,” the third chapter, Walker demonstrates that free women in the early eighteenth century were also more involved in the daily management of not just small-scale, non-agricultural enterprises but also of medium-sized sugar estates, such as Spring and Barbican in St. Andrew parish. This was previously overlooked, Walker points out, perhaps because of the way in which information was recorded at the time, leading to an obfuscation of the presence of women as owners, part owners with relatives, and managers. A closer reading of manuscript surveys, maps, and plans reveals that plantation agricultural enterprise in this period was not the sole preserve of men, and that women were far from being “weak and ineffective victims” (p. 128). Indeed, as demonstrated by Walker, their management ethos concerning enslaved labor was no different from that of their male counterparts. Walker concludes that women like Mary Elbridge, part owner with relatives of Spring sugar estate; Priscilla Guy of Guy’s Plantation; and Sarah Williams of Williams Plantation help lay “the groundwork for what was to become the most profitable and most exploitative agricultural economy in the British empire in the eighteenth century” (p. 119).
In the fourth chapter, “Inheritance Bequests,” Walker gleans information from censuses and wills written by women that reveals their wishes and instructions concerning the disposal of their property, thereby elucidating societal dynamics among the inhabitants of Jamaica during the period 1665-1761. They also reveal colonial women’s use of British laws and precepts to avoid coverture, which married women were subject to, thus making sure they maintained control over their property. In so doing, colonial women evidently challenged the legal definition of marriage whereby the wife was subsumed under the husband’s identity.
In chapter 5, “Nonmarital Intimacies,” Walker illustrates the accepted norm of sexual permissiveness which resulted in a high proportion of children born to single women, white and free and freed women of color. She notes the importance of baptism in ensuring freedom for a child, as well as conferring “legitimacy” and “respectability” within this context. “Manumission,” the final chapter, illustrates through an examination of women’s wills the reasons for manumission. Walker concludes that manumission “transitioned people from positions of marginality to greater belonging and incorporation” in Jamaican society (p. 264). In so doing, it may very well have assisted in maintaining the status quo, while ultimately serving to undermine it in the long run.
Overall, this is a rich and compellingly well-researched book that builds on excellent work in the field and makes a major contribution to scholarship on women in the early colonial slave context. It elucidates just how complex slave societies were, and how free and freed women contributed to the creation of that complexity. In that regard, it underscores the contribution women made to the creolization process in Jamaican society. Jamaica Ladies is an essential study of the gender, social, and economic history of the island and region as a whole.
Kathleen E. A. Monteith is professor of Caribbean history at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Her most recent publication is Plantation Coffee in Jamaica, 1790-1840 (2019). Her other publications include West Indian Business History: Enterprise and Entrepreneurship (2010); Depression to Decolonization: Barclays Bank (DCO) in the West Indies, 1926-1962 (2008); and Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom: History, Heritage and Culture (2002).
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Kathleen E.A. Monteith. Review of Walker, Christine, Jamaica Ladies: Female Slaveholders and the Creation of Britain's Atlantic Empire.
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