Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Reproducing the British Caribbean

Sex, Gender, and Population Politics After Slavery


Juanita De Barros


Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014

Paperback. xiii+279p. ISBN 978-1469616056. $32.95


Reviewed by Leonard Smith

University of Birmingham



In this fine book Juanita De Barros builds on her previous work on public health, motherhood, midwifery and child welfare provision in the post-emancipation British West Indies. She locates her study within the context of the profound economic and social adjustments that occurred in the region in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She demonstrates how contestations surrounding race and social class continued to be paramount in determining life chances for mothers and young children, as well as in the responses of the colonial authorities, throughout the period.

Although dealing with the region as a whole, most of the material in the volume relates to the key colonies of Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana (formerly British Guiana). It becomes apparent that things developed somewhat differently in each territory. The notorious conservatism of the white ruling elite in the old colony of Barbados, and their continuing unwillingness to expend resources on the social needs of the black and coloured poor, is highlighted. In contrast, the rather more socially diverse authorities in the newer colony of Guyana showed some preparedness to embrace new ideas and to innovate. In each case the role of the British government remained largely peripheral, other than providing advice and criticism, until it was finally forced to take on some responsibility after the violent social upheavals of the 1930s.

As Juanita De Barros shows, the concerns about maintaining adequate supplies of black labour that originated during the period of slavery persisted into the decades after emancipation. Anticipations that better-motivated freed people would provide a more reliable and amenable labour force were largely disappointed. The tendency of the formerly enslaved, where they had a realistic choice, to avoid working on the plantations provided reasons for the white planter-dominated elites to denigrate them constantly. Constructions of the black and coloured poor as ignorant, uncivilised, barbarous, indolent and feckless became commonplace. They were widely condemned for their attitudes to cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation. Their patterns of gender relationships and sexual behaviour were construed as highly promiscuous, and the alleged preferences for illegitimacy and concubinage over formal marriage were regarded as symptomatic of a general moral depravity. Associated with these many failings, parental neglect was blamed as a key contributor to population decline.

Anxieties about population numbers were greatest in Guyana, where they were partly addressed by large-scale immigration, particularly from the Indian subcontinent. Despite Barbados being regarded as over-populated, there were concerns about the implications of a constant stream of emigration. As De Barros argues, by the early twentieth century these apprehensions around population levels had aroused growing preoccupations with infant mortality and health. There was some grudging recognition that social and environmental factors like poor housing, overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, bad food, and lack of education were influential. However, these considerations were outweighed by all the entrenched prejudicial perspectives regarding the social and moral defects of the black poor.       

An important focus of the study concerns the practical measures implemented to tackle the problems of infant mortality and child health from the late nineteenth century onwards. Much criticism was directed toward the perceived shortcomings of traditional midwives, or ‘grannies’, who had long been fixtures throughout the Caribbean colonies. The old racist stereotypes were deployed to depict them as savage, brutal, dirty, ignorant, drunken, preoccupied with ‘obeah’, and dependent on ‘bush’ remedies. To counter their influence, new cadres of trained midwives, from suitably ‘respectable’ backgrounds, were established. In many places they had to compete with their traditional counterparts, with many poor women still opting for the latter – for reasons of familiarity as well as cheaper prices. In Guyana, in particular, De Barros shows that considerable numbers of ‘granny’ midwives were gradually incorporated into the mainstream system through a process of regulation and certification.

The development of organised midwifery services was accompanied by government-supported initiatives to promote public health and educational work for mothers. From around 1910 local voluntary organisations, such as ‘baby saving leagues’, became an important part of the middle-class attempts to provide civilising role models. Gradually the social composition of these groups widened beyond the white elites. Women from the black and coloured middle classes are shown to have taken on an increasing role in seeking to ‘uplift’ the race, reflecting the subtle changes occurring in most Caribbean colonial societies.  

Although these developments were clearly important, they occurred against a background of continuing economic difficulty in the Caribbean. Colonial governments, like that in Barbados, found plenty of reasons for dilatoriness in implementing improvements in public health and social welfare. As Juanita De Barros illustrates in her concluding chapter, the deep-seated problems were brought home to the imperial government in the aftermath of the political and social disturbances of the 1930s. The investigations of the Moyne Commission of 1938-39 recognised the contribution of a wide range of economic and social ills to the upheavals that had occurred, whilst also confirming that racially stereotyped perspectives remained prevalent.

This stimulating, challenging book makes an important contribution to the social, environmental and medical history of the British Caribbean colonies, and indeed of the wider British Empire, in the century following emancipation.


Cercles © 2015

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.