WOMEN'S WORK, FAMILY FORMATION AND
REPRODUCTION AMONG CARIBBEAN SLAVES
Texas Tech University
Working Paper #76
Abstract: It is hypothesized that labor availability and related low levels
of demand for women in agricultural work explain the high incidence of
nuclear family formation in some Caribbean slave societies, as well as
occasional high birth rates. Three paired comparisons, reflecting differing
levels of labor supply, are examined: The Leewards and the Bahamas;
Martinique and Barbados; and Cuba and Jamaica. As hypothesized, women were
drawn more into field labor with increasing labor shortages. There is no
relationship, however, between labor surplus and nuclear family formation or
high crude birth rate. The hypothesized relationship between labor
shortage, mother-child domestic units and low crude birth rate is confirmed
in only one case. Nor is family organization consistently related to
reproduction patterns for the six slave societies. It is suggested that
Caribbean slavery is structurally different from other social systems
studied by materialist scholars, who have found fairly constant relation-
ships between women's contributions to production and their conjugal and
About the Author: Marietta Morrissey is an associate professor of sociology
at Texas Tech University. Her research and publications focus on the status
of women and ethnic minorities in the U.S. and in Latin America and the
Copyright 1984, MSU Board of Trustees
WOMEN'S WORK, FAMILY FORMATION AND REPRODUCTION AMONG CARIBBEAN SLAVES
The organization of slave families in the American South has received
new, sustained attention from Genovese (1976), Fogel and Engerman (1974),
Gutman (1977) and others. These studies argue that slave families were more
likely to be nuclear--a male, female and their children--than matrifocal as
previously proposed and that families maintained intergenerational ties.
Both of these conditions are indicators of family stability among American
slaves. This contradicts the findings of Stampp (1956) and others who
argued earlier that slavery broke up families, that with "these conditions--
the absence of legal marriage, the family's minor social and economic
significance, and the father's limited role--it is hardly surprising to find
that slave families were highly unstable" (Stampp 1956: 344). It also
challenges Patterson's (1979) more recent hypothesis that slaves were
"natally alienated," or symbolically estranged from natal ties by the slave
It is more difficult to establish the existence of "stable" family
patterns among slaves in the West Indies. Slaves in the West Indies were
rarely able to reproduce their numbers and certainly not at the level found
among slaves in the United States (Fogel and Engerman 1974). Statistical
evidence of high levels of nuclear family formation has been found, however,
for Jamaica (Higman 1976a), Trinidad (Higman 1978, 1979), and the Bahamas
(Craton 1978, 1979). Indeed, Craton concludes that patterned family life,
"even in patterns recognizable to Europeans," was sometimes the norm for
West Indian slaves (1979: 2).
The evidence for conjugal domestic units among British West Indian
slaves is an important empirical breakthrough in the study of the family,
although there is still little quantifiable evidence of intergenerational
kinship. But a body of criticism has developed, focusing on the failure of
contemporary quantitative research to fully identify the meaning and origins
of nuclear families among Caribbean slaves and, thus, to account for the
considerable variation in Caribbean slave family organization (Patterson
1976, 1982). That is, why did nuclear families form, instead of other
arrangements? And why are nuclear families found in some settings, while
the mother-child unit predominates elsewhere?
This paper reviews major findings on Caribbean slave families and
critical reactions to them. It is suggested that both propositions of
stable nuclear family formation among Caribbean slaves and critical
commentary have failed to consider women as a complementary unit of analysis
to the family and, thus, have missed a crucial source of explanation for
changing patterns of Caribbean slave families.
RESEARCH ON NUCLEAR FAMILIES AMONG BRITISH WEST INDIAN SLAVES
The recent examination of slave registration figures presented to
British colonial authorities shortly before Emancipation extends aggregate
and plantation-specific research on nuclear family formation. The
methodological approach and findings differ dramatically from those of
earlier research on slave families based on occasional and incomplete
plantation records, diaries of slave owners and travelers, and other
documents of the period.
Higman studied three plantations in Jamaica and aggregate figures for
Trinidad. He concludes that the nuclear family was the modal type on the
three estates in Jamaica on the eve of Emancipation (Higman 1976a). His
findings for Trinidad in 1813 are similar (Higman 1978, 1979). Craton's
study of the Bahamas echoes Higman's work in methods and substance (Craton
1979). According to the 1821-22 census, most Bahamian slaves lived in
Three tentative hypotheses about the origins of West Indian nuclear
families have been offered by historians and demographers.
First, it has been argued that nuclear families were sometimes a
demographic possibility, for example, where sex ratios were even or
populations stable and isolated (Craton 1979). Thus, it is suggested that
in the absence of material and ideological constraints, and given the
demographic opportunity, nuclear families developed. This explanation is so
broad as to be nearly tautological: nuclear families exist, therefore they
can exist. It does not offer in sufficiently specific terms the conditions
that unite a variety of New World national and plantation settings that
produced nuclear families.
Second, it has been hypothesized that African traditions predisposed
slaves to stable, co-residential conjugal patterns. Indeed, Africans appear
to have been more likely than creoles to establish stable conjugal house-
holds in urban Trinidad (Higman 1978: 170), although contradictory evidence
has been found in other settings, e.g., Martinique (Debien 1960). Still, no
evidence is offered of what particular African family forms were represented
in nuclear units, so no hypotheses can be developed about the meaning of
slave families based on links to the slaves' African past. Higman suggests,
however, that African-born slaves may have perceived the nuclear family as a
"building-block of extended or polygynous family types rooted in lineage or
locality" (1978: 171).
Third, it has been suggested that, for high status males or males with
productive garden plots and well-developed marketing skills and
opportunities, nuclear families served an economic function not unlike that
of early Western nuclear families (Patterson 1969; Higman 1976a). This is
an important explanation of Caribbean nuclear family formation, supported by
the statistical evidence of nuclear and polygamous families among slaves
with prestigious occupations and/or lighter skin color in Trinidad and
Jamaica, but it applies only to some Caribbean slaves. Field hands were
found in equal proportions among all family types in Higman's Jamaican
sample, suggesting that the family economic function may have reinforced
other tendencies towards nuclear family formation.
WOMEN AS A UNIT OF ANALYSIS
The new scholarship on women has made clear that women's roles as
producers and reproducers of the future labor force have profound effects on
family organization (Goody 1976; Quick 1977). A materialist analysis
suggests that women's roles are established through the system of
production, the labor market, in particular, and reinforced by ideological
agents such as the state and church (Boserup 1970; Blumberg 1977). An
important question for the analysis of West Indian slave families is the
extent to which the peak need for labor relative to the availability of
slaves on the world market in New World slave societies influenced women's
work, family membership, and fertility. Craton, Higman and others have
distinguished between the demographic profiles of older and newer slave
societies, using sex ratios in particular, in accounting for different
patterns of family formation and reproduction among Caribbean slaves; I
suggest refining that distinction to the more fundamental one of societies
with a labor shortage and those with a labor surplus.
At times of labor shortage, particularly towards the end of the slave
trade when young male slaves were not easily purchased, women were used in
increasing proportions as field laborers rather than as household workers.
At the same time, slave holders tried to breed new slaves by encouraging
nuclear family formation and the production of children. Given the nearly
constant historical tendency towards natural decrease of slaves in the West
Indies, stimulation of reproduction was generally ineffective, particularly,
it seems, when women's production roles in agriculture were also emphasized.
It is hypothesized, then, that women's increased contributions to agri-
cultural production mitigated the effects of planter incentives and reduced
women's tendency to live in nuclear families and to produce children. In
1. At times of severe labor shortage, West Indian slave women:
a. were employed more often than males in field labor;
b. lived generally by themselves or with their children;
c. produced relatively few children (fewer than 30 per 1000
2. At times of adequate labor supply, West Indian slave women:
a. were employed in equal numbers to males, or less often, in
b. lived generally in nuclear families;
c. produced a relatively large number of children (more than 30
These propositions will be examined with data from six areas: the
Bahamas; the Leeward Islands; Martinique; Jamaica; Barbados; and Cuba.
These societies represent three stages in the evolution of New World
plantation agriculture. The Bahamas and the Leewards, though different in
agricultural and social structure, had sizable labor surpluses by the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the time of our inquiry.
Therefore, we would expect women to work in the fields as often or less so
than males in the Leewards and the Bahamas, nuclear families to predominate,
and slave reproduction rates to be high. Barbados and Martinique, the
second set of cases, present a second stage in the evolution of Caribbean
plantation agriculture. Both areas suffered a labor shortage at the turn of
the nineteenth century. Therefore, we would expect a predominance of single
female or mother-child units, levels of reproduction below 30 per 1000
population, and the disproportionate presence of women in field work. The
competitive position of these islands had diminished, however, in the world
sugar market by the era under investigation. Labor shortage was a serious
problem, but the high levels of productivity demanded of an earlier slave
population in Barbados and Martinique were not required of workers during
this era. By introducing a third paired comparison, that of Jamaica and
Cuba, we can explore in greater depth the independent variable, labor
shortage, and its impact on women's lives. These societies reached peak
levels of labor productivity and agricultural capacity as the slave trade
ended. We can expect women to predominate heavily in agricultural work,
reproduction levels to be extremely low, and mother-child units or women
alone to be the most common familial patterns.
The Bahamas and the Leeward Islands
British settlers occupied the Bahamas in the 1650s and contributed to
the mercantile character that distinguished the area from the agricultural
West Indies to the South. Cotton cultivation by slaves was established, but
"[i]n such colonies the conditions did not exist which led, in the West
Indies proper, to the development of a fully fashioned slave society of the
plantation type" (G. Lewis 1968: 309). The area never experienced severe
labor shortages since its agricultural development preceded the intensifi-
cation and competition of later sugar planting.
As our hypothesis would predict, most of the 10,000 Bahamian slaves
(54%) registered from 1821 to 1822 lived in "simple nuclear families"
(Craton 1979: 11). Craton argues that three factors contributed to the
slaves' likely preference for conjugal domestic units: 1) "Eurocentric,
pro-natalist, or publicity-conscious masters"; 2) the widespread existence
of provision gardens, apparently in male slaves' control, that required the
labor of women and children; 3) the tendency for nuclear families to be on
larger, more isolated estates, in a fairly stable cohort.2
These factors lead Craton to suggest a continuum of family types among
Caribbean slaves, from the "virtual peasants of the Bahamas, Barbuda, and,
perhaps, the Grenadines, with locational stability, a small proportion of
African slaves, natural increase and a relatively high incidence of nuclear
and stable families. At the opposite pole were the overworked slaves of new
plantations such as those of Trinidad, Guyana and St. Vincent, with a high
rate of natural decrease, a majority of slaves living alone or in 'barrack'
conditions, and a high proportion of 'denuded', female-headed families"
(1979: 25). Indeed, Craton reports the reluctance of one group of Bahamian
slaves to be moved to Trinidad's more productive plantations, where slaves
reputedly worked much harder.
The missing factor in Craton's discussion is how relative productivity
effected women's work roles. We have little information about what kinds of
work women did on Bahamian plantations. The overall sex ratio was nearly
even in contrast to more intensely cultivated areas of the Caribbean where
males predominated. This is a probable indication that high productivity
was not demanded, as the apparently more productive male slave labor force
was still available through trade. Craton (1978: 350-352) offers ample
evidence of declining productivity, production and profitability on the
large cotton estate of Lord John Rolle, said to be typical of Bahamian
plantations after the 1790s. Craton suggests that slave masters took
advantage of the nearly even sex ratio to promote pro-natalism, but with
only moderate success. Higman (1976b: 67) finds a natural increase among
Bahamian slaves of about 16 per 1000 population from 1825 to 1828, up from
an earlier period and the highest in the British West Indies at the time.
(See Appendix A.) But the birth rate climbed to barely more than 30 per
1000 from 1825 to 1828, well after labor productivity reached its peak in
The Leeward Islands (St. Christopher, Nevis, Montserrat and Antigua),
were settled from' 1623 to 1632. These small islands were the site of wars
among the French, English and Amerindians until the early 1700s, when
plantation sugar production became a consistent, lucrative enterprise.
There has been considerable variation among these islands in productivity,
sugar export levels, and slave populations. Antigua, with 37,808 blacks
(mostly slaves) and more than 25,000 acres in cane, surpassed Barbados in
sugar exports in the mid-eighteenth century, (see Table 1.) The other
islands had less agricultural land than Antigua and fewer slaves (in 1775,
St. Kitts recorded 23,462 blacks; Nevis, 11,000; Monserrat, 9,834) (Sheridan
By the end of the eighteenth century, sugar planting had peaked in the
British Leewards, and planters enjoyed a relative surplus of labor.
"Originally the slave system had been intended to relieve the shortage of
field labour for the plantations. But by the end of the eighteenth century
its influence had created a pattern of profuse consumption of relatively
unproductive forced labour, as well as of wealth, which was proving
ruinously expensive to maintain" (Goveia 1965: 150). Goveia offers several
indicators of labor surplus. A smaller proportion of slaves was used in
field work, leading to a decline in productivity from a mid-century peak.
More slaves were employed in domestic service. Twenty-seven percent of the
slave population on Montserrat engaged in domestic service or worked as
tradesmen or fishermen (Goveia 1965: 146). The custom of hiring out slaves
was well-developed; manumissions were relatively numerous; and a cash
economy among slaves extensive. Slaves customarily supplemented food and
clothing allotments through earnings from provision sales and through hiring
out (Goveia 1965: 135-139).
The population of the Leewards was highly creolized by the late
eighteenth century. Women outnumbered men on Nevis and probably on
Monserrat, and children and old people made up more than a third of the
population on both islands (p. 124). Women's work is not treated directly
by Goveia, but we can infer that women were not especially valued as field
workers. Most of the numerous domestics were women; some slaves were hired
out for domestic service. There were also groups other than women who were
not used in the field work in the Leewards. People of mixed ethnicity, in
particular, were not attractive to the Leewards' planters for field work.
We would expect the Leewards to exhibit a relatively high proportion of
nuclear families and a high birth rate. Higman's population estimates are
for the 1800s, well after the peak in sugar production. All of the Leewards
had an increase in births from 1817 to 1831, with all except Nevis showing a
small natural increase, but never more than Montserrat's increase of 6
births per 1000 population in the period from 1824 to 1827. More relevant
to our hypotheses, only Montserrat exhibited a crude birth rate over 30 per
Slave families are said by Goveia to have consisted of a mother and her
children, all belonging to the mother's owner, regardless of the parentage
of the children. Goveia does report on the success of Methodist and
Moravian churches in the Leewards, both of which advocated "Christian
monogamy" for their slave converts (pp. 271-299). Goveia is of an earlier
school of thought that rejects on logical grounds the possibility of stable
conjugal unions among slaves. One set of nineteenth century observers may
partially confirm Goveia's findings. Sturge and Harvey (1838: 76),
traveling through Antigua after Emancipation, claimed this about the earlier
slave condition: "Husbands and wives are not help-meets to one another;
they rarely reside in the same hut, or even on the same estate . ."
What, so far, does our exploration of women's roles reveal about their
contribution to nuclear family formation in early Caribbean plantation
societies? The Bahamas and the Leewards enjoyed an adequate labor supply in
the eighteenth century. A majority of Bahamian slaves lived in nuclear
families, although we know little about women's work. In contrast, slave
women of the Leewards appear to have worked in domestic service and less
demanding areas of field work. Yet, nuclear families appear not to have
formed in the Leewards, and the crude birth rate was high by early
nineteenth century Caribbean standards only in Montserrat.
Barbados and Martinique
Barbados reached its peak productive capacity in the late 1600s and was
"the first [English colony] to transform its society from a smallholder,
semi-subsistance base to a slave-plantation, near-monoculture regime which
was dominated by a class of wealthy sugar planters" (Sheridan 1973: 124).
An expanding African slave population made possible this dramatic tran-
sition. From a reported 6,000 slaves in 1643, the slave population grew to
more than 68,000 in 1783 (Sheridan 1973: 133; Watson: 48), primarily
through the massive purchase of young male Africans. But by the late 1700s
the abolition of the slave trade was certain, and Barbados had entered a
stage of productive decline.
Our best source of information on the daily lives of slaves during the
transition from highly successful to less lucrative planting in Barbados
comes from two Codrington estates, left to the Society for the Propagation
of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in 1710 (Bennett 1958). In the early 1700s,
Codrington shared the remarkable good fortune of the Barbados plantocracy,
depending on the heavy purchase of highly productive slaves and, thus,
maximizing their gain from the sugar boom. And, by the end of the century,
the Codrington estates suffered labor shortage and financial loss.
The slave trade lost its relevance for the Codrington plantations
in 1761. After fifty years of trial, the policy of restocking
with new African Negros was discarded forever. From 1712 to 1761
the Society had purchased about 450 Negroes at a cost of about
L15,000. It had spent two and one-half times the value of the
Negroes left by Christopher Codrington, and had added one and
one-half times the number of slaves that had come from him. The
outcome of this investment after five decades was a population
smaller by more than one-third.
New categories of workers were now brought to the fields. "Young
Negroes who would formerly have been apprenticed to artisans were now kept
at work in the secondary great gangs" (p. 19). Other schemes were tried,
including "recruiting Africans, hiring slaves on an occasional basis,
reducing crops and production, concentrating available strength in the field
gangs, purchasing parcels of seasoned slaves . ." None of these efforts
Women became an increased portion of the slave population through
purchase and creolization. In 1732 there had been 123 males to 58 females
on the Society's estates. Females slightly outnumbered male slaves by the
end of the century. At that time "[o]ne-half of the men worked in the
fields, but only one-third of the women were spared the heavy duty on the
land" (Bennett 1958: 13). Table 2 presents the occupational distribution
of males and females at Codrington in 1781. Women did some domestic work
(personnel workers), but men had more opportunities to evade field work by
serving as skilled workers. Moreover, a 1775 price listing indicates that
women were engaged in heavy field work, with most in the first gang, and
were valued at the same price as first gang male field hands.
At the same time, estate officials arrived at what they saw as the last
resort in solving labor supply problems, "amelioration" of the slaves'
conditions. One goal of amelioration was to "encourage the Negroes to
breed" (Bennett 1958: 100). Women were sometimes given a small reward for
delivering a child. The resulting birth rate of 2% was an improvement, but
was still lower than the death rate (2.5%) (p. 95). Better houses and
garden plots were offered, and, with the introduction of plows in 1912,
field work decreased at Codrington.
Amelioration eventually brought a small natural increase in Codrington's
slaves, with a net gain of 3 slaves in 1795, 11 in 1800, 5 in 1804, 7 in
1805. By this time, Codrington had moved beyond other estates in Barbados
in amelioration and would shortly adopt ways to ease the emancipation of its
slaves. The Codrington records are puzzling on marital patterns, as passing
sexual unions were often mistaken for polygamous ones (Bennett 1958: 35).
Polygamy was believed to dominate conjugal forms throughout the island. For
example, in 1787, Barbados' governor claimed that male slaves generally had
several wives (Watson: 176). It is likely that women and children were
often housed separately from men; there are examples in the Codrington
records of slaves helping a "new mother" to build a house (Bennett 1958:
33). But a mix of women alone, mother-child and polygamous residential
patterns probably prevailed, with only some "enduring monogamous unions"
The evidence for a natural increase of slaves on the Codrington estates
would seem to contradict our hypothesis that labor shortage inhibited
reproduction. By 1834 women substantially outnumbered men (173 females to
135 males, counting boys and girls) and worked almost exclusively in field
labor, as did girls and boys. Yet, "[t]he breeding program had brought
spectacular results in Barbados generally after the abolition of the slave
trade in 1807, [with] the Codrington gain thought to be unequaled by any
other sugar estate" (Bennett 1958: 131). Still, the number of new slaves
born yearly was small, particularly in comparison with the number purchased
earlier. The net gain in slaves was also influenced by the absence of new
adult Africans; about 43% of African slaves died soon after reaching
Our information on Barbados as a whole, from a later period, points
again to the relative success of amelioration. Higman (1976b) calculates
Barbados' rate of natural increase at about 10 per 1000 population by 1823,
more than the Leewards' at the same time, but less than the Bahamas'. But
as many as 40.7 births and 30.6 deaths per 1000 population were registered
in 1823 (p. 68). Indeed the number of slaves increased from 69,400 in 1809
to 82,000 in 1834 (Curtin 1969: 59). On Codrington, manumissions increased
along with task labor as the estate prepared for Emancipation. Slaves were
also permitted to buy free days (Bennett 1958: 125). Eventually slaves
were granted plots on which to grow provisions. They paid rent to estate
owners in exchange for labor (p. 129). Women continued to predominate in
field work, but it is likely that overall productivity fell as slaves became
"apprentices" and those with lots devoted time to cash crops (pp. 132-133).
It appears, then, that our hypothesis is only partially supported for
Barbados. Women experienced an increased role in agricultural production,
although reproduction also increased. It is likely, however, that by the
1800s increases in crude birth rate accompanied reductions in labor
productivity for both men and women. While nuclear families seem to have
been largely absent, it is unclear whether mother-child units and single
females or polygamous family forms prevailed.
Martinique was settled by the French in 1635. Plantation agriculture
was quickly established, with more than 21,000 slaves by 1700. Martinique
reached its zenith in sugar production from 1763 to 1789 by trading with the
United States. On the eve of the French Revolution, Martinique exported
more than 8,000 tons of sugar annually, surpassing Barbados (see Table
1).4 With the start of the nineteenth century, the French West Indies
suffered the abolition of the slave trade, changes in colonial adminis-
tration and the effects of European wars. By 1815 the sugar industry had
recovered but not to its earlier level of prosperity. French planters
purchased some slaves illegally until Emancipation in 1848, but maintained a
small work force and relatively little agricultural land in cane.
Debien's research on Martinique may offer the most complete assessment
of women's work roles and family formation for Caribbean slave societies of
the mid to late eighteenth century. Debien studied records from a single.
plantation, 1'Anse-a-l'Ane, from 1743 to 1778. As early as 1746, adult
males and females were about equal in number, with 56 men and 52 women
(Debien 1960: 5). No purchases of slaves were made after 1753, resulting
in a small natural population increment after 1763 and continuing near
parity in sex ratio. This gender distribution was typical of Martinique's
estates in the 1800s (Tomich 1976: 106).
There was never a labor surplus on 1'Anse-a-l'Ane, so both men and women
were used as field laborers, mostly in the first gang, with teen-agers and
children in second and third gangs. This distribution of personnel became
common on Martinique's estates (Tomich 1976: 185-188). Indeed, in 1772,
the first gang of 60 field slaves at 1'Anse-a-1'Ane was comprised of 20
males and 40 females (Debien 1960: 18). As in Barbados, many male slaves
worked in skilled tasks and sugar refining. Debien argues further that
women's reproduction was not highly valued since price data indicates that
female slaves were considerably less costly than males aged from 18 to 40.
"Their relatively low price underscores that their reproductive function was
secondary; and the constant decline shows that masters were not concerned
with an increase in women in order to increase the number of children.
Children were always numerous at l'Anse-a-1'Ane, but not as a result of a
demographic policy. Simply it is a general custom of the island" (Debien
1960: 44-45).5 The high rate of planter absenteeism and resulting low
need for domestic service, in addition to labor shortage, meant that women
had few paths out of field work. Other evidence of labor shortage is
manifest in eighteenth century Martinique: for example, children
increasingly performed field labor in the first gang after 1763 (p. 23).
Other indicators suggest, however, that labor shortage was not acute or
was mitigated by declining production. For example, while women and
children were increasingly drawn into field work, the overall number of
field workers fell. Proportionately more slaves were old, sick, freed or in
skilled jobs after 1763. The first gang had 98 workers in 1746, and only 66
by 1773 (p. 5). Moreover, women did hire themselves out for domestic work,
a phenomenon not generally associated with an intense need for female labor
on New World plantations.
There is evidence of low fertility accompanying high levels of nuclear
family formation at L'Anse. There were 58 children born of about 50 slave
women at L'Anse from 1762 to 1777, a period for which records were fairly
well kept (Debien 1960: 77). The number of children per 100 women from
1753 to 1773 is recorded in Table 3, and ranges from 69.38 in 1753 to 98.14
in 1763, and then falls to 81.48 in 1767 and 60.41 in 1773. This suggests a
decline in fertility, perhaps associated with women's expanding agricultural
role. Extending data from L'Anse to the society level, the annual crude
birth rate would not be high from 1762 to 1777, only about 21 births per
1000 population. Debien speculates that infant mortality rates were
artificially low in plantation computations. Listings by slaves' names
suggest high infant mortality with the death of 29 of 58 babies born from
1762 to the end of 1777 (p. 77).
Successes in reproduction at L'Anse were largely limited to conjugal
families, about 52 of which are recorded for the period from 1761 to 1776.
These families produced 215 children, slightly more than four per couple
(Debien 1960: 58). Conjugal families predominated among creoles, who made
up nine-tenths of the L'Anse population from 1746. "Maternal families" were
less numerous than conjugal units, but more numerous than "passing units."
The relationships "approached" conjugal units, with a male maintaining a
provision garden for the woman and her children. Still, women in such
families were less fertile than those in conjugal families.
There was a labor shortage in Martinique from 1763 to 1789, and, like
Barbados, it confirms some dimensions of our hypothesis. Women participated
in field work disproportionately to their numbers at 1'Anse, predominating
in the first gang. As expected, the birth rate was well below 30 per 1000
population. Nevertheless, many couples, particularly creoles, lived in
nuclear families.6 Their birth rate was probably higher than 30 per 1000.
Jamaica and Cuba
Jamaica reached its peak in number of slaves, gross output of sugar and
labor productivity from 1805 to 1809. In 1808, 324,000 slaves were owned by
Jamaican planters. Owners found it cheaper to purchase slaves than to breed
them and tried to purchase males from about 15 to 30 years of age. With the
rise of sugar production in the French islands and erosion of Jamaican soil,
sugar production became more intense. At the same time, labor was in short
supply with the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. This labor shortage
greatly influenced the demographic profile of the slave population, as it
had in Barbados and Martinique.
Like slave populations in our earlier cases, Jamaica's slave population
became proportionately more female, older and lighter through the early
1800s. The sex ratio favored women on Jamaican estates by 1820. For
example, at Worthy Park, records from which have been studied extensively by
Craton, 65% of the field labor force was female by 1832 (Craton 1977:
142). At Rosehall, half of the women but only one-eighth of the men were
in the field. Women also remained in the fields longer than did men (Higman
1976a: 194). At the Irwin estate in St. James, females were the majority
in the first and second gangs (p. 199). At Maryland, a coffee plantation in
St. Andrew, women worked in the fields longer than did men; of those in the
20 to 59 year age group, only nine women were not in the fields, while 20
men were not (p. 196). There was also an increase in lighter-skinned
slaves, and light skin ceased to be an easy path to manumission or to more
highly skilled occupations. Slave owners complained also that too many
slaves were over 40 or under 20. Higman comments:
After 1807 the structure of the slave population of Jamaica
changed in a manner contrary to the planters' ideal. It became
less 'effective' and less 'flexible'. Not only was the number of
slaves in the most productive age groups decreasing absolutely and
relatively, but the slaves in these groups were also increasingly
female and coloured (p. 211).
What was the effect of intensification of women's role in production on
fertility and family form? Higman (pp. 156-173) found the following
relationships on three properties: Old Montpelier; New Montpelier; and
1. More than half of the 864 slaves on the three properties studied
lived in units with a man, woman and her children or in a related
family type consisting of a woman, her children, and others, while
"probably 100 of the [slave] households . contained mates"
2. Other significant household types included the slave living alone or
with friends (about 30%), polygamous units (in which about 11% of
slaves resided), and mother-child households (about 11% of slaves)
and male-female households (including about 11% of the slave
3) Africans were more likely to live alone or in simple nuclear
families (man, woman, children) than were creoles.
4) Slaves of color "with their privileged occupations and blood allying
them to the great house and the whites, formed households in which
slave men had no part and which were tightly organized around the
maternal connection" (p. 162).
At the plantation level there was little relationship between a tendency
for a female to work in the fields and to live in a nuclear family. There
was a strong tendency for domestics, mostly colored, to live in
female-dominated units and for mulatto and quadroon slaves (with white
fathers) to live in female-dominated units. Male slaves with authority in
the field constituted the male group most likely to be in a household with
women and children. Although "co-residence of a mate was conducive, though
not essential, to relatively high fertility," colored females were
significantly more fertile than black women. The colored population of
Jamaica was only about 10% in 1832, yet colored births constituted 18% of
registered slave births from 1829 to 1832. Among 15 to 19 year olds, the
fertility of colored women was five times that of blacks (Higman, 1976a:
154). Higman concludes that the colored woman, with a higher status
occupation and economic security through her likely links to a white male,
was more willing to bear children than was the black woman.
Thus, because of the essential economic impotence of the slave,
the normal relationship between social status and fertility was
reversed. The slave woman of colour and status was therefore
more prepared to expose herself to the risk of pregnancy than was
the black woman (Higman 1976a: 155).
There is no direct evidence that colored women were more fertile because
they did not work in the fields. On the other hand, the evidence that
domestic workers produced more children than field workers on the three
plantations studied by Higman is consistent with our hypothesis of a tension
between female agricultural work and reproduction. Moreover, Jamaican
planters did make some efforts to encourage breeding. By the 1820's
planters exempted women from field work as soon as pregnancy was suspected.
After birth women were permitted to remain in the second gang for as long as
they nursed their children, which could be two years (Higman 1976a:
Higman presents some evidence that production did intensify on Jamaican
plantations during the 1830's. While supposedly less productive slaves,
i.e., women and teenagers, were now used in the fields, productivity
remained fairly consistent from 1800 to 1834. "[P]roductivity declined less
rapidly than the slave population and even more slowly than gross output"
(p. 213). On the other hand, where slave women were fertile, productivity
fell, a relationship supporting our hypothesis. "[T]he more the slaves were
able to maintain and augment their numbers the lower their productivity" (p.
221). Higman hypothesizes further that manumissions fell and slave rights
were eroded as masters faced labor shortages. Jamaican slaves were tied
increasingly to plantation sugar production. Probably 90% were on
agricultural units in the 1830s; even in 1834, more than 70% of the active
slave labor force was field labor (pp. 36-42).
Craton's (1977) findings for Worthy Park echo Higman's. Worthy Park was
one of the largest and best managed of Jamaica's sugar estates, one of
twelve with more than 500 slaves in 1820. With the abolition of the slave
trade in 1808 the number of slaves at Worthy Park fell and with that the
profits from sugar production declined. The demographic profile of the
field gangs also changed. Women were relied upon increasingly for field
labor, with males making up 92.4% of the work force in skilled occupations.
In the 1790s women made up 58% of the field labor force; and 65% in the
1830s. Craton comments: "It was indeed a curious society, as well as an
inefficient agricultural economy, in which women for the most part were the
laborers and men the specialist workers" (p. 146).
Efforts to ameliorate slaves' lives eased the natural decrease of slaves
at Worthy Park, but the birth rate remained less than the death rate.
Planters tried to intensify production in response to falling sugar prices.
Productivity actually fell with the "increasing frailty of the slave labor
force," but so did the number of slaves at Worthy Park (p. 172).
The effect of amelioration on overall fertility in Jamaica cannot be
accurately assessed. Roberts (1957) speculates that Jamaica's rate of
natural decrease fell from a higher, though unspecified, rate in the 1700s
to about 5 per 1000 slaves annually in 1829. Given a close ratio of sexes
and a fairly young population, it is likely that a rise in fertility
accounts for much of the fall in natural decrease (p. 245). Roberts notes,
however, that planters reported disappointment in the results of their
amelioration programs. M.G. Lewis, for example, complains that despite his
various efforts in the early 1800s to improve the birth rate on his estates,
there was little change. No more than twelve or thirteen new babies were
born annually of 330 slaves (M.G. Lewis 1834: 320). Registration figures
(Appendix A) indicate little change in the birth rate, despite the improved
sex ratio, but an increase in slave deaths.
Cuba, the last great sugar island, reached its peak well after the
abolition of the slave trade, and thus, with Jamaica, suffered dramatic
consequences of labor shortage. Seventeenth and early eighteenth century
Cuba had been only a modest sugar producer. Tobacco was the main Cuban
export crop. From 1762 to 1838, a transition to large-scale sugar pro-
duction was completed (Knight 1970: 6). During that period, 400,000 slaves
were imported to Cuba; the slave population increased from nearly 39,000 in
1774 to well over 400,000 in 1841 (p. 21).
As Cuban sugar production intensified male slaves were favored; many
estates had an exclusively male labor force. Half the population was aged
from 16 to 25, and the rest, from 26 to 40 (Moreno Fraginals 1978: 39).
This highly productive demographic profile changed when the slave trade was
abolished, and as the Spanish metropolitan government urged the importation
of African women to curtail the perceived violence and homosexuality of the
heavily male slave population. With the new techniques of sugar production
adopted in Cuba, women and children could be more productively employed than
ever before in sugar agriculture. From 1850 about 45% of African slaves
imported to Cuba were women, and nearly all worked in some phase of sugar
production with virtually no mobility to more skilled positions. Moreno
Fraginals contends that productivity per capital dropped as the sex ratio
equalized, but indicates also that productivity levels demanded of Cuban
women slaves surpassed that of other Caribbean slave societies.
As slaves became more difficult to procure, planters attempted to
encourage the reproduction of slaves. Nuclear families were rare, Moreno
Fraginals tells us, because couples were so often broken up for sale;
mothers and children constituted the basic kinship unit. Some planters
encouraged monogamy to increase the birth rate. Several slave breeding
farms were established. But the housing of slaves in barracks on many
plantations, the related eradication of garden plots to supplement
plantation rations, and the supervision of children in plantation nurseries
all inhibited nuclear family formation. Nor were many births effected
through planters' coercion. Pregnant women received few rewards for giving
birth until the 1860s and 1870s when they were permitted to work only ten
hours a day, and received prizes for children who survived to two years
(Moreno Fraginals 1978: 43-57).
Amelioration efforts of the mid-nineteenth century did reduce slave
mortality, especially among infants, and reproduction rates increased. The
overall mortality of Cuban slaves from 1835 to 1841 was 63 per 1000
population, falling to 61 per 1000 from 1856 to 1860; infant mortality fell
from 575 per 1000 annually to 283 per 1000 for the same periods. The
natural decrease of population improved only slightly from a loss of 44 per
1000 population annually for the years 1835 to 1841 to a loss of 33 per 1000
annually for the years 1856 to 1860 (Moreno Fraginals 1978: 88). From 1860
to the emancipation of Cuban slaves in 1880, amelioration measures
increased, but numbers of slaves continued to decline through natural
decrease and manumissions. In 1883 there were somewhat fewer than 100,000
slaves registered in Cuba.
The Cuban and Jamaican cases offer the same mixed results as do Barbados
and Martinique. Cuban and Jamaican planters used more women than men in
agricultural production, and these women had few alternatives or avenues for
mobility; these tendencies are not significantly greater for Jamaica and
Cuba than Barbados and Martinique. It appears, however, that women were
under more pressure to maintain high labor productivity in Cuba and Jamaica
than in Barbados and Martinique. In neither Jamaica or Cuba were even low
levels of natural increase achieved. As is the case for Martinique and
Barbados, family patterns were not related to reproduction in the expected
way for either Jamaica or Cuba. Nuclear families were common, if not
prevalent in Jamaica, but nearly non-existent in Cuba. The Cuban case,
along perhaps with Barbados, confirms the hypothesized relationship between
labor supply and family formation, while neither Jamaica nor Martinique does
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The two major hypotheses examined are:
Hypothesis 1: At times of labor shortage, West Indian slave women:
a. were employed in larger numbers than male slaves in field labor;
b. lived mainly by themselves or with children;
c. produced relatively few children, resulting in a crude birth rate
less than 30 per 1000.
Hypothesis 2: At times of adequate labor supply, West Indian slave
a. were employed in field labor in the same numbers as males, or less
b. lived in nuclear families;
c. produced relatively large numbers of children, resulting in a crude
birth rate of 30 or more children per 1000 population.
The cases of labor shortage are those of late eighteenth century, early
nineteenth century Barbados, Martinique, Jamaica, and Cuba. The results of
our analysis of these cases are presented below.
(a) (b) (c)
Women outnumber Mother-child unit Low crude
men in fields predominates birth rate
Barbados yes ? no
Martinique yes no yes
Jamaica yes no yes
Cuba yes yes yes
All four societies used women increasingly in field work as male slaves
became scarce. It appears that only slightly larger proportions of the
female work force worked in agriculture in Jamaica and Cuba than in
Martinique and Barbados. But higher levels of labor productivity were
probably achieved by women in Jamaica and Cuba. Only Cuba and perhaps
Barbados conform to our hypothesis about family patterns. Jamaica and
Martinique exhibited higher levels of nuclear family formation than
mother-child and single female units. Extensive provision grounds in
Jamaica and Martinique may thus have mitigated the effects of labor shortage
on family organization. Reproduction patterns conform more closely to our
hypothesis for all societies, although emphasis on amelioration caused
dramatic increases in slaves' crude birth rate in Barbados. Nuclear family
formation did little to increase reproduction at the aggregate level;
amelioration contributed to increased birth rates more powerfully than did
nuclear family formati-on.
The findings related to Hypothesis 2 are presented below.
(a) (b) (c)
Women equal to Nuclear
or fewer than families High crude
men in fields predominate birth rate
Bahamas yes yes yes
Antigua yes no no
Monserrat yes no yes
St. Kitts yes no no
Nevis yes no no
For the Bahamas and the Leewards women performed agricultural work as or
less often than did men. In the Bahamas, an adequate labor supply is
related to nuclear family formation and increasing birth rate, as predicted,
but the relationship is not strong given that the crude birth rate reached
little more than 30 per 1000 only after 1825. For the Leewards, adequate
supplies of labor did not lead to the creation of nuclear families. Only in
Monserrat is a crude birth rate over 30 per 1000 recorded for the early
nineteenth century. These cases suggest that labor supply per se does not
explain the birth rate of West Indian slaves, and neither does family
Our investigation of several West Indian cases suggests that labor
shortages did draw women into the most rigorous forms of field labor as the
abolition of the slave trade approached. Women's presence in agricultural
work seems not to have precluded nuclear family formation in Jamaica and
Martinique. Women's agricultural work does seem to have discouraged
reproduction in the absence of strenuous amelioration efforts such as that
of Barbados in the early 1800s. Labor supply, however, did not strongly
encourage reproduction, as the cases of the Bahamas and Leewards demonstrate.
Theories that unite production and reproduction assume individual or
familial incentives for both (Goody 1976; Boserup 1970; Blumberg). In
slavery, owners obtained maximum benefits from slaves' reproduction but had
little direct interest in family formation. Although our review of the
literature on these subjects remains cursory, it may be that in Caribbean
slavery family formation related directly to slaves' self-interest,
particularly where provision gardening was possible. On the other hand
children may have brought little joy or comfort to Caribbean slaves,l0
given the conditions of life--more difficult than those of more fertile U.S.
slaves--and thus reproduction depended on strenuous planter efforts at
Basic Demographic Indices,
Early Nineteenth Century Bahamas, Montserrat,
St. Christopher, Barbados, Jamaica
St. Christopher (
Source: Higman 1976b:
1. This criterion is based on crude birth rates during the early
nineteenth century. Klein and Engerman (1978) report that the birth
rate among U.S. slaves was 55 per 1000, considered high for mid-nine-
teenth century populations in general. Jamaica's low crude birth rate
of 23 per 1000 from 1817 to 1829 is comparable to European birth rates
during the same period.
2. Craton (1978) compared the Rolle estate in Grand Exuma in the Bahamas
with Jamaica's Worthy Park. Craton considers many factors important in
the higher rates of fertility and nuclear family formation in the
Bahamas. Included among them are the closer sex ratio, small number of
Africans and favorable age distribution. He concludes, however, that:
"The essential difference between the two populations clearly lay in
the nature of the economic system in which each was employed. Worthy
Park's system was the 'factory-in-a-field' of sugar production, while
Exuma's was an almost decayed open plantation system with a negligible
'industrial' component" (p. 349).
3. Higman (1976: 65-66) contends that Caribbean slave populations
increased their birth rates as the creole population increased and the
sex ratio became more even. "Thus in the sugar colonies it appears
that natural increases did not occur until the populations were
disproportionately female" (Higman: 66-67). Eventually feminization,
"aging and wasting" of the population occurred (Craton 1978), causing a
decline in fertility. Sex ratios were similar in St. Kitts, Nevis,
Montserrat, and Antigua, and related to an increasing birth rate, but
in a strong way only in Montserrat.
4. Martinique was long attractive to France's rival metropoles. English
and Dutch attacks had been repulsed in the seventeenth century. The
English again tried but failed to capture Martinique in 1759; a British
seige succeeded in 1762, but the island was returned to the French by
the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The French Revolution threatened
Martinique's sugar planters, with talk of rights for black slaves and
the free colored population. The French Revolutionary government
abolished slavery in 1790. Martinique's and Guadeloupe's elites
surrendered themselves to Britain in 1794. With access to British
markets, Martinique once again prospered, until 1802, when Martinique
was returned again to France by the terms of the Treaty of Amiens.
Again the British seized Martinique in 1809, permanently restoring the
island to France in 1814. In the meantime, Napoleon had made slavery
legal once again.
5. All translations are mine.
6. Debien (1960) comments that, on the more intensely cultivated San
Dominque, there were fewer than two or three conjugal families per
plantation at any time. The birth rate was also very low.
7. To permit women to nurse their children for two years ran counter to
the planters' desire to increase labor productivity. Nursing took
women from the fields altogether or removed them to lighter tasks they
could complete while breastfeeding a child. Still, planters perceived
nursing as a necessary incentive to increase women's fertility and some
associated it with infant health and development, major issues in
societies with high infant and child death rates.
8. There is considerable evidence that at the plantation level 'nuclear'
families did have more children than other family forms. At
Montpelier, analyzed by Higman (1976a), and L'Anse-a-L'Ane, studied by
Debien (1960), nuclear families had more children than did other
families. Craton (1978) made the same discovery about slaves at the
Rolle estate in the Bahamas.
9. Food allocation and distribution may hold the key to the small
population increments and possible propensity for mother-child units in
the Leewards. These islands had little non-estate land although slaves
received a small provision garden near their huts to supplement estate-
grown and imported provisions. Frequent drought affected the crops in
these gardens more than it did sugar (Mathieson 1926: 72; Sturge and
Harvey 1838). Rations allotted to slaves were small, "much less,
indeed, than was given in the prisons of Jamaica . (Mathieson
1926: 72). Slaves in the Leewards may have lacked both the material
basis in extensive and productive provision-gardening for the formation
of residential conjugal units; and the health and welfare conducive to
rapid population growth. See, also, Dirks (1978).
10. We have no way of knowing how many children were conceived by Caribbean
slaves, but were miscarried or stillborn. Craton (1978: 343) reports
that 21.8% of "births" among females at Worthy Park in 1795 were said
to be miscarriages in plantation records.
Table 1. Sugar Exports of the Ten Leading Caribbean Islands, 1766-70
(annual averages in tons)
EXPORTS SQUARE MILES
St. Dominque 61,247 10,200
Jamaica 36,021 4,411
Antigua 10,690 108
Cuba 10,000 44,206
St. Christopher 9,701 68
Martinique 8,778 380
St. Croix 8,230 84
Guadeloupe 7,898 619
Barbados 7,819 166
Grenada 6,552 120
Source: Sheridan 1973:
Table 2. Occupations of Slaves at Codrington, 1781
Occupation Men Women Boys Girls TOTAL
Field Workers 37 52 34 39 162
Watchmen 17 0 1 0 18
Stockkeepers 10 5 7 1 23
Personnel Workers 3 15 0 1 19
Non-workers 4 4 19 27 54
Source: Bennett 1958: 12
Table 3. Demographic Indices, L'Anse-a-L'Ane, 1753-1773
Total Women Older Number of Children Number of Children
Slaves Than 17 Younger Than 11 per 100 Women
1753 152 49 34 69.38
1763 -- 54 53 98.14
1767 163 54 44 81.48
1773 154 48 29 60.41
Source: Debien 1960: 73
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