Atlantic History Gender in the Caribbean
by
Christine Walker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0267

Introduction

European contact initiated centuries of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean, and also transformed the region’s islands, coasts, and waterways into one of the most polyglot regions in the world. Imperial powers jostled for control of the coastal territory that borders the Caribbean Sea, from Florida and Louisiana to Guatemala, Guyana, and Suriname. Beginning in the 17th century, the arc of islands nestled in the heart of the Caribbean Sea—from the vast and rugged territories of Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti to the stamp-sized islands of Barbados, St. Thomas, and Guadeloupe—became the “jewels” of European empires in America. Waves of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, French, and English colonists flooded to the Caribbean Basin, lured by the promise of fantastic riches. After decimating and enslaving indigenous Amerindians, they forcibly transported millions of Africans to labor as chattel slaves. The region’s ethnic, racial, and religious diversity was born out of these free and forced migrations. Feminist scholars have long recognized slavery’s indelible mark on Caribbean history. For decades, they have studied enslaved women from a variety of angles. While work produced in the 1970s and 1980s sought to recover women’s lived experiences, the 1990s marked a pivotal turning point when gender replaced women. Using gender as a lens to study the power dynamics between men and women has broadened our understanding of how cultural beliefs about the sexed body shaped colonial regimes. Scholars of the Caribbean were among the first to employ an intersectional approach in their analyses by considering how evolving definitions of racial difference were mapped onto the gendered and sexualized bodies of women of African descent. As their work shows, conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality were mutually constitutive. However, this rich body of scholarship has also demonstrated that efforts by imperial and colonial officials, as well as colonists, to affix rigid gendered and racialized identities onto the Caribbean’s diverse populations were contested. These “modern” categories of identity proved to be unstable signifiers of power. Enslaved people exhibited their own understandings of gender and challenged their status as bonded laborers. Coercive and consensual interracial sex created large heterogeneous populations that resisted fixed racial and gender hierarchies. Since the 1980s, scholars of women and gender, in particular, have attended to this complex interplay among gender, race, ethnicity, legal status, and religion. Yet, on the whole, the field continues to implicitly equate “gender” with femininity: only recently have a handful of scholars begun to consider the constructions of masculinity. Further studies of masculinity would allow for a more comparative approach to gender. Similarly, work on sexuality assumes sexual desires, behaviors, and intimacies to be heteronormative. In the future, queer theory could be employed to disrupt and challenge implicit assumptions about sexual orientation and desire. In conclusion, opportunities abound for new work, which melds a longstanding interest in women, race, and slavery with newer theoretical and methodological approaches to gender, sexuality, and colonialism.

General Overviews

Since 2005 several collections of work on gender in the Caribbean have been published: each approaches the topic from a different angle. Whereas the essays in Scully and Paton 2005 explore the post-emancipation experiences of freed people, Gaspar and Hine 2004 focuses specifically on free women of color. The geographic coverage of both collections, which include essays on British, Spanish, and French colonies, makes them useful for comparative research. Together, Byfield, et al. 2010 and the second volume of Campbell, et al. 2007 on women and slavery cover Africa and the Americas, but these works also include essays on the Caribbean. Other surveys focus specifically on the anglophone Caribbean, including Brereton 2013, which provides an overview of the past thirty years of research on women and gender. An older work, Shepherd, et al. 1995, is one of the first to explicitly publish pieces that use gender as a methodological approach and also focuses on anglophone colonies. Mair 2006, an influential dissertation on women in Jamaica, was originally written in the 1970s. While lacking a more analytical treatment of gender, it still provides an important outline of the topic. The majority of these collections focus on women: few consider the operation of masculinity in constructing gendered power dynamics. As noted elsewhere, the analytical/methodological approaches of queer studies have yet to appear in collected works, which treat sexuality as heteronormative.

  • Brereton, Bridget. “Women and Gender in Caribbean (English-Speaking) Historiography: Sources and Methods.” Caribbean Review of Gender Studies 7 (2013): 1–18.

    E-mail Citation »

    An overview of scholarship that has been produced on the British West Indies, including Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados, and Guyana, over the past thirty years. Anyone interested in conducting historical research on women and gender will find descriptions of the variety of archival sources to be useful.

  • Byfield, Judith A., LaRay Denzer, and Anthea Morrison. Gendering the African Diaspora: Women, Culture, and Historical Change in the Caribbean and Nigerian Hinterland. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

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    This collection uses gender as a lens to explore the connections among the Caribbean, Africa, and Britain. The essays in Section 2 are of particular use for studying the operation of gender and race in women’s lived experiences as well as discursively in fictional accounts of the Caribbean.

  • Campbell, Gwyn, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph Miller, eds. Women and Slavery. Vol. 2, The Modern Atlantic. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Described as the first edited volumes that focus solely on female slaves. The majority of the essays in Volume 2 study enslaved and freed women in the anglophone and francophone Caribbean and cover a range of topics, including reproduction, emancipation, and citizenship. For more detailed overviews of a few essays from the volume, see Follett 2007 (cited under Slavery and Servitude) as well as Moitt 2007 (cited under Political Action, Emancipation, and Citizenship).

  • Gaspar, David Barry, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds. Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection explores how race and gender shaped the lives of free women of color who lived throughout the Americas. The wide-ranging geographic focus, from Cuba and Jamaica to Brazil and Martinique allow for a comparative overview of the topic.

  • Mair, Lucille Mathurin, Hilary Beckles, and Verene Shepherd, eds. A Historical Study of Women in Jamaica, 1655–1844. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the first major studies of free and enslaved women in colonial Jamaica, this groundbreaking work existed only in dissertation form for decades. Situates women in a developing creole society that was increasingly defined by race, class, and status. Highlights enslaved women’s acts of resistance and their enduring ties to Africa.

  • Scully, Pamela, and Diana Paton. Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822387466E-mail Citation »

    A collection of essays representing a broad geographic area that ties Africa to the Caribbean and Brazil and covering a wide range of topics, including masculinity, citizenship, family life, and labor.

  • Shepherd, Verene. Women in Caribbean History: The British-Colonised Territories. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    An introductory guide for using gender analysis to reframe women’s history in the anglophone Caribbean. Focuses on enslaved women of African descent but also includes European, Indian, and Chinese women.

  • Shepherd, Verene A., Bridget Brereton, and Barbara Bailey, eds. Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Covers a broad range of topics, including articles on how to use gender analysis as a methodological approach. Other essays study the lives of women of African descent during slavery and the post-emancipation period. Includes miscellaneous essays on France and Nigeria.

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