African family structures in the immediate post-emancipation era by Mellissa Ifill
Stabroek News
September 17, 2003

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This article is the first of a two-part series that addresses the family structures among newly freed Africans in the immediate post-emancipation era. The articles aim to avoid the tendency to view African family forms as dysfunctional, fully cognizant of the fact that the tendency is based on the notion that the European family structures were/are the ideal types and any deviation from these were aberrations.

It is also important to note that the articles are also constrained because the majority of sources on the African family tended to focus on the lower classes in the African Guyanese communities and the family patterns of these classes became commonly associated with the African family form in every class. However, a few studies have suggested that there were notable differences, for instance, between the family lifestyles of middle-class as against lower-class Africans. Most studies have not adequately taken into account this difference, possibly and understandably because the overwhelming majority of Africans in the post-emancipation era were located in this lower class.

Part 1 in this series highlights the family types and household arrangements discerned, and discusses two of the imperatives that influenced such construction of these households: slavery and the plantation system, and the post-1838 economic and social circumstances.

The following are the Caribbean family union types that were discerned and the manner in which households were arranged:

* Visiting Unions - this family form was more commonly associated with the African lower class and was depicted by one partner, usually the man, visiting the other for companionship and sexual intercourse. The man was required to assist in supporting the woman and any resultant offspring. Many visiting unions subsequently resulted in female-headed households with a number of children by different fathers.

* Common law unions - this was a more permanent residential union than the visiting relationship, but it lacked legal recognition in the post-slavery era. Common law or consensual union entailed sharing a home, sexual relationship and the combining of resources by the couple for the upkeep of the family. Within this form, strict gender-role expectations generally prevailed where the woman was expected to care for the home and children while the man was expected to be the wage earner. The man also exercised a significant amount of control over the woman such as the rights to prohibit movement and to administer ‘discipline.’

* Legal marriage - this was particularly prevalent among the upwardly mobile African groups and was viewed by them as the ideal family form. While some lower-class women perceived it as desirable, its desirability was premised on the ability of the male to offer satisfactory accommodation and support for the family. The model for this type of union was provided by the dominant, controlling, strong European male planter and his protected, domesticated, dependant wife. This form gained among many, the reputation as the ideal scenario, although the practicalities of daily life for Africans in the post-slavery era were vastly different from that of the dominant planter class.

Studies show that there was often a progression from one type of union to another, and the resultant households were subjected to several transformations. The demographic historians have argued that family units including co-residential husbands and wives were common, at least on fairly large estates, during the periods prior to and after the emancipation of slaves. The consensus seems to be that unofficial sexual liaisons were typical among the young slaves but that fairly stable monogamous (consensual) unions were the norm for older adults. The most prevalent family types present on the plantations were mother-children units and units consisting of a conjugal couple with children (hers, theirs, and his, less often). These households that were headed by females existed in a variety of circumstances - in some instances the father was absent in terms of residence with the women being the primary breadwinners in whom power resided. In other instances, a spinster, childless village woman would ‘adopt’ a child or children from a poor family and create her own female-headed household. Irrespective of the household form, the entire village was invariably instrumental in ensuring the welfare of children was addressed.

I will now look at two of the imperatives that influenced the construction of the African family in the immediate post-emancipation era.

Slavery/plantation system generating unstable family units
Africans, like all other immigrant groups, attempted to cling to as much of their culture as they possibly could. However, this recreation was stymied by the determined efforts of the colonial masters to stamp out all forms of African life and society in their effort to reduce resistance on the plantations. The plantation system actively discouraged building family structures and as a consequence conjugal unions had to fit the realities of the plantation economy. In effect, the demands of plantation production were hostile to the welfare of slave families.

Enslaved women paid an extremely high penalty for their forced participation in the plantation economy. Their dreadfully low fertility was due in large part to their exhausting labour in the field gangs during their reproductive years. Other causes were poor diet, disease and an intentional control of fertility by contraception and abortion. In addition, many planters thought it more profitable to purchase fully-grown slaves rather than to bear the cost of rearing a slave from birth, since during the early years, the child had to be fed, clothed, etc, but would not have actively contributed to the plantation. Such planters therefore made no attempt to improve the fertility of the female slaves nor made any attempt to reduce infant and child mortality until after the slave trade was abolished and they were forced to find alternative strategies for acquiring slaves.

The exigencies of plantation life dictated that couples live apart and they were listed in plantation records separately; this continued even in the post-slavery period. Only co-residential couples were recorded as married. Some of those couples living apart or as part of extended family networks considered themselves married although they did not reside with their partners. ‘Family,’ in other words, for the Africans had a meaning above and beyond what it meant for European-oriented observers.

Moreover, European-type or Christian marriages contradicted the slave code: each partner at all times faced the risk of being taken away or sold. Further, the child of a slave woman received status from the mother’s legal status, consequentially becoming the property of his mother’s owner. Attempts at encouraging reproduction sometimes meant special allowances to the mother and to the plantation overseer or managers, but this dispensation was never offered to the father. The African man’s role under the slave regime was evaluated in terms of his stud value, while the African woman’s role was assessed in terms of her breeding capacity. Not surprisingly, therefore, many slave conjugal units were characterized by instability - not overlooking the reality that the plantation master as overseer could have access to the woman even though she was in a union. In other words, plantation slavery destabilized any attempt at building family structures and assigned the males a peripheral (if any) role in the family - hence the prevalence of female-headed households - and this peripheralization some argue, continued in the immediate post-emancipation era.

Creation of family structures based on realities of ex-slaves’ immediate circumstances
The survival and welfare of the family group were probably paramount for most of the freed people in the unsettled aftermath of August 1, 1838. Their concerns were not restricted to the material development of the family unit and the desire to succeed independently of the plantation; freed people were also eager to build up networks of social ties (primarily but not totally kinship ties) within which they saw family life functioning suitably.

Ex-slaves expected that freedom would mean the chance to unite the family unit and recreate kin groups torn apart by slavery. Consequently in the weeks after August 1, many freed people were moving around the territory, migrating in some cases to different areas to repair family relationships. Although the evidence of family reconstitution after emancipation is rather slim, it is likely that a few ex-slaves did succeed in this goal.

Emancipated Africans had to confront the issue of the vulnerability of women and children during slavery and apprenticeship, and wanted to assure them a degree of protection and security. One strategy used was to remove them wherever possible, from the direct control of estate management and the plantation and to relocate their productive labour within the household and the family farm. It seems likely that women in stable co-residential unions might have had more opportunities to withdraw from the plantation than those solely responsible for child support.

The evidence clearly suggests that one of the primary motives behind the withdrawal of women from estate labour was to allow them to give more time for attention to child rearing. As a consequence of the withdrawal from slave labour by many African women, their health and the health of their children improved significantly. The freed woman was described throughout the region as both fruitful and successful in bringing up her children. Clearly, as Walter Rodney argued, withdrawal from labouring twelve hours a day and focusing on the children by ex- slave women promoted family welfare in the most basic sense: its physical survival and continuity.

There is a great deal of evidence to show that children under the age of sixteen or seventeen were not usually allowed by their parents to do field work on the estates in the post-1838 years, especially not on the plantations on which they resided. Planters therefore complained loudly that the young people were idle, but while children were being kept away from plantations, they were however employed on their parents’ grounds or family farms or were taught a trade in the case of boys. According to a magistrate in Berbice, “dire necessity alone would induce parents to allow them to perform field labour.” Although some parents did send children over the age of eleven or twelve to plantation employment, these seem generally to have been the poorest families who needed their small earnings to survive. Moreover, parents were extremely anxious to send their young children to school - especially immediately after 1838 - proud when one of the children learned to read, believing that education was the key to their children getting ahead and prospering socially and religiously. Emancipation therefore did not give rise to western values such as individualism and personal autonomy and advancement, rather family and community goals were generally given priority over individual advancement.

Loss of economic opportunities caused by the introduction of several immigrant groups to the colony also made the economic survival of the family unit a critical issue. Many African males therefore migrated from the villages to the towns and the interior and the gold and diamond fields where they were able to find work and contribute to the upkeep of their families. Their relocation had significant implications for the families of which they were a part. With the absence of the male, women remained oriented around the estates, farmed the family plots and by virtue of their role as providers, assumed the leadership role in the family.

Part 2 in this series will address the other two imperatives which are believed to have influenced the African family constructs that emerged after 1838: European gender norms and West African matrilineal traditions.

This article is the second of a two part series that addresses the family structures among newly freed Africans in the immediate post-emancipation era. As noted in the first installment, both articles aim to avoid the tendency to view African family forms as dysfunctional, fully cognizant of the fact that the tendency is based on the notion that the European family structures were/are the ideal types and any deviation from these were aberrations.

Both articles are also constrained because the majority of sources on the African family tended to focus on the lower classes in the African Guyanese communities and the family patterns of these classes became commonly associated with the African family form in every class. However, a few studies have suggested that there were notable differences for instance between the family lifestyles of middle class as against lower class Africans. Most studies have not adequately taken into account this difference, possibly and understandably because the overwhelming majority of Africans in the post emancipation era were located in this lower class.

Part 1 in this series highlighted the family types and household arrangements discerned and discussed two of the imperatives that influenced such construction of these households: Slavery and the Plantation System and the Post 1838 Economic and Social Circumstances.

European gender norms influencing African family structures
This second part addresses the other two imperatives which are believed to have influenced the African family constructs that emerged after 1838: European Gender Norms and West African Matrilineal Traditions.

The literature suggests that a significant number of ex-slave women who had small children or were married withdrew from the regular labour force of the sugar estates after 1838. Many commentators, when addressing the issue at the time, thought it natural and expected that African women would take up their ‘proper’ avocation i.e. maternal and domestic duties. Moreover, these commentators were certain that it was exposure to European gender ideologies that was responsible for this development. European policymakers, antislavery activists and clergymen - good men and women as many of them were - all embraced a Eurocentric and racist philosophy that assumed that middle class western family was the ideal family model and should therefore be mimicked by ex-slaves.

The European gender structure was that husbands should be the head of the family, the main breadwinner, responsible for family maintenance and endowed with power over wives and children; wives should be dependent and domestic. Lifelong monogamy built on Christian marriage should be the custom. Men must both be in command of and care for their wives and daughters, practices that slavery had made impossible. Wives and mothers must bring up their children and provide a respectable, happy and Christian home. Governor Light, in the months after the end of apprenticeship in 1838 encouraged a group of free labourers to work hard to maintain their families and develop a preference for familial comforts “learn to appreciate the advantages of a comfortable home ..... there is no reason why, having finished your day’s work, you should not return to a clean room and a decently served meal”.

Europeans frowned upon married women and mothers who were occupied in independent wage labour and therefore were absent from the home. Arduous labour in the fields was irreconcilable with 19th century European ideas of femininity and an element of this ideological package was contempt for the woman who took on hard manual labour; she was defeminised, seen as hard and brutish and lacking in feminine virtues of modesty and style.

Moreover, estate labour was also deemed dangerous for female morality except it was organized in a family unit. While the end of slavery meant the end of blatant and regular sexual exploitation of females by plantation staff, in the post emancipation period, free female estate labourers were still at great risk; men and women toiled together in gangs and might be accommodated together in barracks. In other words, African females might either be vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances or might engage in promiscuous activity, and both were seen as an attack on the decent man and his family.

There is some debate concerning the extent to which these European gender norms exerted an influence on freed slaves. Many whites in their correspondence noted the increase in legal and Christian marriages after 1838, the improved harmony in African households and the upgrading in their housing, clothing, diet and furnishings, believing that the decision taken by men and women to keep mothers out of the estate labour force if it were possible, undoubtedly fostered more stable family units and the greater domestic comforts within the limitations of persistent poverty.

Several witnesses to the 1842 Select Committee gave evidence that there was a noticeable sense of family responsibility among ex-slaves particularly where couples had married. The witnesses also noted that the freed people felt responsible for their children and aged or ill relatives, feelings “alien to a state of slavery” as one put it, and worked hard to maintain them. To these witnesses, most parents endeavoured to send their children to school and almost always had them baptized. They further discerned that respectable married people in the main respected their vows and arguments and violent disagreements in the home occurred less often.

Indeed as some whites noted, some amount of influence was exerted on those Africans who were upwardly mobile and who were strongly influenced by the churches. It was chiefly in the church dominated villages that the wives and mothers left estate labour and concentrated almost exclusively on domesticity and household production. Invariably the capacity to let their wives sit down and dedicate their time to home and children became an indicator of status for many ex-slave men.

Despite the preceding, however, the British gender ideology of the mid 19th century was not generally accepted by the majority of the ex-slaves, men and women. They did not eagerly adopt monogamous Christian marriage, apart from the period in the immediate aftermath of August 1838 and even then, this was in all probability only among a minority; they disagreed with the idea that confinement to domesticity and economic dependence on a husband were essential to female decency. In the post slavery era in the region, African women clung to their right to economic independence and they did not view such a right as indicating any resultant loss of status for the women’s husbands. The notion of male economic control within the family and home was not imbedded as deeply as in the West, except among the small and emerging middle and upper strata.

Creation of family structures based on West African traditions
Some social scientists have argued that there is a strong possibility of continuity between the family forms of African immigrants in the Caribbean, including Guyana and their cultural background in West Africa. These scholars, such as Raymond T. Smith and John and Leatrice MacDonald, argue that African family ideology in the southern Caribbean (especially in the rural areas) adopted principles of family structures from the cultures of origin, hence the pervasiveness of female headed households.

The data reveals that a large number of Africans who were brought to Guiana originated from the region in West Africa where the Akans - a group of people whose kinship structure is built on the matrilineal principle, have traditionally been and still are located. Smith notes that there are many traits among rural Africans traceable to the tradition of the Akans such as day names and obeah, food taboos and rituals associated with birth. He further notes that Africans who had matrilineal kinship background seemed to have had considerable influence over other groups brought to Guyana. While accurate figures on slave trading between Africa and British Guiana are difficult to obtain, J. G. Kruickshank has provided statistics on tribal origins during the 19th century which show that approximately 70 percent of Africans taken to British Guiana came from the matrilineal belt (between 1803-1807, some 6,607 out of a total of 9,056).

Smith argues that in light of the above, it was crucial to reconsider the concept of matrifocality as it relates to rural Africans in Guiana. He contends that undoubtedly the Africans attempted to transfer their kinship system and domestic life, however they were only able to preserve a core element of the domestic unit: a matrifocal structure. Smith recognizes the differences between the kinship structures of the two groups and contends that the changes can be attributed to several social forces including:

* The slave trade that caused forced separation of kin
* The pressures of slavery and the plantation system
* The impact of Christianity

Scholars who articulate this view point to the land ownership and tenure arrangement among the Akans, which was determined by the matrilineal kinship structure and compare this to the Africans in British Guiana. Smith argues that the freed slaves “as if guided by a common sense of Africanity” settled in villages. Smith utilized the notion of cultural symbolism and suggests that such an attempt cannot simply be explained as a deep desire for independence but also as a desire to obtain property and, operate and share such property in a communal manner comparable to that they enjoyed in their native West Africa. He continues that although there were no unilinear descent-groups among rural Africans in British Guiana, there were a large number of persons in the household who had binding relations with the mother, and, that kin relations through the female were more powerful than relations by the male line. This, Smith notes is similar to the situation among the Akans, where it is usual for an Akan family to be assembled around “an effective minimal matrilineage or part of it consisting of children and the daughters’ children of one woman”.

In post emancipation Afro-Guyanese families, the mother-child unit has remained the base of the primary household grouping: a matrifocal household. Thus Smith discusses close and remarkable similarities between the rural Africans in British Guiana and Akan domestic units - the chief similarity being the depth of the mother and child relationship, and the propensity for the unit of a woman, her children and her daughters’ children to emerge as a solitary unit often representing the core of the domestic unit. While Smith concedes that similarity in specific elements of cultural systems does not necessarily mean cultural links, he argues that when added to the other borrowings and adoptions of Akan cultural traits indicated previously, it appears reasonable to conclude that the Akan matrilineal kinship structure could be the model of the rural African Guyanese matrifocal family.

The task of determining the origins of the African family in Guyana and the Caribbean is a complex one with a fierce ongoing debate about which factor had the greatest input into the construction of African families. Despite differing on the issue of origins, most of those currently involved in the debate have nonetheless sought to legitimize African Caribbean family forms and household groupings (whatever their manifestations) and reject the deviant label attached to them - firm in the conviction that African family models were different from those of the Europeans and the yardstick used to measure the latter would be inappropriate for any analysis of the former.

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