In Search of a Brighter Future: Children in Jamaica’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom, 1788–1918

AHA Session 116
Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Sasha Turner Bryson, Quinnipiac University and Pennsylvania State University
The Audience

Session Abstract

The lives of children remain largely unexplored within the historiography of slavery and freedom in Jamaica. Yet women and children made up a significant percentage of the transatlantic slave trade and dominated the labor force in plantation societies. The panelists highlight how changing notions of childhood had a direct impact on the quality of life of children as well as the development of social, educational and health policies in the island. As such, these papers reveal that research on children connects both slave and post emancipation society ideologically and identifies the ways in which socio-cultural, political and economic changes directly impacted on the treatment of children in Jamaica. 

Efforts to abolish the slave trade in the1780s forced planters to reevaluate the role of enslaved children in the labor force. Colleen Vasconcellos argues that the economic motivation of planters forced slave children to become adults well before their time. This re-evaluation in the value of slave children to the overall survival of the slave labor force ultimately placed enormous physical and psychological pressures on their lives. Christopher Bischof posits that this change in the overall attitude towards slave children continues after emancipation as missionaries viewed children as Jamaica’s salvation. Missionaries portrayed Afro-Jamaican children as malleable and therefore more open to religious instruction and conversion; a key factor that could facilitate the creation of amenable, obedient adults.

By 1865, however, fears of a juvenile criminal class permeated newspaper correspondence and official documents. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, colonial administrators argued that the prevalence of illegitimacy and unstable family structures within the Afro-Jamaican community inevitably created unproductive and lawless adults The state and members of the community advocated using industrial schools and reformatories to re-socialize Afro-Jamaican juveniles. Shani Roper's paper argues that popular support of these institutions in the 1890s and 1900s resulted in an increase of these institutions throughout island.

Mary Clare Martin’s paper on missionary’s children takes a trans-Atlantic approach to defining childhood in nineteenth century Jamaica. It examines the implication of a trans-Atlantic identity among missionary children living in the colony by questioning the belief that missionary communities maintained rigid hierarchies of race and gender in Jamaica. The definition of and attitudes towards children were inherently determined by race, class and gendered hierarchies. Ultimately, between 1788 and 1918, Jamaican society placed an increased emphasis on socializing children to be good slaves, peasants and later colonial citizens.

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