Academic journal article The Historian

"A Sink of All Filthiness": Gender, Family, and Identity in the British Atlantic, 1688-1763

Academic journal article The Historian

"A Sink of All Filthiness": Gender, Family, and Identity in the British Atlantic, 1688-1763

Article excerpt

IN THE EARLY months of 1732, Colonel Christian Lilly received a remarkable letter on behalf of the Widow Owen of Berwick asking him to investigate the recent death of one "Doctor Owen" in Jamaica. Doctor Owen, a surgeon, had departed for the island with his regiment many years past, and had left behind a wife and daughter in Berwick to whom he sent remittances for fourteen years after his departure. However, he then abruptly ceased his correspondence, and the Widow Owen had reason to believe her husband had abandoned her and married another, before dying with considerable wealth in Jamaica. She hoped that Lilly, a chief engineer in Jamaica, would be able to discover what had happened to her husband, and that he might be able to collect some support for herself and her daughter. Lilly agreed to look into the tangled web, but replied a year later with disappointing news. He had spoken several times with the "present Widow Owen" in Jamaica, who insisted that her late husband was not the man concerned in the inquiry. Her husband had come some thirty-seven years ago to the island with a wife who died at Port Royal, and he had married another at Liguanea who likewise died, before he finally found matrimonial bliss with his present widow. The Widow Owen of Jamaica claimed that there had been another Doctor Owen on the island, but Lilly had "hitherto not been able to trace out any such other person of that name, which makes things still appear very dubious." Nevertheless, Lilly cautioned, the Widow Owen of Jamaica was a woman of "considerable interest" on the island, with land boasting upward of sixty slaves, as well as numerous powerful and "opulent" relations, "so that any body that shall offer to go to law with her, will meet with enough of that, and find but very little of equity, except they have very good grounds to go upon, and also a good purse to sustain the charge." (1)

The story of the widows Owen was one of many accounts that cast a dark shadow over British perceptions of the colonial Atlantic in the first half of the eighteenth century. The Caribbean was a realm of loose morals, broken families, and genders turned upside down--in the words of one late seventeenth-century visitor, the place was "one of the ludest in the Christian world, a sink of all filthiness, and ameer Sodom." (2) How did this reputation emerge and what was its impact on the collective consciousness of Britons in the Caribbean? This article stems from a larger project which strives to answer such questions, exploring the culture of Britons, whose minority position and distance from southeastern England placed their identity and allegiance at risk, examining ways in which the settlers of the Atlantic periphery sought to appeal to, participate in, and sometimes revise conceptions of Britishness emanating from the metropolitan center of London. Building on recent challenges to the definition of Britain as a nation bound in opposition to foreign others, this research stresses that identities are multilayered and fluid, while still striving to point to the existence of concrete ties that bound together some Britons and excluded others. (3)

One such crucial tie was a particular vision of proper gender roles and family relationships that should exist in a British society. In the islands of the Atlantic periphery, an apparent lax sense of morality, strained and broken families, gender imbalances, frequent remarriage, miscegenation, and illegitimate children combined to tarnish the planters' attempts to paint a rosy picture of family life in the Caribbean. In addition to investigating the failure of the settlers to live up to British patriarchal models, the following pages will emphasize the important role women and children played in shaping the images of the islands. Perceptions that the women of the region were debauched and unsexed--having degenerated into the wild, masculine nature of their surroundings--as well as the reportedly wild and rebellious nature of the region's youth, challenged attempts to establish a stable British society. …

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