Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"Drunk and Disorderly": Alcoholism and the Search for "Morality" in Jamaica, 1865-1920

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"Drunk and Disorderly": Alcoholism and the Search for "Morality" in Jamaica, 1865-1920

Article excerpt


Both in Britain and its colonies overseas, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a concerted campaign by moral reformers to curb the "vice" of alcoholic consumption and the drunkenness that often resulted from excess drinking.1 These reformers, mainly from the middle class, subscribed to a temperance movement whose ideology equated sobriety with decency and social respectability. Although the temperance movement may have originated in the United States early in the nineteenth century, its spread to and embrace by Britain's burgeoning bourgeoisie fitted well with their Victorian concepts of morality which they intended to proselytise throughout the empire. This new morality emphasised notions of self-constraint, individual responsibility, and "sober" reflection that were essentially parts of a body of social virtues that would promote self-improvement. According to Craig Heron:

Temperance had become a cornerstone of emerging middle-class identities through which . . . growing numbers of professionals, businessmen, whitecollar workers, master artisans, and their families differentiated themselves in various ways from the rougher elements of the manual workers below them and the decadent aristocracy above. ... Its members were not simply creating a narrow class culture, as the older aristocracy had done. The middling classes' promotion of and support for this ideology of self-improvement became part of a hegemonic way of viewing the world, an approach intended to suffuse the whole social and economic structure and influence its development.2

In Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, that campaign was part of a broader mission to "civilize" the people and tended to focus largely, though not exclusively, on the poorer non- White classes, and was therefore to some degree racialized. This campaign reached a crescendo at the turn of the twentieth century. This article will examine the methods by which this antidrinking campaign was conducted, the major players, and its consequences. It will argue that despite a growing recognition of the harmfulness of excessive alcoholic consumption, Jamaicans of all classes were not prepared to be dictated to by a cultural minority whose agenda seemed to be aimed at depriving them of every avenue of pleasure that did not conform to their "superior" imported moral code. In the end, the campaign to curb drinking would fail.

Growing Problem of Intemperance

Some contemporary commentators believed that before the 1870s, the Jamaican people displayed great sobriety and that intemperance was not "a prevalent vice".3 Indeed, in 1873 Methodist missionary Samuel Smyth commented that "One might live a whole year in some localities and never see a drunken man." But even then he observed that "drinking habits are being formed and rum drinking to intoxication is on the increase".4 That Jamaicans, who had been engaged for more than two centuries in the manufacture of rum, should have been characterized almost as teetotallers would mark them as unique in the post-emancipation Caribbean. To a large degree, this perception of sobriety was chimerical, and was due mainly to a dearth of public bars and rum shops where ordinary Jamaicans could go to drink.

Most drinking, therefore, was done "in one's own house" or at friends. According to the Jamaica Post, this "home-drinking" was carried on "to an extent little known, and the curse accompanying it is beyond description". Because it occurred out of the public view, it was difficult to discern or gauge its extent.5 However, already by the 1870s the "problem" of excessive drinking was sufficiently noticeable to lead some concerned individuals to begin forming temperance societies to combat it (see below). When rum shops, taverns and other drinking establishments started to proliferate in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the issue of alcoholism and drunkenness became a matter of serious public concern. …

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