Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Jamaica Planter Women and the Challenges of Plantation Management

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Jamaica Planter Women and the Challenges of Plantation Management

Article excerpt


Caribbean Women's History began developing some four decades ago. Since then there has been a growing discourse on the reason for and the approaches necessary to write women into the history texts of the Caribbean. These approaches were part of the continued evolution of the discipline since the early twentieth century.1 The project of writing women into the historical text builds on the premise that there is a need to end the marginalization of women in Caribbean historiography, to move them from the borderlands of history.2 How do we move women from the borderlands of history and centre them in the historical text? The answer as suggested by theorists like Blanca Silvestrini lies in the adjustment of the historical methodology. Silvestrini noted that "historical research methodology [had] begun to change in an effort to accommodate new sources for the study of women's history. Literary works, the fine arts, wills, diaries and letters are shedding new light on some important experiences."3 Bridget Brereton adds to this claim of Silvestrini by asking vital questions as to the value of these sources:

How far can these memoirs, diaries and private letters by women help us to reconstruct the history of the region over the last two centuries? They all permit us to listen to women's voices and women's experiences . . . in contrast to the vast majority of written sources on the post-Colombian Caribbean which have been generated by men . . . they often tell a life-story as the subject herself saw it, emphasising the activities and emotions important to her own lived experiences; they are potentially rich in experiential material.4

In response to these suggestions, this paper uses the source-oriented approach to historical research and writing advocated by these Caribbean historians to further the recovery of women to Caribbean history. The search for women's texts and especially their letters is a continuing attempt to find out the extent to which women's texts have survived as well as to examine what women wrote of their own experiences and by extension about the Caribbean. The research to date indicates that women were interested in and wrote about several aspects of the Caribbean past and bring a different perspective to the understanding of that past. Their letters suggest new themes to explore - from the natural, botanical and ecological history of the Caribbean to the multiple lives lived by women in the Caribbean and their contribution to the shaping of the Caribbean.5

Using the correspondence of four women, the paper discusses women's involvement in the management of plantations in Jamaica during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jannet Hynes wrote from Jamaica to England between 1738 and 1742; Mary Wilson wrote in England in 1738 to 1749; Anna Eliza Elletson, later Lady Chandos wrote to Jamaica from 1775 to 1780 and Martha Bowen's correspondence from Philadelphia covered the period 1834 to 1849. These women had interest in estates in Jamaica and their correspondence with their attorneys or friends and advisors records the challenges encountered as they sought to secure the wealth of their properties. The letters are "rich in experiential material" as it relates to the challenges the women faced as they sought to function out of necessity, in a man's world.

Becoming Owners and Administrators

The women whose experiences are discussed in this paper were thrust into the role of estate administrators because of the death of their husbands. In the context of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Caribbean and Jamaica in particular, Jannet Hynes, Mary Wilson, Anna Eliza Elletson and Martha Bowen broke out of the traditional roles of wives and mothers. As white women, they joined the long list of men who were owners of Caribbean property, either resident or absent. While it is argued that there was an increasing number of women who were planters by the nineteenth century,6 the fact still remains that the traditional histories do not highlight women planters. …

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