Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Aged, Decrepit and Destitute: Poor Relief and Health Care in the Bahamas, 1810-1910

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Aged, Decrepit and Destitute: Poor Relief and Health Care in the Bahamas, 1810-1910

Article excerpt

It is generally acknowledged by historians that, in the period following emancipation, British West Indian colonial administrations did not regard health and welfare provision for their newly-freed black populations as a priority.1 Hitherto, parish vestries and voluntary charitable bodies had largely restricted their endeavours to providing for the needs of sick or poor white people. Early institutions like the public hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, and the St Michael parish almshouse in Barbados operated primarily on the basis of racial exclusivity. Occasionally some arrangements might be grudgingly made for members of the free coloured population.2 During the years of enslavement some plantations had at least provided basic hospital facilities, however unsatisfactory these were.3 After 1838, without even that problematic provision, formerly enslaved people were expected largely to fend for themselves. Families now had to accept most of the responsibility for supporting members who were elderly, sick, disabled or otherwise unable to work and contribute to household income.

The relatively sophisticated arrangements for poor relief that had long existed in England, and which were subjected to fundamental reform in 1834, were initially of little more than marginal influence in the Caribbean colonies. There was continued reliance on the ineffective parish and voluntary organizations to provide support to needy individuals and families.4 Where there was some expenditure on welfare services by allegedly cash-strapped colonial governments it was, as in Barbados and Jamaica, suffused with the ideological considerations enshrined in England's new Poor Law. Ideals of enforcement of a work ethic and prevention of dependency were paramount, and material relief could only be directed toward those unable to work due to extreme youth, old age, sickness, or other physical or mental incapacity.5

Despite the colony's relative lack of advancement, centralized poor relief arrangements were initiated quite early in the Bahamas. Indeed, these developments probably stemmed from the islands' particular economic and social circumstances. New Providence was the most important island and its main town Nassau the commercial heart of the colony, containing most of the existing public and administrative infrastructure.6 In comparison, the many scattered islands of the archipelago were economically under-developed. Much of the population was dependent on subsistence farming and on dispersed occupations like sponge fishing, salt extraction, and "wrecking". Plantation-based agriculture was largely absent and certainly much less significant than elsewhere in the British Caribbean.7 As the nineteenth century advanced increasing numbers of people, particularly in the "out-islands", became enmeshed in exploitative economic arrangements characterized by chronic indebtedness. These took the form of the truck, credit and share systems, all of which placed working people at a permanent disadvantage.8 The consequence was perennial poverty, which periodically deteriorated into severe forms of material deprivation.9

Bahamian society was highly polarized socially and racially, with local political power concentrated in the hands of a white merchant elite. Its small House of Assembly in Nassau, which was able to exercise a good deal of political autonomy, tended towards indifference to the needs of most people living in the out-islands.10 However, there was a substantial "poor-white" class present in the Bahamas, concentrated mostly on the island of New Providence. As Cicely Jones has shown in relation to Barbados,11 it was almost certainly the visibility and notoriety of the poor whites' plight that stimulated moves toward the early establishment of facilities for the islands' indigent poor.

From Poorhouse to the New Providence Asylum

The first formal steps to make some provision for the increasing numbers of "infirm, poor and impotent" on the island of New Providence were taken in 1809. …

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