Sexuality, History, and Britain’s Colonial Legacy

Black Woman Series (Photo: Javier Sánchez Salcedo, Flickr).

A recent editorial letter in the Jamaica Gleaner condemning the newspaper’s feature of popular dance-hall artist, Beenie Man, his so-called Babymama, and their supposed illegitimate child on the way, have rightly spawned debate and reproach among readers. From comments of how the Gleaner could permit such misogyny to rejection of a reincarnation of Victorian Era Jamaica, critics bring to the fore the colonial legacy that continues to define Jamaican ideals. The force with which readers challenged the publication resonates with the struggles against British colonial imposition and Afro-Jamaicans’ insistence on setting their own standards for morality, partnership, and family.

British colonizers were guided by the thinking of religious commentators who viewed sexuality with hostility and suspicion. Regarding sex as unclean, religious thinkers defined marriage as the only permissible state in which couples could engage in sexual intercourse, and with the primary purpose of procreating. Although some theologians thought that sensuality was the working of the devil, others argued it was acceptable to engage in moderate sexual activity to quell lust. Religious leaders regulated the frequency, time, and even the position of sexual intercourse.

Everyday practice countered religious prohibitions. Social customs, particularly among the influential elites, required that men bring sexual experience to marriage but demanded virginity in women and that wives ignore their husbands’ sexual wanderings. The practice of recognizing only children born of marriage as legitimate heirs further protected the sexual double standard by ensuring that only a couple’s children held legitimate claims to their father’s property and title. Because fathers had no obligation to maintain children born outside their marriage, disowned children burdened local parishes for poor relief. Local parishes therefore pushed lawmakers to create new legislation to hold fathers accountable for all their children. Women could name their children’s fathers, and the local parishes could compel fathers to pay support for children. Although English poor relief laws intended to provide financial support for children, the connection officials made between poor relief and children born out of wedlock linked pre- and extra- marital sex to social problems, including poverty. Added to assumptions that non-martial sex was sinful, poor children of such unions were doubly stigmatized as illegitimate bastards.

When the English established colonies in the Americas, they brought these attitudes with them. But colonial labor needs and racial attitudes altered the concept of illegitimate children. Colonial concerns about maintaining a stable labor force changed the apprehensions about illegitimate children to ones that revolved around how bearing children diverted women from their work roles. While English laws and customs pertaining to illegitimacy applied to indentured servitude, there were important variations.

Colonial authorities and employers prohibited marriage among indentured servants because they did not want husbands and employers to have competing claims over servant women’s labor. English Common Law regarded married women as their husband’s property and entitled husbands to their wives’ labor and body. Employers also prohibited sex among indentured servants because they would have to bear the cost of pregnancy, delivery, and infant care. Rules regulating servants, including compensation to employers for pregnant servants, reflected colonists’ economic concerns. Employers punished mothers by adding extra time to their service (instead of public repentance as practiced in England). Servant fathers were encouraged to marry their children’s mothers and repay employers and the parish for costs associated with caring for their children.

The most significant evolution in the concept of illegitimate children occurred with the shift toward enslaved Africans to supply colonial labor needs. Labor concerns and racial justifications of slavery altered how colonizers deployed the concept of illegitimacy.

At first, enslaved people’s lifelong bondage made it impossible for enslavers to extend their servitude as compensation for labor lost. Enslaved fathers did not have the independence to earn and compensate parishes and their enslavers the loss of mothers’ labor or support their children financially. Even so, a few enslaved people succeeded in earning money to compensate their enslavers and local parishes, and arranged for their children to be cared for in the household of a free person. Rules about children’s legitimacy changed most significantly in cases where the father was white and the mother enslaved. Instead of the parish assuming responsibility for the child and holding accountable the free white father, the courts assumed masters’ property rights over mothers also extended to their children. Justices placed the onus of their decision-making on the ownership of the child’s mother: owning the mother for life was default compensation for any loss of labor incurred for pregnancy, delivery, and infant care.

As dependence on the enslavement of Africans grew, colonial courts shifted away from using inheritance and bastardy laws to regulate the status of children born of enslaved mothers. Justices turned to animal husbandry and property laws. A 1662 Virginia law decided that children born of enslaved women were also enslaved, regardless of the father’s status. This principle, known as partus sequitur ventrem – offspring follows belly – then regarded enslaved children not as children, illegitimate or otherwise, but rather as chattel, property that automatically belonged to its mother’s enslaver. Read in the context of the many laws that followed the implementation of partus, the shift away from bastard to property paved the way for the exploitation of Black people. Slaveholding legislators tied the reproduction of the slave status to the fertility of African women and their descendants, and gave themselves the power to engage in sexual activity with enslaved women without consequence. Whereas colonizers limited sexual activity among servants because of the financial burdens and social anxieties the resulting children caused, partus nullified such concerns.  Delineating enslaved children as property freed enslavers from the social or economic responsibility for children they fathered with enslaved women. And since children born of enslaved mothers belonged to enslavers, it promised an avenue for increasing enslavers’ property holdings.

Eighteenth century Jamaica’s large population of mixed race children evidences the free access enslavers claimed over enslaved women’s bodies. While most mixed race children were enslaved, a few children fathered by white men claimed their father’s fortunes. In at least a few cases, the so-called illegitimate Black children of white men were the sole heirs to their father’s estate. Even so, it was up to the discretion of white fathers to recognize their mixed race children. Unlike English and servant mothers, enslaved women could not name their children’s fathers. Jamaica’s 1761 moratorium on white fathers bequeathing real and personal property to their mixed race children was a direct response to the growing instability that wealthy free people of color posed to the island’s elites. The exclusion of Blacks from definitions of marriage and family reflects how the concept of illegitimacy evolved as a tool of control that the governing elites used to shape reality according to their social and economic needs. In the case of colonial Jamaica, it reflected the colonizer’s need to maintain a disempowered laboring class.

The coming of Emancipation and Jamaica’s turnabout to include Black children in regulations about illegitimacy illustrates how British colonizers deployed illegitimacy to maintain the racial status quo despite freedom. In the transition from slavery to freedom, the governing elites used the proportion of children born out of wedlock as markers for how civilized the formerly enslaved had become. Like their forbearers, evangelical abolitionists insisted that sexual intimacy should occur only within monogamous marriages, and African peoples supposed natural promiscuity and disregard for monogamy reflected the necessity of training them to become civilized. Abolitionists regarded marriage as the single most important source of social stability because it ensured men and women acted their natural roles: women cared for children and the home, while men provided for and protected women and children. Slavery and Africa’s tropical climate had supposedly disordered these roles. The steady increase in children born out of Christian marriages after emancipation convinced the governing elites, which now included propertied Blacks aspiring toward respectable status, that Jamaica was descending into barbarism. As churches and preachers warned Jamaicans of the great “social evil” and “national sin” of fornication and illegitimate children, public officials sought to remedy the problem through legislation, including marriage laws, bastardy and maintenance laws, and registration laws.

The debates around these laws passed mainly between the 1870s and 1900s brought to the fore the gender, race, and class assumptions that undergirded colonial authorities delineating children as illegitimate. Old debates about women’s morals reemerged. When the Jamaica Assembly attempted to pass the 1860 Bastardy Act to hold fathers responsible for their children, many well-to-do men, including the clergy, opposed it. Denouncing women as the “greatest sinner,” many insisted that women were naturally promiscuous and liars who ruined men’s reputations with seduction and false accusations. Race and class prejudices also became apparent in the calls for promoting marriage as the antidote for such social problems as poverty, vagrancy, and theft that plagued colonial Jamaica. Neglecting to hold accountable members of the elite classes, including former enslavers who opposed new legislation and were the foremost sexual abusers, reformers mounted moral, religious, and legal pressure mainly on the Black and, mostly poor, laboring population.

The history of delineating as illegitimate and bastard children born of unmarried parents is a long one, rooted in the social anxieties and economic goals of the governing classes. As the concept morphed across time, reformers and commentators failed to recognize that Afro-Jamaicans insisted on defining the terms and conditions of their sexual partnership and kinship. Moreover, despite occasional insistence that rules about legitimacy were meant to protect children by holding fathers accountable (which is important and where emphasis should be directed) the debates and legislative framing were more geared toward regulating sex to suit the moral, social, and economic needs of the elites. While it is important to outline the long history of changing ideas about illegitimacy and the purposes such ideas served, other pressing questions arise. Why have debates about illegitimacy reemerged at this specific moment, particularly since almost half a century ago the anti-colonial government of a newly independent Jamaica declared the equality of status of all children regardless of circumstances of birth? Jamaica might have declared political independence from Britain, but ties of colonialism continue to bind.

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Sasha Turner

Sasha Turner is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @drsashaturner.