[This is a post-print of an article published in Atlantic Studies/Global Currents



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Child-saving in the interwar Caribbean: scout troops, women’s pages, and black internationalist uplift


In a sense, colonial observers were just catching up. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, it was Afro-Caribbeans dedicated to “race consciousness”— convinced that “the Negro’s” moral worth and potential was equal to that of any people on earth—who wrote at length of the failings of Afro-descended mothers and fathers. Belief in educability was central to their anti-racist brief. “There is no superior race, nor yet any race forsooth,” insisted a typical letter to the editor: “The Negro’s backwardness is painfully due to his lack of opportunities” and “if given equal privileges and opportunities [the Negro] is second to none in all the arts and sciences of life.”5

This letter reaches us from a British West Indian-run paper in Limón, Costa Rica. The twin gospel of youth uplift and race-based solidarity rang out loudly in the West Indian immigrant communities of the Central American rimlands, where Jamaicans, Barbadians, and other islanders had been drawn by Panama Canal construction and banana expansion decades before. Circum-Caribbean migration spawned a literate, mobile, and savvy working class, sharply aware of contemporary developments among U.S. Afro-Americans and across empire. The Great War, too, saw tens of thousands of young men recruited in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, and Panama for service in the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) in Europe and North Africa, who carried new ideas back to their home islands or on to Panama, Cuba, and Harlem upon return. The voice of the emergent West Indian middle strata—race-conscious, internationally aware, proud colonial subjects but critically aware of the inequities of empire—is particularly easy to trace in these emigrant communities, home by 1930 to some 170,000 island-born sojourners and some 130,000 of their locally born children.6

On islands and rimlands alike, interwar reformers preached community and character-building to protect the next generation in a hostile and changing world. Their vision drew on multiple sources, British child-saving prominent among them. In late-nineteenth-century Great Britain, reformers had sought to rescue working-class children from poor home environments. Concern for child welfare and domestic hygiene inspired concrete programs, increasingly supported with municipal funds in addition to voluntary donations. Home visits for new mothers, midwife training, subsidized milk, and well baby prizes spread across municipalities in a burst of enthusiasm between 1900 and 1910; many of the new policies were codified by the Children’s Act of 1908.7

The imperial context was a crucial driver. The military debacle of the Boer War had fanned fears that Britain’s youth were degenerate or enervated, lacking the vigor empire needed. “The result,” suggests historian Anna Davin, “was a surge of concern about the bearing and rearing of children—the next generation of soldiers and workers—the Imperial race.”8 It is no coincidence that Boer War hero Robert Baden-Powell’s book, Scouting for Boys, published in 1908, attained extraordinary popularity in the British Isles, nor that “Boy Scout” (and later, Girl Guide) troops under Baden-Powell’s leadership burgeoned. As with the public health measures described above, youth recreation was understood simultaneously as a matter of racial prophylaxis and imperial strength. By 1909 more than 130,000 scouts belonged to troops in Great Britain and other troops were being founded rapidly across the empire.9

Caribbean reformers embraced the example of British child-saving even as they recognized that in empire’s reality, their children were last in line for saving. Crusading journalist and BWIR veteran Clennell Wickham informed his fellow Barbadians in 1919 that “statesmen in England” were “clamouring for better education of children so that the men of tomorrow may be better able to discharge their duty not only to themselves but to the state. Except in a comparatively small number of cases, children in England are no longer looked upon as a form of cheap labour but as a great national asset, as tender plants that need the utmost attention at the hands of the state gardener in the interest of future progress.”10 The contrast between this tender cultivation and the colonial government’s approach to Barbadian youth made mockery of the claims to imperial unity. With bitter sarcasm Wickham summed up the colonial government’s message: “More prisons, harsher treatment and less education are the reforms we need, and in process of time Barbados will become the most ‘progressive’ country in the world.”11

If action would not come from without, reformers determined, it would come from within. Scouting boomed in the circum-Caribbean receiving societies, as returning soldiers of the BWIR merged British child-savers’ notions of civic training and physical revitalization with Marcus Garvey’s “Race first” approach to self-help. In the British colonies, early Scout and Guide leaders were almost always white elites or light-skinned bureaucrats. In contrast, rimland troop founders were middle-class or working-class black men, ex-soldiers or their peers, the troops as often sponsored by Garveyite UNIA chapters as Anglican churches.12

Scouting was one piece of a broader a focus on character-building that filled the rimlands’ black-run Anglophone press, all the more so as xenophobic hostility intensified there in the late 1920s and 1930s.13 Internal critique seemed urgent. As one op-ed writer in Panama warned in 1927, “Ninety-nine per cent of the our rising youths are to be found drifting heedlessly, if not hopelessly, in the direction of life’s thundering cataract. […] Ignorance and cupidity hold sway among the vast majority, and the baneful stigma of undiminished race-prejudice continually operates to retard our progress.”14 Extraordinary character was needed to overcome extraordinary prejudice. Would the youth be ready? It would depend on the parenting they received, another contributor underlined in 1927. “Are their parents or guardians, or they themselves, making the right choice between the development of the intellect and of character, on the one hand, of jobs and fine clothing and harmful pleasures, on the other hand?”15

Concern over the future of “our youth” often stressed young women’s sexual vulnerability. A typical letter in Limón’s black press warned in 1931, “Whilst mothers are scandalously gossiping with their neighbors, or otherwise employed; whilst fathers are indeed occupied enjoying drinks of stimulants in some filthy corner, then after exchanging a few hours of thoughtless ideas with their associates, whilst they spend profitless hours over some chess or draft board with boys, their interiors, their children are left to the mercy of ravenous wolves, that are ever ready to destroy them.” As they matured, children needed parental guidance all the more. “Are you really accepting that obligation, and performing it rightly, since you have taken upon yourself that burden of parenthood?”16

As with this article’s portrait of scandalous women and rum-drinking idlers, internal critique could run uncomfortably close to the canards of external racism. But for these child-savers-from-within, problems of black youth deportment were a summons to communal action rather than evidence of biological destiny. “The Negro race wants men of ability therefore we cannot afford to allow promising youths to join the confraternity of non desirables in their deadly march to a dishonourable grave,” insisted a 1930 letter. “How many a waif and a stray have been snatched from the scrap heap of humanity and manufactured into men of renown. Its never too late to try. Had the white race refused to reform their degenerates, their suns would have set long ago.”17 While the condemnation of popular culture could reinforce class divides, in these papers the explicit message was collective responsibility. If black children were on the streets, using vile language and running wild, "Who is responsible for this sad state of affairs?” asked one scout leader in Colón, Panama. “Parents, for the major part, are the responsible agents”—but “then comes every individual who is not doing something in the interest of child welfare work.”18

Rather than leaving the solution of social dangers to individual parents, or awaiting state support that, as Clennell Wickham bitterly noted, never came, interwar activists sought to build community response. In Belize, the Garveyite Black Cross Nurses promoted child welfare innovations from an annual Baby Exhibition to home visits.19 In British Guiana, the Negro Progress Convention embraced a similar agenda, insisting “the future of a race belongs to the children.” As Rhoda Reddock, Anne Macpherson, Juanita De Barros, and Henrice Altink have shown, similar groups led child-focused initiatives across the interwar British West Indies.20

It was not happenstance that speakers at the Negro Progress Convention’s 1931 assembly foregrounded “Women and Social Progress” and “Our Women and Guiana’s Progress.” Within the British Caribbean, just as in Western Europe and North America, new attention to the public impact of child-rearing supported new claims for women’s public voice. Just like Afro-American women in the same years, British Caribbeans cast this maternal mission in raced and gendered terms: the “upliftment” of the Negro race depended on women.21 As one worried to her “Fellow West Indians” via a Panama newspaper, “Our children are rising in such numbers. They must copy the lives we lead. […] It is said a people cannot rise higher than its women, and so the responsibility hangs on us fellow West Indian women to raise the standard by aiming high and living clean lives.”22 While the embrace of gender propriety might sound deeply conservative, for black women to claim ownership of uplift was also inherently radical, as they elbowed aside the white missionaries who had long claimed authority over black people’s moral lives.

Idealization and stigmatization went hand in hand. The claim that proper mothering ensured racial uplift necessarily implied that improper mothering brought ruin. Jamaica-born, Panama-based editor Sidney Young spelled it out in 1927: “A home in which the mother is intelligent and progressive will be a home in which the children are inheritors of every advantage whereby they may become mentally alert, morally clean and industrious. […] Conversely, in the home where the mother is loose, vulgar, shiftless and ignorant, the children will be under every handicap, every disadvantage. Such a home will become but a breeding place for children who are mentally deficient and who lacking proper guidance and care, must grow up into depraved and vicious human beings.”23

If women carried such great responsibility within the home, could they still be excluded from responsibilities outside it? In the greater Caribbean, as in the metropoles in the same years, women’s claim to moral authority as mothers went hand in hand with new claims to an expanded role in public affairs.24 Even the gender-conservative Limon Searchlight declared proudly to readers in 1931 that the modern woman’s “place today is no longer that of a handmaid to man, it is that of being his consort and coworker in those fields of human activity where not merely muscle, but moral force and brain power are the sine qua non.”25 As in the industrialized societies of the north Atlantic, the conviction that women had superior social insight became a central plank of the case for political rights.

Efforts echoed around the region. Propertied women in Trinidad—led, in characteristic maternalist fashion, by social worker Audrey Jeffers and voluntary social service activist Beatrice Greig—fought to secure women’s right to run for Municipal Council.26 When the (elite-run) Port of Spain Gazette editorialized that the “strain and struggle and anxious thought” of a councilor’s existence would be “too heavy a burden” for “mothers and daughters and sisters” to shoulder, the Panama Star and Herald reproduced the editorial in order to agree that the West Indies was not yet “the kind of political soil in which ‘lady statesmen’ may flourish.” Incensed, Panama resident Mrs. Linda Chubb published a letter praising the Trinidadian activists for “their courage in desiring” political posts, a desire that in itself proved “them much in advance of the women of other centers who have not yet begun to ask for such things.”27 She also underlined the distance of Caribbean women’s lives from the romanticized vision the Trinidadian editorialists had invoked. Strain and struggle of governance? What of “those mothers and daughters and sisters employed by governments—that is by men or by a majority of men—in breaking stones on the public highway, or who permit them to be employed in tilling the fields and in loading vessels with coal and bananas!”28 For Chubb, family roles, physical labor, and political desires were all characteristic parts of West Indian women’s experience, and she refused to let others pretend otherwise.

Overall, then, interwar British West Indian community activists at home and abroad had a well-articulated vision of why child-rearing mattered. They understood child welfare as a mission for parents and community alike, involving both men and women in both cases. While their rhetoric of moral probity stigmatized elements of working-class popular culture, they never dropped from view the structural determinants—backbreaking labor, poverty, and racist exclusion—that taxed working-class families’ lives.

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