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



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The WIRC takes its questions to the colonies


Agenda-setting, in the case of a commission of inquiry, is not a metaphor but a concrete process. In the questionnaire that Dame Rachel Crowdy and Dr. Mary Blacklock drew up for pre-circulation to colonies that the WIRC was now about to visit, we can track the way that the concerns raised by British Caribbean activists were translated by these two commissioners. Dr. Blacklock had written to Lord Moyne to underline “the need for the collection of more detailed information about certain social questions, especially with regard to the welfare of women and children.”65 Crowdy pointed out in a letter of her own that these issues were inextricable from others central to the WIRC brief: “As a matter of fact it is extraordinarily difficult to disentangle health, social and labour questions. As far as I can see they overlap all the time.”66 And precisely these tangled issues seemed to draw the most fervent interest from islanders. “I have seen between thirty and forty people of all colours and classes since the Commission met and find that most of them have something useful to say. Many of them are specially interested in Social questions and are proposing to offer evidence before the Commission when it gets to Jamaica, Barbados and St Lucia particularly.”67

The lady commissioners had not been deaf to Marson, Bailey, and others’ accounts of the challenges of West Indian women’s lives. Their questionnaire posited women’s welfare as crucial to children’s welfare, and recognized both women and children as economic actors, living lives shaped by labor conditions as well as conjugal patterns. It began with the headings “General Social Conditions,” “Health” (including questions on maternity and child welfare interventions), “Education,” and “Women’s Welfare.” The latter included questions such as “What is the effect of the looseness of the marriage-tie upon the welfare of women?” as well as questions about women’s organizations, housing for single women workers, conditions of employment for domestic servants, and prostitution. The next heading was “Child Welfare (exclusive of health and education problems),” which unsurprisingly began with “A. The Illegitimate Child,” including questions on prevalence, differential mortality, the “probable main causes of illegitimacy,” the existence or not of “any effective public opinion against the persistence of a high illegitimate birth rate,” the registration of non-married fathers, and the existence child support laws affecting unmarried fathers. This was followed by a subheading on “Child Adoption” that showed West Indian testimonies being read against concerns originating in the East: witnesses’ references to the informal fostering of children as domestic servants had inspired questions seeking out any similarity to the mui tsai system of Hong Kong, the target of vocal feminist and abolitionist dispute in Great Britain and the League of Nations over the preceding two decades.68 Final items covered legislation “for the protection and welfare of children,” arrangements for the destitute child, and “Juvenile Offenders.”

In testimony across the islands, as had been expected by those who appointed them, Crowdy and Blacklock took the lead in questioning witnesses about social conditions, maternal and infant health, children’s labor, women’s work, marriage patterns, and early childbearing. Crucially, they found a receptive cohort of local experts eager to talk about these very themes—often progressive women activists of color, like Audrey Jeffers and the Coterie of Social Workers in Trinidad.69 Even where such activists did not push themselves forward, the lady commissioners’ line of questioning triggered their involvement. Interviewing a government representative about labor conditions in British Honduras, Dame Rachel asked about maternity and child welfare work; in response he “asked two of the foremost social workers in British Honduras to collect information that might be of interest.”70

At times, the focus fed distortions and gaps. Interviewing Sir Murchison Fletcher, former governor of Trinidad who had left amid great controversy over violent strikes and union busting, Dame Rachel asked about training and apprenticeship for boys; Mary Blacklock asked about shopgirls being pushed into prostitution and about brothels.71 Meanwhile, the lady commissioners’ repeated interrogations regarding popular mores seemed to legitimize questions of a more openly regressive tone from other commissioners. Interviewing in camera the former head of a training school for girls in British Guiana, commissioner Percy Mackinnon began: “You rather emphasised [in your written submission] the fact that coloured people lack initiative and enterprise and are not trustworthy. Is that a result of slave mentality, or are they unable to assume responsibility?” This narrow scope of possible explanation—historical pathology or pathological inadequacy?—did not bode well for the Commission’s ultimate findings.72

The importance of local dynamics in generating local interlocutors was underlined when the arrival of the WIRC to Jamaica coincided with a heated public debate over whether birth control should be promoted to mitigate the social consequences of illegitimate birth. Few debating disagreed about those consequences: over-population, poverty, and political unrest. But the debate occasioned complex cross-currents between black women’s efforts to gain leadership within voluntary activism, middle-class women’s struggle for political enfranchisement, and male nationalists’ political positioning. Norman Manley, prominent barrister and emergent political leader, supported birth control, as did black women reformers like Mary Morris Knibb, UNIA leader Maymie Aiken, and Amy Bailey. Clergymen rejected it on moral grounds, while some male Garveyites and other popular leaders denounced it as a plot to restrict the power of the black masses as representative democracy loomed.73 Crowdy and Blacklock followed the debates closely before arrival and on the island.74

The commissioners did not believe themselves to be imposing a focus on illegitimacy. Quite the contrary rings out in Dame Rachel’s question to Norman Manley as to whether the Community Centers proposed in the Jamaica Welfare Ltd.’s memo on rural reconstruction would “do something to reduce the figure of illegitimacy which is always being flung at our heads?”75 And indeed the first pages of Manley’s group’s memorandum of evidence included a long paragraph on “Maternal Inefficiency” (likely penned by wealthy white birth control advocate May Farquharson): “In Jamaica our urban labourers and our peasantry (to less degree) have no home life of which to boast. The highest illegitimacy rate in the world and the extremely high paternal indifference to the fate of their offspring, with lack of home life under the mother’s wing, leads to a maternal indifference of the most appalling kind.” While noting that women’s need to labor for cash meant that “children are looked after by others and there is not enough money to supply proper food, proper cooking or even a proper home,” the report then turned on a dime to a culturalist rather than materialist explanation: “A moment’s consideration of the treatment of the children shows that the real causes lie in a social background of poverty, ignorance, and indifference of the male to the effects of his animal appetite.”76

One journalist in residence in Kingston at the time believed that the commissioners’ encounter with real Jamaicans, and not just Jamaican elites, had an impact. Deciding to “find the reality of evidence for themselves,” the commissioners “took a stroll through the slums of Kingston” and “never really recovered from the shock.” Confronted by “cities of shacks, their lean-to shelters which house whole families […], slums infinitely worse than those in the depressed areas of Britain,” commissioners tackled their inquiry with new vigor.77 Certainly, in Jamaica and later, the commissioners created occasions for populist display, as when (Welsh Labourite) commissioner Morgan Jones asked Norman Manley to assess the suitability of Legislative Council “for the development of social and economic affairs” and Manley responded, “I take the view that no more unsuitable instrument could possibly be devised”—inciting prolonged applause from massed listeners, who only quieted under threat of removal.78

However, in the WIRC’s final report, lodged in December 1939, not only were all “constitutional” questions of governance omitted as outside its remit, but any populist weight the evidence of the colonies’ immiseration might have carried was muted by the culturalist model of poverty that framed it. West Indians were victims of circumstances not wholly, but partially, of their own making. The report fulfilled the Colonial Office’s original intentions, providing cover to push island legislatures to legalize trade unions and demand increased imperial spending.79 But the WIRC did more. Their report’s 500 pages contained brief but indelible descriptions of family practice among, in their words, “a people whose immature minds too often are ruled by their adult bodies.”80

Precisely in line with the agenda that had been traced, the “status of women,” the “lack of family life,” and the “absence of a well-defined programme of social welfare” came in for detailed attention.81 Promoting social work professionalization apparently required stigmatizing its intended beneficiaries. Readers learned that “the best that a child of” a family of ten living in a “hovel” “can hope for is that it will find in its school life and in organised social centres compensation for its home conditions.” In fact, “Only the understanding, help and advice of the trained social worker, known in these homes as friend, could induce the parents to make an effort to improve the lot of their unfortunate children.”82 Colonial elites convinced of the “inefficiency,” “ignorance,” and “indifference” of West Indian mothers and fathers had found their megaphone.

Fearing the documentation of imperial neglect and colonial suffering would be fodder for international criticism, Churchill’s War Cabinet deferred release of the full report. The Colonial Office did announce with fanfare the adoption of several recommendations: most prominently, the creation of a new fund for Development and Welfare in the West Indies. This brought some investment in tangible realms like housing, schools, public health, teacher training, land settlement, and prisons. It also encompassed initiatives aimed at the WIRC recommendations’ more intangible goals: responsible parenting, sexual restraint, community cohesion, self-control.83

Observers took for granted that the report’s attention to women, children, and families bore the stamp of the women commissioners. A letter from the Conference of British Missionary Societies to the Secretary of State for the Colonies pointed to the report’s recognition of “a very distressing feature of social life in the West Indies—the prevalence of illegitimacy,” and tied this issue directly to the commissioners’ support for an expanded role for women. “The Royal Commission, in several places, have put in a plea for a wider sphere for women in public life. There were women serving on the Commission, and some critics have referred to these passages as containing traces of ‘feminism.’” But in fact, “the development of women’s service to women among women is a thing most ardently to be desired,” and the Missionary Societies urged the Comptroller to direct new funds to “women’s organisations which are attempting to strengthen self-respect in women and to promote and maintain the Christian ideal of marriage and the family.”84 As with others from Una Marson to Mary Blacklock, the message was that we (we women missionaries; we educated Jamaican women of color; we medically-trained lady doctors) are the ones who best understand those women and those children. One can accept the speakers’ sincerity and even their insights, and yet still mark the fact that the diagnosis of Caribbean society their claims required put cultural pathology at the center and pushed structural racism out of sight.

Observers at the time praised the modern and even-handed non-racialism of the WIRC report: “the coloured people are treated simply as human beings with no savor, on the one hand, of race prejudice or, at best, condescension or, on the other hand, of sentimentalism.”85 Yet this pretension that the report inhabited a discursive space beyond racism—a pretension shared by the commissioners themselves—was of course inaccurate. The complex politics of who could say what about popular morals, in an era of precarious rule, were recognized in the corridors of Whitehall as they were from Kingston to St. Kitts. One Colonial Office official affirmed in internal correspondence that the WIRC’s criticism of popular immorality had urgently needed voicing, although any governor would have been called a “negrophobe” for doing so.86 With reason.

Black and coloured uplifters had been sounding these notes in the British West Indian press of islands and rimlands alike for over a decade, of course—but they had accompanied their criticism of parental failings among “our people” with a fierce denunciation of U.S. and British institutionalized racism that the WIRC report failed to adopt. Apparently, universalist feminism provided cover enough for white crown representatives to tell black men and women that their own promiscuity was the cause of many of their social and economic complaints.

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