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

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[This is a post-print of an article published in Atlantic Studies/Global Currents 11, no. 4 (2014): 491-514. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14788810.2014.935638. Submitted for copyediting May 2014.]

Global child-saving, transatlantic maternalism, and the pathologization of Caribbean childhood, 1920s-1940s
Lara Putnam


In a rapid shift between the 1920s and 1940s, British imperial policy went from paying almost no attention to child-rearing among colonized populations to hailing family order among the colonized as essential to economic progress and social stability. The shift resulted from the intersection of processes occurring on three different scales: global scientific and ideological developments, transimperial gendered professionalization, and local social and political struggles. This paper illuminates those multi-scalar dynamics by examining a specific subfield of empire, the British Caribbean.

As riots and general strikes in Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica, and other colonies shook the imperial order in the late 1930s, metropolitan observers discovered the “native” family as the crucial incubator of proper working-class citizens. This article uses British Caribbean newspapers and unpublished Colonial Office correspondence generated by the 1938-39 West India Royal Commission (Moyne Commission) to make visible the global and transatlantic dialogues that brought the “problem” of the Caribbean family to the forefront of policy debate. Although imperial rule would not last, the pathologization of Caribbean parenting would prove painfully persistent.

Keywords: Maternalism, British empire, British West Indies, Caribbean childhood, child-saving, Moyne Commission, West India Royal Commission


The 1940s are recognized as a turning point in academic and policy interest in Caribbean childhood experience. The 1945 report of the West India Royal Commission (a fact-finding mission sent from England in the wake of colonial strikes and riots), the social welfare initiatives of the West Indies Development and Welfare Organization established in response, and major projects funded by the Colonial Social Science Research Council in the 1950s cumulatively articulated the “problem of the Caribbean family” as a defining regional challenge.1 Loose conjugal ties and disorganized family structures—high-profile observers argued—handicapped personality development and hampered educational advance. The particular sufferings of British Caribbean children in this analysis were not merely the result of poverty, but rather crucial contributors to the region’s poverty and political inadequacy.2

It has seemed natural to understand this mid-twentieth-century pathologization of Caribbean childhood as part of a long tradition of white observers’ interest in black reproduction in the Atlantic world. Pursuing emancipation, missionaries paraded images of slave mothers; after emancipation, they made conjugal practice among freedpeople the index of moral advance (or degradation). As the nineteenth century ended, both the proponents and particulars of concern over Afro-Caribbean family practice shifted. New child-saving initiatives championed by local medical authorities (some white newcomers, some local men of color) and staffed by British nurses and local midwives under their supervision, reached out, more or less thoughtfully, to teach hygiene and infant-care to poor black mothers. The missionaries’ campaigns had focused on the moral, the doctors’ on the physical; in each case, they easily reinforced racial stereotypes, and thus shored up hierarchies even as they promised improvements.3

The mid-century focus on Caribbean childhood differed in important ways. First of all, attention centered on the social and social psychological consequences of child-rearing, rather than the moral or the medical. Secondly, different actors and alliances had pushed the issue forward: including, I will show, key leadership from race-conscious black activists and progressive international feminists. And therefore, the fact that the new wave of concern over Caribbean childhood ended up (once again) being fodder for stigmatization of race, class, and gender is particularly ironic. An alliance that sought explicitly to hew to universalist understandings of human development, and to place the interests of poor women and children at its core, proved highly vulnerable to the importation of old hierarchies and replication of old stereotypes.

How this happened is an interesting story in its own right, and also bears broad relevance. For the Caribbean shift did not happen in isolation. It depended on extraregional circuits of travel and expertise, imagery and discourse. Nor was it unique: similar shifts happened elsewhere, within the British empire and beyond. Looking with a microhistorical optic at the emergence of Caribbean parenting as policy concern can thus help us understand the systematic centrality of “family” in the mid-century shift from biological to cultural explanations for collective inequality.

We will find that the articulation of Caribbean parenting as problem reflected the interaction of local, region-wide, trans-Atlantic, and global processes. Key initiatives came not mainly from laboratories or legislatures but from civic activists worldwide. Child-saving spread through spiraling circuits. Scouting moved from Mafeking to Gilwell Park to Panama, lady doctors promoted women’s health from London to Pondicherry to Liverpool, child-slavery fears echoed from Hong Kong to Geneva to Kingston. Yet identical projects could have very different implications when championed from afar versus promoted from within.

By the late 1930s the spiraling of civic activists’ rhetoric and practices from metropoles to colonies and back had made child welfare a common language across multiple sites. This made possible both understandings and misunderstandings, temporary alliances and enduring wounds. Gendered struggles were crucial drivers of the process, as were racial ideologies, albeit in very different ways for colonial and metropolitan actors. Female reformers in Britain and the Caribbean alike used maternalist arguments to claim expertise and political voice. But the rhetoric resounded differently when uttered by Afro-Caribbean activists than when wielded by British "lady doctors" or "woman educators." Unacknowledged divides were integral to the transatlantic debates that brought the “problem” of the Caribbean family to the forefront of colonial policy in the final decades of imperial rule.

In this article I look in depth at the dialogues and debates surrounding the West India Royal Commission of 1938-39, as a window onto that process. A wave of violent strikes and riots rocked the British Caribbean colonies during the straitened years of the late 1930s. The WIRC sought testimony on the territories’ ills from local elites, colonial experts, social reformers, and political leaders. Even as they disagreed over fundamentals like political economy and constitutional reform, interviewees coincided in linking parental inadequacy—poor women’s willingness to bear children that poor men were unable to support—to the colonies’ poverty. The WIRC’s two female members assiduously sought information on the conditions of women and children. They received it from social reformers drawn from the rising black and coloured middle-class and professional stratum whose vision of race-proud self-help had long chastised lower-class sexual looseness and promoted moral education for black youth.4 Thus the question of the lower-class family as social incubator entered into the WIRC’s deliberations and recommendations, and the “problem of the Negro family” assumed a central place in the agenda for “Welfare and Development” moving forward.

The new attention to child development was simultaneously progressive for its day and deeply regressive in its ability to shift attention away from land access, labor rights, and enfranchisement towards matters of individual character. If poor parenting was the root cause of poverty, perhaps the privileged need not give up their privilege after all?

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