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

Setting the agenda for a royal commission: London, 1938

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Setting the agenda for a royal commission: London, 1938

The grim panorama of threats these men and women saw around them only got worse as the 1930s wore on. Global commodity crisis battered the Caribbean islands, triply hit as exports collapsed, remittances from abroad dried up, and emigrés poured home.29 A wave of strikes and riots shook British West Indian ports and plantations from 1934 to 1939, focusing metropolitan attention on an aging set of colonies Britain often seemed to want to forget.

As the Colonial Office considered convoking a royal commission to enquire into the causes of unrest, in-house analyses focused squarely on the political and the economic, treating “native workers” as rational economic actors with no reference to cultural particularities or stages of "racial" or moral development. In internal documents, Colonial Office staff pointed to the pernicious conservatism of local elites, the low standard of government efficiency, the drop in agricultural exports in the current world economy, and the consequences of all the preceding: “wages are generally low; unemployment is in places serious; and housing and sanitary conditions leave much to be desired.”30 Compared to the onslaught of diagnoses that would follow, the lack of attention to color, culture, personality, sex, or social life among the impoverished majority was striking.

Yet in the British empire more broadly a “maternalist moment” was underway, one that would steer attention toward all of these things. Decades of effort by imperially minded British women professionals had successfully heightened both their own standing and the perceived salience of “women’s issues”—child-rearing, gender relations, family structure—to imperial governance.31 Women had staked a claim to specialized expertise and gone some way towards convincing officials of its value. The elevation of “Child Welfare,” the “African Child,” and the “Traffic in Women and Children” in League of Nations initiatives both indexed their success and sped it along.32

The shift did not begin in Whitehall, but it was felt there. When the Colonial Development Public Health Advisory Committee was established in 1930, conveners explicitly sought to include “woman members” who would be “specially qualified to advise, from the woman’s point of view, on the matters referred to the committee.” The first invited was Lady Wilson, wife of Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies Sir Samuel Wilson, on the grounds of her “personal experience in this work in several areas of the West Indies, West Africa and East Africa,” including “wide knowledge of the Infant and Child Welfare Services and the Nursing Services of the tropical colonies.” (Her husband responded on her behalf that she would be happy to serve). The second was Dr. Mary Blacklock of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, “formerly of Sierra Leone, who has had both Indian and African experience.”33 Social hygiene crusader Sybil Neville-Rolfe was eventually appointed as well, for a total of three women on the ten-person committee. Not coincidentally, the committee’s eventual report underlined that medical teams sent to the colonies should include “women specialists,” who would take responsibility for education regarding “maternal and child health” and “maternity and child welfare.”34 At the committee’s behest, Dr. Mary Blacklock then prepared a report on "Certain Aspects of the Welfare of Women and Children in the Colonies." Yet there were limits on what imperial administrators wanted to hear. With its frank criticism of the status quo and its obsessive (some said) insistence on the linked needs for European women professionals and education for native women, Blacklock’s report would not be circulated to the colonial staffs who were its intended audience until 1942, and then only in partial form.35

Nevertheless, the linkage between female input and colonial social issues had been solidified. At a minimum, the need for the appearance of attention to such issues was now beyond question. “By the late 1930s,” historian Susan Pederson confirms, “officials had learnt that they could best defend imperialism in a democratic age by appropriating a rhetoric of social progress—of which this new commitment to child welfare formed just one, but not an insignificant, part.”36 Thus, as soon as the Prime Minister declared in 1938 that a royal commission of inquiry would be convened to “investigate social and economic conditions” in the British Caribbean, the Colonial Office began to search out a “woman educator” and “lady doctor” to include.37

Five women educators turned down invitations to serve on the WIRC (at least one because the Colonial Office could offer her no job option in civil service if she gave up her teaching post to serve). Ultimately officials had to cast the net more widely, appointing Dame Rachel Crowdy, recently Chief of the Department of Social Questions and Opium Traffic in the League of Nations: highest ranking woman at the League, and not coincidentally, international child welfare activist.38 A report of the League’s Advisory Child Welfare Committee, co-chaired by Crowdy in 1927, enunciated that body’s vision. It coincided with the interwar British West Indian activists, above, in viewing children’s needs as race-blind and universal. Parenting mattered to all children, and in all cases included spiritual, emotional, and social as well as hygienic, nutritional, and educational dimensions. As assessors summed up Crowdy’s committee’s vision, “The child is to be dealt with as a young human creature […] as a growing person to whom many agencies must contribute, to whom the physical and moral nurture of good and wise parents are the first essential (and for whose lack Society must provide), for whom education, recreation, social protection, the inculcation of true ideals of behavior, are rightfully due.39 As we shall see, this vision would shape not only Crowdy’s own inquiries as part of the WIRC, but that body’s emergent treatment of culture and character more broadly.

The search for a lady doctor for the WIRC was straightforward: the Colonial Office sought the opinion of their Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. A. J. R. O’Brien, who was “not at first too enthusiastic, but if we are to have a lady doctor on the Commission, he would definitely recommend Dr. Blacklock.”40 The lady commissioners (as they were routinely tagged) did not disappoint. Within days of accepting, Dr. Mary Blacklock wrote to the WIRC’s secretary asking for secondary readings to take on holiday, in order to get a jump on the issues. She was particularly desirous of materials “bearing not on the economic conditions of the West Indies, but rather on the social side,” she underlined.41

Before departing on their fact-finding mission, the WIRC held hearings in London. The commissioners received unsolicited letters from people ranging from an aging Marcus Garvey to a very young W. Arthur Lewis, from minor planters’ spinster sisters and resentful former bookkeepers to a Miss Rosenbloom, London hatmaker, who reported that she met many West Indians buying hats to take home to the islands, that no people in the Empire were more loyal, and that she was eager to tell the commissioners all about it.42 All letters considered of possible interest were circulated to all commissioners, who then decided whether to invite the author to testify in person.

Unsolicited memoranda covered every topic under the Caribbean sun. The most disparate submissions often coincided in mentioning issues of sex and childbearing, sometimes at length. While ideologies of race and gender always echoed in such discussions, there was no simple correspondence between the writer’s own race and gender and the politics of the intervention he or she urged. J. A. Brown wrote to denounce “a social evil” which in his view trumped all else: “Ignoring that item while attempting to ameliorate all other conditions among the labouring classes there, would have the effect of retarding greatly the benefits to be derived from any readjustments.” The evil? The age of consent, which left girls of fourteen vulnerable to “the vile intrigues of unscrupulous men.”43 Brown described families’ pain and societal consequences in detail, and promised society-wide benefits if pregnancy out of wedlock were checked: “A greater number of children would have fathers to be responsible for them until they reach maturity. They would get a better start in life. All taken together would be effective in raising the social and economic standard from its present appallingly low level, and better citizens would be affected in the future.”44 In referring to this “long needed social reform among my people,” Brown was likely signaling his status as a Jamaican of color more educated than those whose frailties he explained: certainly, that was the connotation the phrase “my people” carried in private discussion in the era. The letter as a whole, with its paen to responsible paternity and the training of future citizens, echoes the British Caribbean community-level discourse detailed above.

Meanwhile, one Hilda Pierce, “recently returned” from Jamaica, where she had served “as organizing secretary for the Mothers’ Union” (a worldwide effort of the Anglican Church to support Christian family life) offered a different and broader agenda. Her letter too focused on the welfare of children and young women, yet highlighted laboring rather than sexual exploitation. She urged inquiry into child fostering, the hours and conditions of shop assistants, “the conditions under which banana boats are loaded” (this was women’s work on the island), housing conditions, and workmen’s compensation. “I believe the Jamaican peasant only wants a fair chance,” she concluded, with far more confidence in West Indian men that J.A. Brown had expressed.45

British journalist and Fabian socialist Harold Stannard, whose 1938 reporting on poverty and official incompetence had deeply embarrassed the Colonial Office, advocated constitutional changes toward broad suffrage and self-rule. Stannard’s memorandum ranged widely, but it too described serial unions and lack of paternal support for illegitimate children as grave problems. Where Brown had urged compulsion toward marriage, Stannard suggested the opposite: acknowledgment of vernacular practice. Recognizing common law marriage and creating a divorce registry would “at least […] give the women the beginnings of a definite social status [...]. The servile quality which still attaches to West Indian life is rooted in the system which makes women the chattels of men, and so long as that system endures, neither housing nor education nor economic reform will prove effective. Unless social conditions foster a true and sturdy family life, all plans of betterment will lack foundation.”46

The range of letters and testimonies received by the WIRC confirms that by the late 1930s denunciations of difficulties of child-rearing within a system of serial coupling came from across the social and political spectrum, from individuals of every ancestry, from people who promoted the cause of black self-rule as well those who opposed it. There was no simple correspondence along these various dimensions. Some of the strongest moral condemnations came from islanders of color, while some more materialist readings, attributing domestic arrangements to policy-induced poverty rather than predatory masculinity, came from English observers. Concern over Afro-Caribbean domestic arrangements, as quantified by illegitimacy rates and as manifest in the difficult lives of women and children, was a rare common denominator within the highly polarized debates over British Caribbean crisis.47

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