Transient Women of the Southern Caribbean 1790-1820
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Transient Women of the Southern Caribbean 1790-1820

This is an article about free women in the Atlantic world and in particular those in the southern Caribbean between 1790 and 1820. It is a study that points to a greater degree of autonomy for women than existing works have suggested. Furthermore it is a study that unites the southern and northern Atlantic World by focusing on cross-cultural groups, groups which linked all of Europe's empires in the region.1 Decades of struggle for South American Independence sent asylum seekers, many of them women, across the Atlantic world. The lives of a surprising number of these women were characterized by a self-reliant independence and a high degree of mobility. An analysis of what is known of their lives, largely drawn from records kept on Trinidad, gives us an unexpected picture of women in the early-nineteenth-century imperial world. By demonstrating that women had considerable agency when violent disruptions liquefied the seemingly solid, social elements of societies, this article indirectly confirms the insight that it is existing restrictive metropolitan structures that deprive women of agency.2 At the same time, the article demonstrates that this fluidity and the idea of this type of immigrant were not exceptional but very much the norm for several decades in the transatlantic world at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The instability of national boundaries was itself reflected in the ill-defined and haphazard application of the term immigrant or asylum seeker at this time. The word "refugee" was only beginning to emerge as a term applied to fugitives generally from war.3 This article also argues that free women of all classes and ethnicities were far more autonomous than previously has been concluded from studies of white middle-class women in the second half of the century.4 As I shall argue, these individuals moved in and out of empire, often following fortune across a number of empires in a lifetime. These shifts not only allowed women more control over their own destinies, but were a distinguishing feature of much of the Atlantic world. This view is at odds with much work on gender and empire which tends to be dominated by a late-nineteenth-century view of a more stratified empire.5

The reasons for this distortion are twofold. Firstly, the lack of sources which extend beyond those relating to European middle class elites has impeded extensive studies of any group which does not lend itself to research. An important exception to this focus on the middle class white elites has been the work on slave women in the Caribbean.6 Secondly, the concentration on middle class sources as a means of understanding the British Empire in the early-nineteenth century leads to an emphasis on the very narrow section of society that produced this material. The focus by many historians has therefore been not just upon the late-nineteenth century impression of empire, but also upon the white [End Page 476] and middle class inhabitants of imperial space.7 The emergent picture from such studies tends to be one of a polarized world, a world of white middle class women on the one hand and slave women on the other, and yet this polarization is not representative of the fluid nature of large elements of Caribbean society and the face or physical presence that these free, transnational peoples gave to the Caribbean as a whole. The neat, ordered, middle class world, seen from European eyes, with its simplistic racial and class divisions (between elites and slavery for example) does not and cannot provide an accurate picture of the early-nineteenth-century Atlantic World or indeed of the eighteenth century, which was not far removed in either memory or imagination.

More recently, however, there have been significant advances in the field of Atlantic history. David Armitage has recently called for more of what he refers to as "Cis"-Atlantic history: the study of a particular region and how that place relates to and is informed by the wider Atlantic world (21). In many ways then this study responds to that call by not only closing some of...