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  • Reproducing the British Caribbean: Sex, Gender, and Population Politics after Slavery by Juanita DeBarros
  • Katherine Paugh
Juanita DeBarros. Reproducing the British Caribbean: Sex, Gender, and Population Politics after Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 296 pp. $32.95 (978-1-4696-1605-6).

This fascinating study of the history of reproduction traces efforts by imperial and local government officials and agencies, as well as philanthropic organizations, to tailor the size and health of populations in the British Caribbean colonies to political and economic demands. The book traces an intriguing evolution in the aims of population policy. In the mid-nineteenth century, in the immediate aftermath of the emancipation of enslaved Afro-Caribbeans, many colonial officials and wealthy landowners saw the promotion of reproduction among both Afro-Caribbeans and East Indian indentured laborers as an antidote to the declining profitability of Caribbean plantations. Consequently, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, schemes to promote formal training for midwives emerged alongside philanthropic “baby saving leagues” aimed at promoting hygienic practices among working class mothers. These maternal and child welfare initiatives were initially staffed primarily by white British women. Single women who were older and of “less attractive appearance” were seen as particularly qualified to provide the asexual yet maternalistic care of a “benevolent colonialism” (pp. 96, 100).

By the early twentieth century, however, the growth of pan-Africanism and the rising influence of creole politicians and labor leaders led to the growing involvement of middle class women of color with philanthropic organizations such as the Garveyite Black Cross Nurses. This opportunity to publicly espouse a “maternalist” perspective aimed at racial uplift helped to cement these women’s status in colonial society (p. 123). This focus on racial uplift, ironically, coincided with a growing interest in eugenics among some colonial officials and medical experts during the early twentieth century and the concomitant assertion that reproductive policy should focus on cultivating only the best “stock” while discouraging childbearing among the unworthy. By the mid-1930s, in the context of violent protests that swept through the Caribbean, concerns about overpopulation among Afro-Caribbean workers escalated into a proposal by a government committee in Bermuda for the compulsory sterilization of the parents of illegitimate children. This proposal was bashfully deferred by colonial officials and angrily condemned by radical advocates for the Caribbean working class. Nonetheless, the report of the Moyne commission, a British government inquiry to investigate the causes of protests in the region, emphasized the problems created by overpopulation. De Barros thus skillfully connects the political and economic history of the Caribbean with key shifts in the aims, strategies, and personnel of colonial and imperial organizations focused on shaping reproduction.

The tendency of colonial officials to associate the size and health of Caribbean populations with the effects of moral and sexual vice is also a theme that runs throughout the book. The supposed lack of civilized sexual mores in the Caribbean was, in fact, marshaled by colonial officials at various times to explain both underpopulation and overpopulation. The civilizing mission of British colonialism thus provided a sustained and adaptable rationale for governmental [End Page 157] intervention in Afro-Caribbean reproduction. Disease, too, was frequently seen as a consequence of colonial barbarism with unfortunate consequences for Caribbean populations. DeBarros discusses medical discourses surrounding cholera, hookworm, malaria, and venereal disease, in which the language of hygiene was employed by both colonial officials and London-based experts in tropical medicine to condemn the “racial habits” of Afro-Caribbeans (p. 155). Yet significantly, some Caribbean physicians who gathered at a multiethnic regional conference in 1921 rejected racialized ideas about hygiene, arguing that in fact unsanitary habits in the Caribbean were more attributable to social and working conditions in the region.

Overall, the book focuses on governmental and philanthropic interventions in the Caribbean, and on the perspectives of the colonial officials and medical personnel who carried out these interventions. Through their stories, we catch glimpses of the practices of those working people who were targets of intervention. We hear, for example, of the objections of a public health educator in Guyana to the local practice of giving infants tea in their mothers’ absence, and...


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pp. 157-158
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