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e uropeans living or traveling in the Caribbean during the Age of Revolutions encountered many enterprising women of color. Most were poor hucksters or washerwomen who laundered clothes; others ran shops or market stalls; but some were much richer, owned prosperous businesses, or lived on large estates. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, free women of color dominated the towns and urban spaces. From Bridgetown to Georgetown, St. Pierre to St. George’s, the southern Caribbean was a place of enterprise.¹ Entrepreneurial free women of color represented a serious challenge to white patriarchal power for some, while for others, including many merchants and other white business owners in the towns, such women could be both middling facilitators and business partners.They could just as easily be friends and acquaintances outside the realms of finance, money, and transactions. In this world, a black woman could lend a white friend money for his marriage or request a ship’s captain to take a manumission application to England because it would be cheaper there.² However, this world has been largely hidden by the white people who held a monopoly on the written word. The prominent women of color who grew up in the southern Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century were targets for comments and criticisms at the time, whether these were prompted by fear, loathing, or desire.Being free,colored,and lighter skinned than most people of African descent, such women were designated, in print at least, always as objects. Sexualized free women of color were,by the late eighteenth century,ubiquitous in media from popular songs to whole novels as objects of disdain, and positive images are hard to come by. Objectified, commented on, and criticized,their lives were often caricatured to fit a predetermined mold.The stories that commentators took back to Europe created powerful stereoBars , Brothels, and Business rachael pringle polgreen and rosetta smith chapter two Bars, Brothels, and Business ~ 33 types that have proven remarkably hard for historians to shake. Discounted and belittled, entrepreneurial free women of color were consigned to two broad character types. The first and most prominent was the free colored mistress, a grasping , wily prostitute to power, a concubine to the white male elite. Liberal commentators eagerly recounted tales of procurement in ports and advised newcomers to take up with a free colored mistress. Conservatives, however, were alarmed by the breakdown in the slave order, which they read as creating a moral vacuum. They warned unsuspecting men to be wary of the charms of free colored women, lest a young man’s prospects be destroyed by a domineering, grasping woman whose only ambitions were for herself and her (invariably illegitimate) offspring.³ When the local publisher John Poyer wrote his History of Barbados in 1808,he made specific mention of the accession in 1794 of Governor George Ricketts, who lived at the governor’s mansion with a free woman of color, Betsey Goodwin. He was disgusted that Ricketts should be so enthralled by this “sly and insidious female” and that, at her alleged suggestion, the governor allowed prisoners to go free.⁴ The furor was so great that at the Colonial Office, Lord Portland openly censured the governor.⁵ Poyer thought that Ricketts was setting a dangerous precedent. He argued that since the arrival of Goodwin there had been a visible change in the manners of the free colored people, who had “assumed a rank in the graduated scale of colonial society to which they had been hitherto strangers.” In Poyer’s mind, Ricketts undermined the racial order and threatened the stability of the island. Black prisoners, said Poyer, now “boasted of the impunity which they could obtain through the influence of Betsey Goodwin.”⁶ Even some favorable accounts of free women of color were tinged with threat. John Waller was in Barbados for a year in 1807. In his Voyage in the West Indies,published in 1820,he wrote that “the natives cohabit with people of colour from a very early age and I have observed many instances of them being perfectly captivated by their free coloured mistresses who thus obtain their freedom and that of their children.” While Waller thought he should “bear testimony” to the fundamental “immorality which prevails in this respect ,” he still believed that,but for these casual relationships,these women could be “chaste and virtuous.” He thought that white women through their “apathy” were the most under threat from the influence of free...


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