Skip main navigation

Black childhood in the post-emancipation era

In this video, Dr Shani Roper of UWI explains what Black childhoods were like in the Post-emancipation era.
SHANI ROPER: We’re going to think about childhood after the 1838, and childhood after 1838– and remember we’re thinking specifically about Black childhood, because white childhood looks different. So when we think about Black childhood in the Caribbean after 1838 and we’re thinking about the gross majority, the mass of the population, which would have been employed in unskilled labour, the relationship between childhood and work is deeply intertwined. And we want to think about the fact that these economies are economies that are dependent on people working. I remember that what I said before that former planters or former enslavers are very preoccupied with getting access to children’s labour.
So what you have happening is that parents, Black parents, actually decided that their children would not work outside the home. Now this varies according to island, right? If you have islands like Jamaica, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, where there is a strong peasant economy, and the peasant economy determines the food security of the country, then they are less likely to import food and more bodies get employed in it, because it’s a sustainable way to live.
In contrast, in islands like Antigua and Barbados where all the fertile land is grounded in maintaining the sugar economy, what you find happening is that children are constantly working in the fields and that their salaries that they earn, which were significantly less than what an adult would earn, is their salaries actually contributed to the sustainability of the family unit. And I wanted to think of families as diverse structures, not specifically a mother, father, and children, but rather a kinship network which may or may not be tied by blood.
So we know for a fact, for example, that formerly enslaved persons at the point of freedom actually adopted children who became orphaned because either their parents died at the point of emancipation and so and so. Family structures in the Caribbean, especially Black family structures in this process, in this period, are very diverse, and your family could be more than your blood relative.
These are diverse structures, and people decided that their children are going to work close to home. They are not going to be apprenticed to some planter, but they’re going to be an integral part of the family unit. Now how do you think the planter class reacted to this? And I’m using planter class to include white merchants or people of colour who were extremely wealthy that are part of the founders and maintainers of the plantation economy. So how do you think that they would have reacted? Of course they didn’t like it. So they found other ways to access children. And the one way to do that is through the education system and this idea of industrial education.
It’s a term that is used very broadly in Europe in studies of childhood, and very often it refers to learning a skill and working in the Industrial Revolution or components of the Industrial Revolution. In the Caribbean, and in Africa when it gets used much later for British colonies on the continent of Africa, it really refers to agricultural work. The whole idea that you will keep working in the fields to sustain the economy. Now, they were using education as a battleground. It wasn’t really working. And so what we have happening is that– but they still coin this narrative about the inadequacy of the Black family.
And within that narrative, they targeted Black boys, more specifically juvenile delinquents, another term that comes out of the reformatory movement in the United Kingdom in the 1850s. And a delinquent is the Black boy in the urban setting who is not employed in any clear work, and this really is used very broadly. So a delinquent could be anybody from as young as five years old up to 14 or 16 years. And really and truly the state became very preoccupied with taking children off the streets to then put them in industrial schools slash reformatories to do agricultural work. And right up until the 1890s, children were housed in industrial schools in Jamaica, less so in Barbados, somewhat in Antigua.
There’s a school in British Guyana. But when you look, these institutions are really institutions to harness children’s labour to continue to make them a part of the economy. And so by the time you come to 1900, the focus around childhood, Black childhood specifically, is to create the ideal labourer who will work for the sustenance of a agriculture based economy.

Dr Roper continues her discussion on Black childhood in the British Caribbean.

We shift to the nineteenth and early twentieth century to understand the role of a child within the Black family after emancipation and how free Black labourers sought to protect the rights and welfare of their children from authorities.

This article is from the free online

History of Slavery in the British Caribbean

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education