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The Effects of Colonialism on Women of Color in the Caribbean

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Colonialism had very detrimental effects on black women in the Caribbean. The former institutionalized black slavery in the region, which, in turn, resulted in the oppression of black women. During the period of slavery in the Caribbean, black female chattel were usually delegated to sexual labor – wet nursing, slave breeding and prostitution (Kempadoo 5). Such an overly degrading status affirmed the racist misconception that black women were immoral and sexually promiscuous.

Many black women in the Caribbean, however, refused to kowtow to colonialism.

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They used writing as a means of criticizing the negative social impacts of the latter. In the process, the locality’s female writers came up with a form of literature that sought “to (heal communities), to create metaphors of healing (and) to cure the neocolonial fractured psyche” (Wilentz 33-34). Simply put, theirs was a literary genre that served as a tool for political protest and a way of healing the splintered racial identity of the people in the Caribbean (Wilentz 34).

The desire to attain political and economic supremacy prompted many European countries to acquire territories in Asia, Africa and the Americas from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Accounts of explorers such as Marco Polo, Sir Francis Drake and Prince Henry the Navigator led several European monarchs to believe that the aforementioned continents were boundless sources of gold and silver, as well as other raw materials. Thus, many regions throughout the world became divided into various colonies. The Caribbean, for instance, was partitioned among Spain, Great Britain, France and Holland (Sokolow 192).

Spain introduced the plantation system to the Caribbean at the beginning of the 16th century. Although the region did not have gold or silver, its land and climate were suitable for sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane plantations, therefore, ended up being the source of wealth for Spain in the Caribbean. Seeing the huge amount of revenue that Spain generated from sugarcane farming, other European nations started opening their own plantations in the region as well (Fahlbusch, Lochman, Bromiley, Barrett, Mbiti and Pelikan 178).

But the operations of a sugarcane plantation depended heavily on the availability of cheap labor. As exploitation and disease decimated the Indian population of the Caribbean, plantation owners had no other choice but to utilize slave labor. The first slaves from Africa began arriving in Hispaniola in 1505. By the 19th century, there were already at least 9 million Africans that were forcibly brought to the New World (Fahlbusch, Lochman, Bromiley, Barrett, Mbiti and Pelikan 178).

Black slavery was deeply entrenched in Caribbean society – even the church was very much involved in the former. Many clergymen owned slaves, and sugar factories owned by monasteries were run using slave labor. The church treated slaves as its members but failed to defend their rights and even suppressed their culture (Fahlbusch, Lochman, Bromiley, Barrett, Mbiti and Pelikan 178). For example, slaves were denied access to education due to fears that literacy would allow them to read abolitionist books and pamphlets that could inspire them to rebel against their masters.

Black women suffered the most during the era of slavery in the Caribbean. For most European colonizers, slavery meant subjecting blacks to not only to forced labor but to sexual abuse as well. Because slaves were regarded as property and not as persons, white slave owners believed that it was their “right” to have total sexual access to their black chattel. Rape and sexual abuse of female slaves, as well as prostitution and concubinage, were not uncommon in Caribbean society (Kempadoo 5).

Although black slavery in the Caribbean was already formally abolished in 1833, colonialism continued to dominate the region’s societal values. One of the most enduring legacies of colonialism in Caribbean societal values is the mulata stereotype. The mulata referred to the erotic and sexually desirable mixed-raced woman. Although white men found her very attractive, she remained an outcast in white society – the loftiest social position that a mulata could attain was to become a white man’s concubine. (Kempadoo 6). The black origins of the mulata served as a reminder of her shameful status as a slave (Williams 95).

The mulata eventually symbolized the colonial mentality that was very rampant in the post-slavery era Caribbean society. Her desperation to be considered as white reflected the persistent self-doubt, self-hate and feelings of inferiority that blacks in the Caribbean felt due to their past as chattel (Williams 100). Her gender, meanwhile, echoed the racist misconception that black women were immoral and sexually promiscuous. Thus, the mulata created a unique sense of space and awareness for Caribbean women of color in their writings. This stereotype became a venue for them to criticize the damaging effect of colonialism on black women – the mindset that being black was to be poor, uneducated and morally decadent, while being white was to be affluent, chaste, modest and proper.

In this poem, Pellot discussed the black woman’s over-veneration of white skin. For the black woman, having a white complexion meant not only physical beauty but also moral purity. Orange blossoms are often used in wedding ceremonies because they connoted innocence, chastity, eternal love, marriage and fruitfulness. The black woman was so enamored with white skin that she actually thought that akin to the orange blossom, it also symbolized innocence, chastity, eternal love, marriage and fruitfulness.

Such a low regard for black skin was a legacy of the Caribbean’s colonial past – black women were regarded to be immoral and sexually promiscuous, while white women were believed to be chaste and proper. This erroneous principle was so deeply ingrained in Caribbean society that the narrator, as a result, used the prostitute (the proverbial “scarlet woman”) as an allusion to her dark skin. Thus, the narrator’s desire to be white stemmed from the deeper desire to escape the stigma of sexual immorality that was traditionally associated with her black complexion (Williams 102).

Some black women writers in the Caribbean opted to use dark skin as a springboard for the discussion of social issues. In her novel Crick Crack, Monkey (1970), Merle Hodge argued that French colonizers considered blacks in British Jamaica to be “monkeys with their tails cut off” (Rody 107). Simply put, black Jamaicans were “uncivilized” just because they happened to be dark-complexioned. Thus, young black Jamaicans were taught in school that they should be grateful that the French enslaved them, as it was an opportunity for them to become “civilized.”

The novel’s main character, a black schoolgirl named Tee, is a product of such a colonial form of education. Upon learning that her mother had died (“gone to Glory”), Tee’s first reaction was to integrate the event with the lessons that she had learned in school.

Tee’s erroneous belief on where her mother’s soul went after she died reflected the arrogance of the French and the backwardness of the education that they had given to the black Jamaicans. The French were so conceited that they though of France as the earthly counterpart of heaven and themselves as gods who would rescue the blacks from barbarism. Moreover, they imparted to the black Jamaican children the racist misconception that being black meant being guilty of the “sin” of savagery – a wrongdoing which could only be “amended” by occupation and slavery. In the process, even religion ends up being used as a propaganda material to promote, even romanticize, slavery.

Black women writers in the Caribbean had definitely proven that the pen is mightier than the sword. By writing about dark skin and the image of the mulata, they were able to criticize the colonialism that has pervaded the post-slavery era Caribbean society. In addition, they managed to teach their compatriots that the color of their skin did not render them inferior to anybody else. It is their self-imposed inferiority over whites and not the color of their skin that is hindering them from building a progressive society.

Works Cited

  1. Fahlbusch, Erwin, Jan Milic Lochman, Geoffrey William Bromiley, David B. Barrett, John Mbiti, and Jaroslav Jan Pelikan. The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003.
  2. Kempadoo, Kamala. Sun, Sex and Gold: Tourism and Sex Work in the Caribbean. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.
  3. Rody, Caroline. The Daughter’s Return: African-American and Caribbean Women’s Fictions     of History. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2001.
  4. Sokolow, Jayme A. The Great Encounter: Native Peoples and European Settlers in the   Americas, 1492-1800. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2002.
  5. Wilentz, Gay Alden. Healing Narratives: Women Writers Curing Cultural Dis-ease. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  6. Williams, Claudette. Charcoal and Cinnamon: The Politics of Color in Spanish-Caribbean Literature. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Cite this The Effects of Colonialism on Women of Color in the Caribbean

The Effects of Colonialism on Women of Color in the Caribbean. (2016, Sep 20). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-effects-of-colonialism-on-women-of-color-in-the-caribbean/

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