The driveress and the nurse: Childcare, working children and other work under Caribbean slavery

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This article examines the work of caring for, disciplining, and managing the work of enslaved children in British Caribbean slave societies from the seventeeth to the nineteenth century, drawing particularly on evidence from Jamaica. This work has attracted little but was nevertheless an important part of the society and economy of slavery. The intensity of the work regime of Caribbean plantations created a significant tension between the needs of infants and children for care, on one hand, and the plantation owners’ and managers’ requirement that everyone who could do so work in export crop production, on the other. It became impossible for women to care for their own children while working. In the early years of the Caribbean plantation system, the owners and managers of sugar estates resolved this tension by discouraging births and caring little about enslaved children’s deaths. Rather than rely on women’s reproductive labour in the Caribbean, they exploited women in Africa’s reproductive work in pregnancy and the care of young children to supply their labour needs through the Atlantic slave trade. During the eighteenth century alternative systems for caring for young children and managing the work of older children developed, and were consolidated as abolitionism threatened and then ended the Atlantic slave trade. These systems of childcare and child labour management appeared at a point in world history when they were extremely unusual, possibly unique. They are an aspect of the ‘precocious modernity’ of the Caribbean that has been insufficiently considered thus far.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27–53
Number of pages27
JournalPast & Present: A Journal of Historical Studies
Issue numberSupp 15
Early online date6 Jan 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Jan 2021


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