Jamaican Family Search Genealogy Research Library

Extract from book by J. Stewart
"A view of the past and present state of the island of Jamaica..."


       The white inhabitants of Jamaica consist of Creoles, or natives of the country, and Europeans. There may be about three of the former to two of the latter. Formerly there was a marked difference in the habits, manners, and mode of life of those two classes, but that no longer generally exists. The primitive creolian customs and manners are fast disappearing, being superseded by the more polished manners of European life. Even within the last fifteen or twenty years a very considerable improvement has taken place in the state of society here. This is owing in a great measure to the now universally prevailing practice of sending the children of both sexes to Great Britain for their education. All who can afford it must now give their children the benefit of this education. Formerly it was very different ; a creole mother could not think of parting with her offspring-it seemed to her as if it was a parting for ever; neither could she appreciate the advantages or perceive the necessity of removing her child to a distant country to be instructed;-and, accordingly, it was brought up at home, too frequently in ignorance and unlimited indulgence. The advantages of a British education appeared at length so obvious, that parents became anxious that their children should possess them, at whatever hazard, or expense. Thus was laid the foundation of a great improvement in the minds and manners of the more opulent classes. The creole of the old school is now rarely to be met with, except among the lower orders. It has become more the fashion for gentlemen to improve their minds by study, and for ladies to practise the accomplishments peculiar to their sex: conversation has assumed a more refined tone, and the mode of life has become more rational and less dissipated. These improvements are of course chiefly confined to the genteeler families, whose members have had the advantage of a liberal education; though others, who have not had such advantage, have at least made some progress in improvement by an endeavour to emulate their superiors.

      There are obstacles, however, in this country, which must necessarily operate to keep down the state of society far below that improvement of which it would otherwise be capable. These partly grow out and are inseparably connected with a state of slavery. . . [exhibiting] in the females, to say the least of it, an insensibility of human misery, and a cold contemplation of its distresses-qualities little in unison with the female character, of which humanity and compassion should ever form a part, for without these, beauty, wit, and accomplishment would lose half their charms. Such is the power of habit over the heart, that the woman accustomed to the exercise of severity soon loses all the natural softness of her sex. Nothing was more common formerly than for white mistresses not only to order their slaves to be punished, but personally to see that the punishment was duly inflicted! It must, however, in justice to the white females of Jamaica of the present day, be remarked, that such characters are now very rare, except among the most low and ignorant; and the author can with truth say, that he has known ladies who were as kind, attentive, and indulgent to their slaves, as their relative situations would admit. The mistress of a family, where there is a crowd of black and brown servants, has a more difficult and painful duty to perform than can well be conceived; they are often so refractory, vicious, and indolent, that, in managing such a household, she is perhaps, in effect, a greater slave than any of them. There is something in their manner, their behaviour, their language, and, not unfrequently their dress, which, to one not accustomed to such attendants, must appear exceedingly disgusting. To the master, or mistress, whose pride is gratified by a numerous train of slaves around them, who know how to manage them, and who are accustomed to their ways, all this is pleasant enough; but to those who have been used to decent and orderly attendants, who require not the stimulus of the lash, such a barbarous retinue would be intolerable.

       But even if slavery and its attendant abuses did not exist here, no great additional improvement in the state of society could be expected, while the most gross and open licentiousness continues, as at present, to prevail among all ranks of the whites. The males, of course, are here exclusively meant; for, as to the white females, it must be said, to their honour, that they are in general unexceptionably correct in their conduct: so particular are they on this point of character, that the white female who misconducts herself falls instantly, from her grade in society, below even that of the women of colour, in whose vocabulary of virtues chastity has no place. Every unmarried white man, and of every class, has his black or his brown mistress, with whom he lives openly; and of so little consequence is this thought, that his white female friends and relations think it no breach of decorum to visit his house, partake of his hospitality, fondle his children, and converse with his housekeeper [See Glossary]-as if that conduct, which they regarded as disgraceful in their own class, was not so in the female of colour. The example of a few ladies of a juster way of thinking has little weight in discountenancing this levelling sort of familiarity. But the most striking proof of the low estimate of moral and religious obligation here is the fact, that the man who lives in open adultery,-that is, who keeps his brown or black mistress, in the very face of his wife and family and of the community, has generally as much outward respect shown him, and is as much countenanced, visited, and received into company, especially if he be a man of some weight and influence in the community, as if he had been guilty of no breach of decency or dereliction of moral duty! This profligacy is, however, less common than it was formerly; for among the old Creoles, a brown or sable favourite, and sometimes even a haram of these ladies, was considered as an indispensable appendage to the establishment of a married man. In no country, however, are examples of female infidelity more rare than in Jamaica. The wedded fair, with whatever lack of patience she bears the insults of an unfaithful partner, has too lively a sense of the enormity of his crime to resent it by retaliation.

       If a gentleman pays his addresses to a lady, it is not thought necessary, as a homage to her delicacy, to get rid, a priori, of his illicit establishment, nor is the lady so unreasonable as to expect such a sacrifice; the brown lady remains in the house till within a few days of the marriage, and, if she is of an accommodating disposition, even assists in making preparations for the reception of the bride; in which case there may be a tolerable good understanding between them, and the wife may even condescend to take in good part the occasional calls, inquiries, and proffered services of the ex-favourite, and make suitable returns of kindness to her and her children. Nothing is more common than for the brown mistress of a white man to apply to a respectable married lady to become godmother to her female infant,- a request which is not often refused, though the sponsor must be well aware that this child is destined, from the way in which she is brought up, to follow the footsteps of her mother. But it is thought to be only a form, and the kind-hearted white lady could hardly refuse so slight a favour to a decent, well-behaved brown woman, who would consider such refusal as a most grievous affront, for they do not consider the sponsorship of one of their own class as at all desirable or creditable.

       These semi-barbarous customs and practices, as they may well be called, will sufficiently show that this is not the happiest country in the world for a virtuous and well-educated female. The young ladies who are sent early in life to Great Britain to be educated readily perceive this, on their return, and often think with a sigh on the happier and more civilized country they have quitted. This alienation of attachment for their homes, and even their friends, the parents dread as one of the evils of an elegant and accomplished education in England, and not perhaps without reason; for a young lady, so educated, cannot help feeling dissatisfied, and disgusted with many things she sees around her; and, however a sense of duty may dispose her to act, she must see, and be too prone to despise, the inferiority even of her nearest relatives. There are few females, so situated, that would not consider a permission to live in Great Britain, instead of Jamaica, as the greatest boon on earth.

       The white females of the West Indies are generally rather of a more slender form than the European women. Their complexion, which they are peculiarly careful to preserve, is either a pure white or brunette, with but little or none of the bloom of the rose, which, to a stranger, has rather a sickly appearance at first, though that impression gradually wears off. Their features are sweet and regular-their eyes rather expressive than sparkling-their voices soft and pleasing- and their whole air and looks tender, gentle, and feminine. With the appearance of languor and indolence, they are active and animated on occasion, particularly when dancing, an amusement of which they are particularly fond, and in which they display a natural ease, gracefulness, and agility, which surprise and delight a stranger. They are fond of music, and there are few who have not an intuitive taste for it, and fine voices. They are accused of excessive indolence; and outré examples of this are given by those whose object is to exhibit them to ridicule. These exaggerations, like all others of a national description, savour more of caricature than truth. The heat of the climate, joined to the still habits of a sedentary life, naturally beget a languor, listlessness, and disposition to self-indulgence, to which the females of more northern climates are strangers. The daily loll in bed, before dinner, is so gratifying a relaxation, that it has become almost as necessary as their nightly repose.

To sum up, in few words, the character of the creole ladies,.-they are so excessively fond of pleasure and amusements, that they would be glad if the whole texture of human life were formed of nothing else; balls in particular are their great delight: they are averse to whatever requires much mental or bodily exertion, dancing excepted; reading they do not care much about, except to fill up an idle hour; and diligence, industry, and economy, cannot be said to be among the number of their virtues. They are modest and decorous in their behaviour, and, when animated, sprightly and agreeable; they are obliging, generous, and hospitable (the latter virtue may be said to be proverbial of the Creoles of both sexes), and, above all, scrupulously correct, as has been said, in their conduct. In short, they are, on the whole, formed to become affectionate wives, tender mothers, and warm-hearted friends. There is, of course, a great difference in manners and conversation, between the females who have received a genteel education in Great Britain, and those who have not had that advantage. The domestic education of the latter, or rather habits, and the scenes that are perpetually passing before them, have the effect, by giving a peculiar turn to their minds, of rendering them far inferior to their more favoured country-women-unless, indeed, that effect should be counteracted by the care and instruction of a judicious, well-informed mother.

       The low, ignorant Creole men are, generally, indolent, extravagant, unprincipled in their dealings, and depraved in their habits; in the two last of which qualities they are indeed rivalled by many of the Europeans of the same class. But the Creole gentleman, who has received a liberal education in Great Britain, is in no material respect different from the well-educated gentleman of any other country.

       The Europeans who are settled in Jamaica come to it with one invariable view-that of making or mending their fortunes. Some few, after obtaining this end, continue in the island, purchase property, marry, and have families-in short, are domesticated as fixed inhabitants of the country. Such men, attached by a new train of connexions and endearments, seldom desire to return to their native country, to which, and to their relatives there, they become in time perfectly indifferent, and as great strangers as they at one time were to this their second home. Another class continue fixed in the country by less reputable attachments, which have, however, the effect, in time, of weaning them from every hope and wish for home, and of a more happy and respectable course of life. But by far the greater number-certainly not less than four-fifths-fall victims to disease before they have realized a sufficiency; while only a favoured few (perhaps not more than five or six in a hundred) ever return to their native country with a fortune, or competency.

       When Europeans first arrive in the island, they are placed, according to their views, talents, and inclinations, either in the planting line, as book-keepers [See Glossary]; in the mercantile line as clerks; or, if of any profession or trade, in a subordinate situation under others of such profession or trade; till, by proofs of their merit, their industry, and abilities, they obtain more independent and responsible situations. Much of their success depends on the interest and assistance of an able friend or friends, without whom a young man of merit may toil for many years to very little purpose.

       As a great many low uneducated men come to Jamaica from Europe, it is observed, that such characters, when still further brutalized by the wretched habits they fall into here, are more dissolute in their lives, shameful in their excesses, and more unfeeling towards the slaves, than the lowest and most ignorant of the native whites. It is but justice to say, that, at the present day, when a respectable proprietor, or his agent, discovers such characters in his employ, he immediately dismisses them. Formerly men of this description were too common on the plantations; a robust frame, capable of enduring fatigue and hardship, was all that was sought for; education, moral habits, a humane disposition, were qualifications that never were inquired after, nor at all deemed necessary: the most riotous debauchery prevailed on the estates, and excesses were often committed of which a well-regulated mind can form no conception. What sort of managers of the poor slaves such men must have been may easily be conceived. But a great change has happily taken place in the West Indies. Men of this description meet now with no encouragement; the planters in general have become solicitous to procure a better order of men as superintendents on their estates; and it is, at present, by no means unusual to see young men in the planting line who have received the most respectable education, and are of genteel and reputable connexions. But, even with these advantages, men who enter into this line are too prone to contract depraved habits from the example and conversation of those with whom they are too often obliged to associate. They are indeed not in a situation to foster and maintain the principles and opinions in which they have been educated. The Sabbath is as any other day to them-not a day of rest and religious observance, but one made up of a mixture of toil and amusement; and when they look around and see the universal licentiousness that prevails, they are too apt to lose the sense of moral distinctions. Doubtless, too, there is in the very nature of slavery, in its mildest form, something unfavourable to the cultivation of moral feeling. Men may be restrained-and they are here restrained-by very good and well-intentioned laws, from exercising acts of cruelty and oppression on the slaves, but still harsh ideas and arbitrary habits, which may find innumerable petty occasions of venting themselves, grow up, wherever slavery exists, in minds where principle has not taken a deep hold. There are no doubt humane and enlightened men in the West Indies, who do all in their power to render the condition of their slaves as easy and comfortable as it can be made; but it is not every proprietor or agent who deserves this eulogium.

       In the towns a more genteel society is to be found than on the plantations; but the state of morals is much the same;-and, as to the respect paid to religion, it will be sufficient to say, that, with a very few exceptions, the congregations in the churches consist usually of a few white ladies, and a respectable proportion of free people of colour and blacks.

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