"I Did Not Want to Face the Shame of Exposure": Gender Ideologies and Child Murder in Post-Emancipation Jamaica

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Citation: Henrice Altink (2007) "I Did Not Want to Face the Shame of Exposure": Gender Ideologies and Child Murder in Post-Emancipation Jamaica. Journal of Social History, Volume 41, Number 2 (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1353/jsh.2008.0025
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1353/jsh.2008.0025
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1353/jsh.2008.0025
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): "I Did Not Want to Face the Shame of Exposure": Gender Ideologies and Child Murder in Post-Emancipation Jamaica
Download: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25096483
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) Race (RSS), Jamaica (RSS), Post-emancipation (RSS), Post-colonial studies (RSS), Gender (RSS)


This article focuses on the role of societal views (both intra-community and colonial elite) of motherhood and female sexual behavior as a reason behind the trend of child murder in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Jamaica, specifically between the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 and the island-wide riots of 1938. During this period, around six—almost exclusively lower-class—women per year were charged with concealment of birth (whereby they denied having given birth and discarded the baby) and yet another three per year were charged with infanticide. Altink uses 125 cases of these reported in the Gleaner, Jamaica's largest newspaper, which additionally published 75 court repords that mention that stigma around illigitimacy, poverty, isolation, as well as mental illness were all social causes behind these crimes.

I. Contextual information to understand child murder cases

  • 40% of neonatal deaths were cases of infanticide
    • Of women charged: 41% found guilty, 14% manslaughter, 34% concealment of birth, 11% acquitted
    • Manslaughter and concealment of birth meant a pison sentence between 6 months and 3 years
    • Murder meant death sentence
  • Majority of neonatal deaths were concealment of birth
    • 20% acquittal rate
    • Few women recieved maximum 2 year prison sentence
  • Attitudes towards mothers who committed child-murder were lenient in Jamaica during this period, but still not as lenient as "the mother country"
    • Women found guilty of concealment of birth as well as infanticidy were put on probation
  • Trend of lower-class Afro-Jamaican woan to have a first child in late teens or early twenties in an inforal relationship
    • Often met another man afterwords and formed a more longer lasting relationship that progressed from visiting union (sexual, non-residential), to cohabitation, and finally to marriage.
    • Not due to aversion to marriage but to holding marriage as ideal only to be formed if economic means were secure
  • No sex education in Jamaican schools, so many young women did not know anything about sex leading to pregnancy

II. Reasons for child murder mentioned in editorials, letters, and court reports

  • Economic stress from lack of financial support
    • Underpinned Bastardy Law and other proposals
    • Also lack of good morality, for which education recommended, and harsher punishment
    • After turn of the century, distinction grows between child and adult murder
    • Judges and lawyers assumed being at the second lowest rung of the social ladder attached more value to sexual purity (which was not only incorrect but also diminished the stress and pressure felt by those at the very bottom)
    • Families often knew about, helped, or even directed new mothers to commit child murder
    • It was each pregnancy that a lot of pressure was placed on daughters to only have sex within stable relationships, if not marriage (seen as the ideal)
    • Work was also seen as incompatible with child rearing, also by employers of domestic servants
    • Financial support was very difficult to obtain from fathers, even with some legal measures in place
    • Social isolation was a large factor as well
      • Those without a network of support felt more helpless and unable to bear the burden of raising a child

III. Further reasons grounded in elite vs. non-elite perspectives on motherhood

  • Serious importance attached to childbearing by lower-class African Jamaicans, so many cases were reported by the mothers of the accused
    • Reproduction marked masculinity and femininity in adults
    • Raising a child offered social status gains
  • Shared expectation with colonial elite of mothers to look after children and raise them well, but differed in seeing a shared responsibility with the community and extended family
    • Many stressors and adverse conditions sustained this West African idea such as rural distress which forced mothers to migrate for work
  • Shared ideas of motherhood with colonial elite as not only prime, but also natural duty of women, but colonial elite thought motherhood should follow marriage, where lower-class accepted the reverse.
  • Ideas and values on motherhood show that even accused women who wanted to be mothers may have tried to escape what they saw as a duty to perform beyond their means and abilities

IV. Other reasons: psycho-social stress factors

  • Lack of birth control clinics, abortion and adoption were not a viable option for many as it required assistance from others, preventing women from keeping the pregnancy secret.
  • High risk of death in pregnancy, and high child mortality rate, significantly due to unsanitary conditions during childbirth, malnutrition, and lack of care both postnatal and antenatal
  • Lack of effective childcare meant forced reliance on women in yard and childminders as child welfare didn't take off until after World War I
  • "Active strategies" adopted to alleviate stress such as "affective denial" (knowledge of pregnancy, but denial of any emotional significance of it)
    • Others denied pregnancy in whole
  • Child murder often due to other methods of dealing with unwanted pregnancy were heavily ostracized

V. Overview and comparison to child murder in mordern period Europe

  • Raising children was common among lower-class Afro-Jamaican women, so it was only the most impoverished and vulnerable women that resorted to child murder
  • Most studies on child murder in mordern period have only examined societal norms around female sexuality, locating stigma around illigitimacy as the sole or prie cause
  • Values stigmatizing illigitimacy comes from colonialism, as most West African societies accepted premarital sex
  • Child murder in the modern period can only be understood by looking not only at norms of female sexuality but of motherhood, as well as socio-economic circumstances that allowed or prevented women from measuring to those standards