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Title: Poor Relief and Philanthropy in the British West Indies, 1834–1938
Authors: Johnston, Verone Ayshah
Issue Date: 2021
Publisher: Newcastle University
Abstract: The purpose of this thesis is to examine the relationship between state-organised poor relief and self-help initiatives in the Anglophone Caribbean, from emancipation to 1938 through three key areas: examining the evolution of British poor laws in colonial societies; analysing applications made by paupers for relief; and charting the development of black-organised charity, social work and mutual aid. The establishment of laws for the relief of the poor shows us what theoretical concerns were being tackled, as laws conceptualised in Britain for Britain were translocated to her West Indian colonies which had no experience of administering poor relief prior to emancipation in 1834. The evolution of colonial poor relief reveals conflicts between the interests of the planter oligarchy, the clergy and evangelical organisations, and British metropolitan interests represented by the governor. These discussions provide a foundation upon which to situate what is essentially a study of pauper agency. The thesis presents the common survival strategies employed by all classes of persons designated poor, from rural labourers to urban professionals. How did they endeavour to maintain family cohesion and support one another in the face of extreme and pervasive poverty? How did their actions refute elite moral judgements upon their racial characteristics and personal interrelationships, and in what ways does the evidence challenge the officially stated causes of poverty, illness and mortality? From basic sharing of food, to pooling savings, to establishing friendly societies and lodges, the activities of the poorer classes reveal how they understood their position as black colonial subjects and how they utilised the trappings of empire, patriotism and Christian respectability to their advantage, while retaining African traditions out of which they developed a uniquely Caribbean culture and identity. Scholarship on the lives of the poor in the colonial West Indies has increasingly been concerned with the extent to which the people were able to exercise agency – tools and strategies with which they might resist imperial policies and practices and carve out their own paths in life. The reason for this interest in uncovering agency is the paucity of literature in archives produced by the poor or about their lived experiences, meaning that other methods are needed to ‘speak’ those silences. Scholars have therefore focused on different areas in which to evidence people’s attempts to maintain autonomy, such as through encounters with the judiciary, petitions to government, and non-compliance with state-sponsored services such as education and health. Presenting letters written by paupers seeking relief goes some way towards addressing the hiatus of first hand accounts and allows a more direct window onto the feelings, interests and strategies of the poor. Alongside the poor, women have suffered a similar silence in archives, yet not only were the majority of poor relief applicants female, but women also outnumbered men as members of friendly societies. Furthermore, black women in the 1930s assumed the role of unpaid social workers establishing children’s homes, training facilities and pressure groups to effect change at the government level. Thus, the role of women in the development of the politics of self-determination cannot be ignored. The study concludes that one hundred years of parish poor relief never went beyond addressing the manifestations of poverty, rather than its root causes. The real impetus came from the working classes themselves, who, aided by contact with the outside world principally through migrations and trans-regional benevolent and fraternal societies, were able to maintain economic survival and social cohesion, and work collaboratively to raise the standard of living, improve educational and employment opportunities and lobby for change. Their organisational structures supported the emergence of trade unions and political activism. Hence, alongside petitions to government and the judiciary, poor relief is established as an arena of resistance to hegemony.
Description: Ph. D. Thesis.
Appears in Collections:School of History, Classics and Archaeology

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