Antiguans and Barbudans - Marriage and Family



Marriage and Family Structure. Scholars have gone to great lengths to try to explain the high rates of illegitimacy, the prevalence and popularity of three different conjugal forms (visiting unions, concubinage, and legal marriage), and the pervasiveness of female-headed households in the English-speaking Caribbean. Early efforts to explain these patterns centered on slavery; historians argued that bondage made marriage and a stable family life impossible. An alternative perspective suggested that slaves retained vestiges of African polygamy and matrilineal kinship practices. Others have attributed West Indian kinship and household organization to economic factors, particularly persistent poverty, male migration, and other social and demographic factors.

Historical investigations suggest there was never a single type of slave family form in the Caribbean (Higman 1984). As was true throughout the region, Antiguan slaves toiled in different socioeconomic contexts, and these influenced the content and forms of their conjugal and reproductive practices. Slaves on large estates, for example, might have experienced relative stability in their day-to-day lives and had access to a pool of potential conjugal partners on their own and nearby estates. Slaves who labored in towns, in contrast, were more likely to live in mother-child households than were field laborers (pp. 373, 371). The record shows a pattern in which most slaves had a number of partners early in life and later settled into longterm unions with single partners. Certain men of unusual talent, wit, or charisma, however, maintained multiple unions.

Religion and law exerted important influences on the marriage and kinship practices of Antiguans. By the end of the slave trade in 1807, for example, the missions claimed to have converted about 28 percent of the Black and Colored population in Antigua, Saint Kitts, Montserrat, Nevis, and the British Virgin Islands (based on Goveia 1965, 307). Early in the nineteenth century, free colonists, including free persons of color, married in the Anglican church in Saint Johns (Lazarus-Black 1994).

For much of Antigua's early history, there were three separate marriage laws, each corresponding directly to a person's role in the island's division of labor. Free Antiguans, for example, were married by Anglican ministers. These men generally married women of their own social standing in the community, but some also entered into nonlegal unions with women of color. In contrast, "respectable" free women married and refrained from extramarital affairs. Ministers were forbidden by law, however, from performing marriages for slaves or indentured servants unless the latter had permission from their masters. After 1798, a special marriage law, only partially resembling that pertaining to free persons, governed the unions of slaves. A child of a slave marriage was not allowed to take the father's surname or inherit property. The law did provide for a public declaration of a couple's intention to live together, monetary awards from masters for marrying, and a brief ceremony in which the marriage was officially recorded in the estate records. After slavery ended in 1834, there was a single marriage code. Nevertheless, the establishment of families without formal legal confirmation remained commonplace across the social classes.

Domestic Unit. Married couples prefer to live in their own households, although needy relatives and friends are welcomed. If a couple is unmarried and the man is "visiting," the children usually reside with their mother. Kinship and the domestic unit are not coterminous; many children live away from their biological parents, and some children grow up in several different households. Parents make choices about where a child should reside, considering the economy of the household, people's work patterns, the need to care for the elderly, educational opportunities, and the simple fact that a relative may ask for a child to keep from being lonely.

Inheritance. Since 1987 it has been illegal to discriminate against a person because of birth status; a child born out of wedlock may readily be legally acknowledged by his or her father, and any child so recognized can inherit from the father's estate. The islanders usually divide inheritances equally among their children. A married man often remembers his illegitimate children in his will or with a gift made during his lifetime.

Socialization. Children are desired by both men and women, although women have primary responsibility for children's early care. In the past, many children were cared for by female relatives or older siblings. Today day-care centers and preschools are an option. Nevertheless, the extended family remains crucially important in children's socialization.


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