Wednesday, April 9, 2008
(photo by Rev. Dr. Qiyamah A. Rahman)
Several individuals inquired about my post on AfroCaribbeans in Costa Rica. While doing research on violence against women in Limon and Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica I ran across the book posted below and have included the excerpt for readers.
Blessings! Rev. Dr. Qiyamah A. Rahman
The Company They Kept
Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870-1960 by Lara Putnam
Copyright (c) 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
The Evolution of Family Practice in Jamaica and Costa Rica
Distant markets and local initiative have long set goods and people in motion around the western edge of the Caribbean Sea. The migrations that accompanied the booms and busts of export agriculture in Limón in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were episodes in a well-established trend. In coming chapters I seek to compare gender roles and kinship practices in Limón between groups and over time. But what are the baseline cultural patterns against which to measure change? Which are the relevant group boundaries? The answers are not self-evident. The story of each people in the region is a Rashomon tale in which the boundaries of embattled identities are revealed to be themselves the results of previous conflicts and past convergences. Claims about racial essence, national character, and cultural divides came to dominate political rhetoric in the region in the twentieth century. Such arguments depended on a willful forgetting of the stories that went before. Diversity, capitalism, and change did not reach the Caribbean shore on an iron locomotive driven by Yankee impresario Minor C. Keith. By the middle of the nineteenth century no population in the region had been untouched by the world market and European expansion—though the terms of the engagement had varied sharply across localities and over time. No polity was ethnically homogeneous—though some nations were more committed to making that claim than others. Even within a single place, among a self-identified people, patterns of gender and kinship defied simple generalization. No model of domestic authority was unquestioned—though domestic hierarchies received stronger official backing in some places than in others. No gender roles were universal—though some individuals had more culturally sanctioned alternatives than others.
The pages that follow offer a tale of two colonies, the island of Jamaica and the province of Costa Rica. I seek to trace evolving patterns in relationships between men and women and families and states. Official interest in popular kinship was frequently non-existent, occasionally intense. In the final years of the eighteenth century imperial agents made unprecedented efforts to engineer family practice in the colonies, as the British Crown tried to stimulate slave populations' natural increase and the Spanish Crown sought to halt racial mixing by putting the weight of law behind a particular definition of family honor. In both cases, such targeted projects had minimal impact. Instead, the most powerful effects of official policies on kinship practice were indirect. Within each society the evolving articulation of economic elites, state institutions, and labor regimes set the terms of popular access to land, credit, and markets. As the structural conditions men and women negotiated in their daily lives changed over the first half of the nineteenth century, so too did the families they created and the role they allotted the state within their family practice.
The Western Caribbean in the Atlantic System
More than 5,000 years ago footpaths and coastal waterways wound from the heart of modern Mexico to the highlands of modern Colombia. Below Lake Nicaragua, in the narrow southern extreme of Mesoamerica, three mountain chains run from northwest to southeast in what is today Costa Rica. By the years 1000 to 1500 c.e. climate, geography, and long-distance ties had shaped three distinct sociolinguistic regions in the area. The Central Region included the temperate highland basin and the valleys leading south to the Pacific coast; Gran Nicoya encompassed the tropical dry forests and savannas of the Pacific lowlands of modern Nicaragua and northwest Costa Rica; Gran Chiriquí spread over the isthmus of Panama and along the rain forests and mangrove swamps of the Caribbean coast well into what is now Nicaragua. Perhaps 400,000 people lived in these three regions combined. Until the 1500s the rise and fall of expansionist empires elsewhere had important cultural repercussions here, but limited political and demographic impact. With the arrival of military-commercial emissaries from the city-states of Castille and Aragon all this would change.
The indigenous polities of Gran Nicoya were "pacified" and distributed as encomienda grants to individual Spaniards in the 1520s and 1530s, those of the Central Region four decades later. This was a land of sparse opportunity from the colonizers' point of view. Descendants of Spanish adventurers who had not ended well eked out an existence in the eastern Central Valley, outside the city of Cartago where colonial officials and wealthy locals clustered. Forced resettlement had combined the tattered remnants of indigenous communities into a handful of pueblos in the Central Valley and central Pacific coast. "Free mulattos and pardos," descended from African slaves who had managed to secure their own or their children's freedom through purchase or manumission, made themselves indispensable in the colonial militias. Mulatto cowboys ran the Pacific plains cattle ranches of Cartago's wealthy. On the alluvial flood plains of Matina on the Caribbean side, African slaves cultivated the cacao groves of absent masters, and perhaps a few trees of their own as well. Indigenous people from the southern mountains were periodically forced to labor on the Matina plantations of well-connected elites. Cacao was sold illegally to Jamaica-based traders for guns, clothing, and African slaves.
As sugar plantations spread from Barbados to Jamaica, Nevis, and the Leeward Isles, more than 300,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Britain's Caribbean possessions in the second half of the seventeenth century. Among West Africans arriving in Jamaica men outnumbered women by roughly three to two. European planters much preferred to purchase male laborers, while regions within West Africa varied widely in their eagerness to export female slaves. There, enslaved women were crucial to production and reproduction alike. Women performed the bulk of agricultural labor, and female slaves were integrated into their owners' households as additional wives or as wives of their owners' male slaves. Jamaican planters' plans for their human chattel were less complex. The vast majority, men and women alike, were put to work in the cane. If to European observers black women's fieldwork seemed proof of their de-sexed nature, on other points West African and European gender assumptions coincided. Technical or supervisory positions were naturally to be filled by men, domestic labor to be performed by women. In theory, under the plantation system slaves were economic inputs, not economic actors. But Jamaican markets came to depend on the economic initiative of the enslaved, who kept the island supplied with "hogs, poultry, fish, corn, fruits, and other commodities." Kinship ties rather than formal institutions guided production, services, and commerce within the slaves' economy.
The customs that shaped sex and succor among West Indian slaves were those reconstituted by bondsmen and women themselves, within confines laid out by overwork, abuse, and early death. Developing kinship forms were shaped by the specific cultural assumptions brought by enslaved men and women; the greater or lesser heterogeneity of the slave population; the pace of arrival of "Salt-water Negroes"; the strictures of plantation size, work regime, and owner's fortunes; and the distance and degree of contact with other plantations or towns. Given the multiple sources of diversity, the broad similarity of kinship patterns developed among Caribbean slaves is striking. Households with more than one co-residential conjugal couple were rare. Only men of particularly high status had multiple wives, usually in separate households. Women typically entered into co-residential unions after the birth of their first or second child. The small size or sex imbalance of some plantations encouraged a commuting family culture, in which travel between locales maintained contact between husbands and wives, parents and children.
The Caribbean islands had become by the end of the eighteenth century "the most valued possessions in the overseas imperial world, 'lying in the very belly of all commerce,' as Carew Reynell so aptly described Jamaica." The booming trade with the island plantations far outshone the entrepït trade with the rimlands. Yet European demand for indigo, cacao, turtle-shell, turtle meat, and sarsaparilla continued to bring traders and collectors to the Caribbean lowlands of Central America. Much of this commerce was controlled by the Miskitu, an expansionist indigenous tribe that came to incorporate large numbers of Africans and their descendants: survivors of a legendary shipwreck, escapees from the Honduran mines, refugees from the growing slave economies of the Western Caribbean islands. Miskitu hunted green turtles (Chelonia mydas) at their feeding grounds southeast of Cape Gracias a Dios and at their nesting grounds at Turtle Bogue, midway between Matina and Bluefields. Local manipulation of imperial rivalries prevented either Spain or England from gaining control of Mosquitia, whose population had grown to 20,000 by 1759. Two and a half centuries after "conquest," colonial rule in southern Mesoamerica remained limited to the central highlands and Pacific plains, with only a handful of guard posts and two small settlements in the vast Caribbean lowlands. This was in spite of the unprecedented numbers of troops and decrees dispatched into the region in the last decades of the eighteenth century as part of a broad effort by the Bourbon monarchs of Spain to make bureaucracy more responsive, tax collection more efficient, trading monopolies more profitable, and colonial borders more secure.
Race and Honor in Late Colonial Costa Rica
For tightened lines of transatlantic authority to be effective it would be necessary to shore up the internal frontiers of colonial society as well. The Spanish American bureaucracy was designed to rest upon a population neatly split among racial categories, which determined legal obligations and privileges and in theory corresponded to economic position. Geographic, occupational, and administrative divides were meant to maintain Indian tributaries, black slaves, and Spanish nobles as stable and distinct social groups. But by the eighteenth century the rapidly growing numbers of castas (people classed by themselves or others as of mixed ancestry) indicated the breakdown of such divides. Booming indigo production around San Salvador drew indigenous workers from their communities of origin. Growing urban economies provided entrepreneurial opportunities for the children and grandchildren of domestic slaves. Intermediate social identities like mestizo and mulatto swelled accordingly, comprising by 1776 the majority within every province of the Kingdom of Guatemala except Guatemala itself. The economic dynamism the Bourbons sought to advance was destroying the social order according to which they meant its fruits to be reaped. Thus the Bourbon state directed its attention to matters of sex and status in the colonies. The Royal Pragmatic of 1778 widened parental control over marriage choice in order to halt the spread of unequal unions that "gravely offend family honour and jeopardize the integrity of the State." Subsequent edicts within the colonies defined precisely which socio-racial groups were subject to consent requirements, thereby delineating those whose couplings were beneath state notice and those who, despite known African ancestry, might have honor to lose.
By 1801 the population of the province of Costa Rica had reached 52,591—which is to say, slightly less than the total number of African slaves imported by Jamaican planters over the previous five years. Contemporaries guessed that 2,500 more indios lived beyond the colony's effective borders, in Talamanca, Bocas del Toro, and Guatuso (the densely forested valley south of the Río San Juan). Census-takers tallied 4,942 Spaniards, 8,281 Indians, 30 blacks, 8,925 mulattos and zambos, and 30,413 ladinos and mestizos. But other documents of the era suggest that in practice racial labels were rarely used to identify social collectives. Rather, the populace was divided into a tiny elite of Spaniards and European immigrants, known as gente noble or gente de bien, and a heterogeneous but culturally converging mass of gente del com£n—common folk. Over the course of four generations the numbers of people claiming mixed racial heritage, when asked, had mushroomed. Mestizos surged from 4 percent of the population in the 1720 census to 58 percent in 1801, a change in racial identification that must have been the result of both widespread extralegal unions and frequent category shifts. This is evident in marriage records from Cartago, for instance, where church unions between mestizo partners went from 18 percent of all marriages in 1738-47 to 78 percent in 1818-22, without a single marriage between a Spaniard and an Indian being registered in the entire period. The growth of the mestizo category seems to have reflected not a late-blooming sexual intimacy between Spaniards and Indians, but the increasing geographic and social integration of certain mulattos, pardos, and indios into white society. "Mestizo," a racial category that was officially sanctioned but not claimed in practice by any social collective, was adopted as a euphemistic reclassification—a sort of de facto, plebeian cédula de gracias al sacar.
The Royal Pragmatic was meant to prevent just this sort of convergence, to shore up the colonial order by making legal marriage the bulwark against racial straying by men and women of pure or near-pure Spanish descent. In Cuba, where plantation slavery was expanding rapidly in just these years, the Pragmatic was indeed used toward this end. But in late-eighteenth-century Costa Rica the nexus of race and production was quite different. When the Pragmatic was issued in 1778, mulattos, zambos, mestizos, and ladinos already outnumbered españoles by 3.7 to one in the province, and a single generation later the figure was nearly eight to one. Poor whites participated alongside those labeled mulattos and mestizos in the settling of the western Central Valley, and all faced a similar panorama of hard toil and insecure land rights. In Cuba the institution of slavery stood between poor whites and the black majority. In Costa Rica self-purchase and informal manumission had reduced the total of slaves to a hundred at most, and race was ever less salient as an axis of difference among the gente del com£n. Conjugal households, not plantations, structured rural production. In the words of one man facing eviction, "I have a cane field, trapiche [cane grinder and boiling house], house, plantains, fruit trees, and cattle . . . all of which I have planted with the sweat of myself and my woman and my children." The male-headed nuclear family the petitioner described was entirely consistent with the kin forms promoted by church and state, and perhaps two-thirds of households were united by the sacrament of marriage.
Peninsular authority in Central America ended with a whimper rather than a shout. Disenchanted with the liberal Cortes governing Spain in the wake of the Napoleonic invasion, and wary of the social unrest accompanying independence movements to the north and south, Guatemalan aristocrats declared the provinces independent in 1821. Absorbed by elite rivalries and struggles for primacy among highland towns, the new national governments of Central America devoted even less attention to the Caribbean lowlands than late colonial officials had. States pressed territorial claims in treaty negotiations with Britain but in practice conceded a British sphere of influence from British Honduras to Greytown (San Juan del Norte). The pre-Columbian Gran Chiriquí had become a land sparsely populated by refugees, entrepreneurs, and survivors. Some, like the Miskitu, had embraced the possibilities offered by European clients and strategic warfare. Others, like the Bribri of Talamanca and the negros de Costa Arriba in Panama, had fled from violence and commerce, abandoning coastal resources for upstream isolation. The African-descended settlers of Matina had worked within the colonial economy, through no choice of their own, and some had prospered. All of these populations had been shaped by the Atlantic system, by European sparring and the slave trade. Their existence as collectives was witness to the opportunities for maneuver offered by the fringes of empire.
Nineteenth-Century Transformations: Jamaica after Slavery
After 1789, antislavery activism in England was given a huge boost by events in French Saint-Domingue, where enslaved African rebels successfully ended European rule of the most profitable colony in the world. The biological reproduction of creole slave populations came to seem the fulcrum of the plantation system's survival, and the black woman as mother became a centerpiece of transatlantic debate. Great Britain outlawed slave traffic by her merchants in 1807. Planters espoused a new paternalism and swore that plantation populations, now free of African troublemakers with their illnesses, barbarisms, and armed rebellions, would accommodatingly reproduce themselves. They did not. Faced with slave owners' failure to improve plantation conditions or stimulate slave populations' natural increase, the British Colonial Office pushed the Amelioration Acts through Parliament in the 1820s, stipulating that "[s]laves should be given religious instruction; marriages and families should be protected; physical coercion, especially whipping, should be controlled if not abolished; and manumission should be encouraged." Planters had long held that abolitionist agitation in Britain and missionary activity in the Indies would destroy the discipline necessary to maintain the plantation system, and they were not wrong. Slave rebellions shook Barbados in 1816, Demerara in 1823, and Jamaica in 1831. The accounts of missionaries who fled to England in the wake of the rebellions' repression helped turn the tide of opinion in favor of immediate abolition.
The same moral vision that inspired abolitionists' struggle against slavery dictated particular plans for its replacement. In the eyes of reformers the establishment of male-headed, nuclear, Christian families among former slaves would be both the means of creating a new working class and the ultimate proof of their crusade's success. But the struggle to define the terms of free labor would sculpt Jamaican families along far different lines. Freedmen seem to have been eager to undertake well-paid work, especially when set by the task, but balked at coercive rental agreements and wages arbitrarily set and intermittently paid. Even graver than black men's refusal to commit their labor power to the estates full time was black women's frequent refusal to work there at all. In the separation of women and children from waged labor the postemancipation family looked rather more like the clergy's idealized bourgeois union than it did the planters' idealized dependent proletariat. Yet women's flight from the estates hardly represented a retreat into godly domesticity. For the next 150 years female higglers would be the mainstay of Jamaican public marketing.
It was through the purchase of land that former slaves found the autonomy to manage their households' labor as they saw fit. Sales and registration of holdings under ten acres soared in the years immediately following abolition, with perhaps 20 percent of the former apprentice population residing on such plots a mere seven years after emancipation. Evidence of the kinship forms that sustained and were sustained by rural Jamaicans is found in "family land," a customary institution created in the generations immediately following abolition. In the kinship system defined by church law and common law, property was inherited along lines set by legal marriage, legitimate birth, primogeniture, and male precedence, or it was sold. In contrast, family land was, in the words of a modern informant, not to be sold; not selling it. If me even dead, it can't sell. Not selling. It's fe the children: all the children." Who counted as "the children" was expansive, for in direct contrast to the British-defined legalities of kinship, family land evolved with bilateral kin reckoning, equivalent male and female access, and entitlement for all recognized (not only legalized) children of corporate members. It is significant that conjugal ties did not establish membership. Life stories of the second generation of Jamaican freewomen describe rural households anchored by mothers and grandmothers in which male mates were valued but not necessarily permanent members. Such unions were not casual—quite the contrary. A co-residential union implied definite obligations, a marriage all the more. Aunty Lou, born 1875, described the proprieties of female labor: "But you coulden expect him a woman an have him husband, fi go dig [yam] hole! . . . Mi sey dem never work for himself. And him have husband! You hear dere now? Him no have no occasion. Dem woulden allow dem fi go work. Dem go a ground and when dem dig food dem carry it go out a market go sell." Tending and marketing provision crops were appropriate activities for a married woman. Digging yam holes or seeking wage employment were not.
Church formalities were selectively incorporated into local practice. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, baptism had increased dramatically among the enslaved, although marriage had not, even among young Christian couples who together brought their children to be baptized. Marriage grew more common after abolition, though less so than missionaries had hoped. From the start of record keeping in the 1870s through the present day, births out of wedlock have accounted for 60 to 70 percent of live births in Jamaica. While disregarding church doctrine on conjugal unions and sex, Jamaicans embraced other possibilities Christian ritual offered. The 1850s and 1860s saw an outpouring of religious enthusiasm with the creation of Revivalism, myalism, and obeah, all of which combined West African and Christian elements. Christian orthodoxy in style of worship and in family practice was ever more closely tied to class position. Like rising merchants and industrialists in Britain two generations before, members of the emerging Coloured middle class sought to make Christian piety and wealth the twin pillars of their claim to political voice.
Thus Jamaican freedmen and women sought both autonomy and advancement. They purchased land for residence and farming and created customary institutions such as family land, which spread the security landownership offered among as many descendants as possible. Smallholders raised crops and animals for market and soon grew the bulk of "minor staple" exports: coffee, ginger, arrowroot, plantains, and allspice. Wage labor when the terms were right was a desirable complement to independent farming, and in the decades after emancipation it was those regions in which land for purchase and estates for employment existed side by side that saw the largest population growth. Yet over the course of the 1850s and 1860s the conditions faced by freedpeople and their sons and daughters steadily worsened. Jamaican sugar had been in trouble for some time. Cuban plantations combining state-of-the-art technology, fertile soils, and enslaved labor surged after the 1780s, and the expansion of British interests eastward meant West Indian planters now competed against cane growers in India, Mauritius, Singapore, Java, and the Philippines as well. Mismanagement and labor struggles in the 1840s and 1850s accelerated the decline of Jamaican sugar. Planters insisted that only with a labor force available on demand—as freedmen and women refused to be—could production recover. The Jamaican government spent roughly ten times as much on the importation of indentured workers in these two decades as it did on education, achieving a net increase in the workforce of perhaps 10 percent. Given plantations' low productivity, indentured labor could not make Jamaican sugar competitive on the world market, but it did manage to drive wage rates well below subsistence levels. The very survival of the Jamaican working class in an era in which an adult male laborer could barely earn enough to feed himself is testimony to the efficiency with which family networks channeled and husbanded disparate resources.
Meanwhile, British officials were ever more sympathetic to planters' insistence that the people's racial nature required a heavy hand. Vagrancy laws were tightened, access to unoccupied lands restricted, and whipping reinstituted for crimes against property. If in spite of it all some freemen and women managed to put together household economies that combined just enough land, just enough produce, and just enough wages to maintain a measure of rural autonomy, others did not. Former estate artisans swelled the ranks of the Kingston poor. Appalled missionaries watched gangs of boys "swear, swagger, and fight, bluster and blaspheme with a volubility and a recklessness such as is most painful to witness," while "hordes of the lowest prostitutes . . . join [the] banks of [black] soldiers, walk with them, laugh with them, jeer and fight with them . . . following these soldiers in their very walks, their breasts, shoulders, and arms exposed and bare." Little could affront bourgeois observers more than the sight of potential workers unwilling to accept the wages of poverty—unless it was the sight of potential wives selling domestic comfort for cash. This was the milieu that would supply the first West Indian recruits for U.S. contractors seeking a tractable labor force for construction projects on the Central American isthmus.
Costa Rica and Coffee
The southernmost and least populous of the United Provinces of Central America in 1823 would be a generation later by far the most prosperous of the region's independent states. Capital accumulated in short-lived mining and dyewood booms was channeled to a new crop, one for which soil, climate, and world market conditions could not have been more favorable: the mildly addictive stimulant coffea arabica. Coffee exports soared from 8,000 quintales in 1840 to 100,000 quintales in 1848. The typical Costa Rican coffee farm in these years covered less than five manzanas (eight and a half acres) of land, densely planted with upward of 1,400 coffee trees. Yet the bulk of exports came from holdings ten times that size. Predictable tensions between smallholder and estate production were evident in plantation owners' complaints about peasants' "'lack of interest' in sustained wage labor." Lacking both inherited institutions of labor coercion and, as yet, the political clout to create them, employers resorted to economic incentives. Average monthly wages rose from 7.5 pesos in 1844 to 15-18 pesos in 1856 and 25-30 pesos by 1870 and still barely mobilized enough workers for harvest. Unable to reduce costs by monopolizing land or labor, local elites dedicated themselves to raising profits by controlling processing and export. The rise of wet-pulp processing in the 1840s consolidated the position of those select few able to build large beneficios (processing mills) and link them to both local suppliers and overseas buyers. In the 1820s and 1830s processed beans were sent by oxcart to the Pacific port of Puntarenas and then shipped to Valparaíso, Chile, for re-export to Europe. Direct shipment to London along the same route began in 1840.
By midcentury food crops and pasture had disappeared entirely from the landscape around San José, replaced by the shiny dark green of row upon row of coffee trees. Cane, cattle, and corn were farmed several days' walk to the west now, in the valleys around the thriving towns of Heredia and Alajuela. There peasant settlers grew food for sale back east and tended young coffee shrubs of their own that would soon bear fruit. Denuncias de tierras baldías (concessions of government land) in the western valleys tended to be large, many over 2,400 acres in the 1830s, the majority 600 acres or more in the 1840s and 1850s. Large claims were often subdivided and portions resold to migrants and potential laborers, whose purchases were made possible by access to credit, including advances against harvests or labor and short- and long-term cash loans. The risks of borrowing were clear in the rashes of foreclosures that accompanied market downturns in 1848-49, 1856-57, 1874-75, and 1884-85. Yet detailed analysis of lending patterns shows not a sharp division between haves and have-nots but rather multiple ties between have-lots, have-somes, and want-mores. "The vast majority of creditors were not wealthy, did not lend large sums, nor did they have more than two or three debtors. . . . Access to borrowing was socially biased, but it was neither an exclusive privilege of the wealthy nor a means for massive expropriation of the poor." Investment in coffee also took the form of deferred consumption in peasant households, especially on the agricultural frontier. Settlers planted coffee seedlings alongside food crops destined for market and got by on wages, crop and cattle sales, and home-grown produce during the three to five years in which the coffee they cultivated yielded nothing at all. Husbands and sons worked part-time for wages throughout the year. In the harvest months wives and daughters joined them picking coffee on nearby estates. Private land titles were increasingly important for such families, both as surety for loans and as a safeguard on the investment that mature coffee shrubs represented.
In Jamaican family land we saw an institution evolved to transmit property along kinship lines quite foreign to those enshrined in law. Among Costa Rican peasant proprietors we see in contrast a broad adherence to both legal principles and legal mechanisms of property transmittal. The poorest families, urban and rural, passed along what goods they had without recourse to the costly legal inheritance system. But for those who claimed title to real property—the majority of country folk by midcentury—use of mortuales (wills) and postmortem inventories was crucial. Spanish jurisprudence held that all legitimate children must receive equal portions of their parents' estate. Nineteenth-century parents followed both the spirit and the letter of equal property division between daughters and sons, often in the form of land, tools, or capital advanced to a child leaving home to form an independent household. Church marriage, household formation, and the start of sexual reproduction increasingly coincided for Costa Rican women. In the Central Valley births out of wedlock dropped rapidly from their late colonial high of around one-third of all births. Where coffee was most established, illegitimacy rates were lowest, holding steady around 10 percent across the second half of the nineteenth century. In contrast, outside of the Central Valley illegitimacy rates were 50 percent or higher, far more typical of Latin America as a whole. Enthusiasm for church marriage was of a piece with the centrality of legitimate inheritance to smallholder life in the coffee regions. In the cities rather different family patterns were emerging, with the proportion of female-headed households (30 to 40 percent) twice as high as in rural villages, and the fraction of female heads who had never married (40 percent) notably higher as well.
While inheritance law as practiced in this period insisted on gender parity, civil and criminal law insisted on male primacy. No one thought male authority could or should be absolute. Husbands were required to administer their wives' property sensibly; to feed, clothe, and house their wives and legitimate children as best they could; and to get their way without using excessive physical force. Male authority was contingent and partial, but when push came to shove husbands and fathers usually found they had the strength of law behind them. And the law, in the form of municipal councils, alcaldes (mayors), courts, and justices of the peace, was rapidly following the coffee frontier across the Central Valley. Judicial records confirm the increasing role of legal forums in domestic disputes.
* * *
Despite their disparate pasts and divergent futures, by the mid-nineteenth century the fertile inland valleys of Costa Rica and Jamaica had arrived at structures of agricultural production with distinct similarities. The great majority of rural people in each country would at some point in their lifetimes hire themselves out for a daily wage, contract themselves by the task, work a neighbor's land in a noncash exchange, and cultivate provisions and export crops on land they claimed as their own. This was true of both men and women in both countries. For a married woman to work for wages other than at harvest time was an insult to her virtue and her husband's virility in both societies, although straitened Jamaican peasants found themselves forced into such a compromise more often than their Costa Rican counterparts. Overall, Jamaican women enjoyed a far wider range of culturally sanctioned economic roles. The higgler who worked her land, marketed its produce, and administered the profits herself had no equivalent in nineteenth-century Costa Rica. On the other hand, elite women in early republican Costa Rica played a variety of public commercial roles that might have raised eyebrows among the Jamaican plantocracy or Coloured bourgeoisie.
In each country plantation owners complained repeatedly about the shortage of laborers, which they correctly linked to the availability of unoccupied land for squatting or colonizing. Of course the difference between squatting and colonizing is not merely in the eye of the beholder but rather in credit and titling policies, and it is here that the differences between the two agrarian regimes come into focus. Jamaican elites sought to mobilize labor through economic coercion at its most heavy-handed, while the colonial state faltered between conflicting commitments to the protection of new Crown subjects and the stability of the plantation system. In Costa Rica coffee planting was shaped from the start by an open frontier and the absence of institutionalized forms of obligatory labor. Costa Rican elites relied on economic incentives rather than direct control, and the national state they dominated was to find in this arrangement a wellspring of ideological and practical support. In the eyes of the emergent Liberal elite, national expansion, both economic and territorial, would depend on the properly channeled initiative of peasant producers. "Poblar es gobernar [To people is to govern]" ran the slogan of the day. This vision underlay the extension of credit and titles and fostered a climate of official support for the family structures assumed to inhere in settler households.
Rates of marriage and illegitimacy may reflect patterns in relationships between men and women. They may also reflect patterns in relationships between families and the state. Where the structure of public power is such that men and women make active use of the courts, we would expect the legal proprieties of kinship to exert a greater pull on popular practice. Rural society in the nineteenth-century Central Valley of Costa Rica displayed a remarkable degree of overlap between church ideals, state legalities, and popular kinship practice. In Jamaica the opposite was true. As men and women from each of these sites traveled to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica they would form families in a variety of ways. The spectrum of domestic and conjugal forms that they created would look quite similar across migrant groups, and quite different from the elite ideologies and legal proprieties of kinship in either of the lands from which they came.