Lucille Mathurin Mair. Source: The Gleaner, Jamaica, January 31, 2009
Lucille Mathurin-Mair, who died on January 29th, 2009 aged 85, was a well respected Jamaican historian, author, teacher, activist and diplomat and sustained a deep commitment to women’s rights and gender equality throughout her life. She was was a co-founder of the Centre for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI). Mair belonged to a generation of women who experienced the transition from colonialism to independence in the West Indies and the enfranchisement of women, including Mair’s own mentor, Elsa Goveia (1925-1980), who supervised her doctoral dissertation completed in 1974. Goveia pioneered the way for other Caribbean women scholars. She was passionate about writing the history of slavery from a Caribbean, as opposed to European, perspective and was appointed the first woman professor at University College of the West Indies ( now the University of the West Indies) at Mona, Jamaica, in 1961.
I first encountered the pioneering work of Goveia and Mair, during the 1970s when I was a student at the University of Waterloo, working on an MA dissertation which ultimately evolved into my book Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1650-1838 (1990). Mair was the first historian to write women into Jamaican history and her publications ‘The Arrivals of Black Women’, published in Jamaica Journal, 1975, and The Rebel Woman in the British West Indies during Slavery (Kingston, 1975: republished, 1995) proved inspirational sources and convinced me that I had chosen the right topic.
Historians with an interest in race, gender and culture in slave and post slave societies, who followed in Mair’s footsteps, including myself, are indebted to her pioneering research into women’s contribution to the development of Jamaican slave society. In her path breaking PhD thesis Mair provided a detailed comparative study of white, ‘brown’ and African slave women providing an innovatory foundation upon which future researchers could build. Her thesis remained unpublished but not unrecognised and thanks to the efforts of Verne Shepherd and Hilary Beckles (now Sir), both professors of history at the University of the West Indies, who sensitively edited the original manuscript in honour of their own debt to her, Mair’s research was finally published in 2006 as A Historical Study of Women in Jamaica, 1655-1844 by the University of the West Indies Press.
In retrospect, Mair’s doctoral research made a major contribution to developments in women’s history that was just emerging in the 1970s. She restored Jamaican women to the island’s history and, made challenged the existing elite, male dominated, colonial Caribbean historiography. Mair revealed the diverse fortunes of female arrivants, white and black, slave and free and the race, class and gender dynamics that emerged with the evolution of slave society. Throughout the study she charts the emergence of gendered class/ race divisions that prioritised whiteness and ensured that in freedom, the white woman remained privileged, the black woman continued to labour, and the mulatto woman retained her higher status but also her ambivalent position as neither white nor black. Mair was the first historian to bring slave women out of the shadows and establish that, far from being passive victims, they employed a raft of resistant strategies and contributed to slave revolts.
Mair’s starting point in charting the enforced migration of African women to Jamaica is resources drawn from their West African cultures of origin that enabled them to survive the ordeal of the sea passage across the Atlantic. These cultural resources enabled the slave woman to negotiate a modus vivendi in a creole society premised on race, class and gender inequalities, power, resistance and collaboration, cruelty and dispossession. In highlighting slave women’s contribution to family and community Mair was also one of the first to challenge the damaging view, dominant in white academic and popular writings up to the 1980s, that slavery emasculated men, promoted promiscuous and unstable relationships between men and women, and resulted in matriarchal family structures.
Lucille Mathurin-Mair was the first academic historian to look at the intersections of gender, race and class as they affected the lives of white, black and mulatto women. Her pioneering research thus opened up new ways of approaching the study of Caribbean slave societies and many aspects of her comprehensive coverage have been developed by those who followed her. Mair’s unpublished dissertation became a ‘classic’ before publication and the published version should rightfully gain official canonical status with other seminal writings by Caribbean scholars. Certainly debates have moved on but the mark of a classic is that it retains value and never becomes dated in the way that lesser works do. Sadly, Mair was in poor health for the last years of her life and her pioneering work was less recognised – I introduced her recently to a young academic working on white women in Jamaica who had no knowledge of her work. Hopefully, her published book will now keep her work and her memory alive and inspire a younger generation students and researchers with an interest in Caribbean history.
Barbara Bush is Emeritus Professor of History at Sheffield Hallam University. She is the author of Imperialism and Postcolonialism (Pearson Education, 2006).