Overcoming the stigma of marriage

The marital rate has always been low among Jamaicans. Most of those who marry either hold membership in some religious institution, usually a Christian congregation, or are part of the middle class.

The latter obtains because marriage is tied to respectability in Jamaican society, or it once was. Therefore, if one belonged to the professional classes such as a teacher or a nurse or a doctor, one would be expected to marry. A female teacher or nurse who got pregnant outside of legal marriage were liable to lose her job, and this obtained even into the 1980s. A professional male was expected to live and behave responsibility, although he could escape punishment for a variety of reasons, none less than greater strictures placed on the behavior of females, and biases in favor of men.

rates of marriage and divorce -jamaicaFor most Jamaicans, though, legal marriage is not the common thing, never hitting 10 per 1,000 in the population. Since 2001, the highest rate of 9.94 per 1,000 occurred in 2013. The highest absolute number of marriages was just under 26,000 in 2005.

Debates have raged as to why the marriage rate is so low. Most point to enslavement as the root cause, but a variety of reasons are offered as to why enslavement is to be blamed.

One very plausible reason was that little or no provision was made for the marriage of enslaved persons. As property, they were not expected to enjoy normal human institutions such as marriage and family. A reason why, for instance, families were separated with children and a partner, even a married partner, often sold off. This was very common in the United States and was the most painful and egregious injury that a slaver could inflict on the enslaved.

After more than 150 years of British colonization, laws allowing the enslaved in Jamaica to marry were not passed until 1826. And this came after some 40 years of lobbying by various groups, such as the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions.

Despite the success of having the law passed in 1826, the abolitionist society was deeply dissatisfied. In a scathing response published in 1828, the critics declared that “no security… has been provided against the unreasonable refusal of the owner’s consent.”

The act was riddled with “many restrictions, and difficulties, and defects, with which even that ungracious recognition has been clogged, and rendered almost wholly inefficient to any useful purpose.” For instance, “the new act would have left him (the enslaved) in the same helpless and unprotected state as to all essential rights of property, in which he was before it was framed.”

Furthermore, “the slave indeed has no rights of self-defense (their emphasis). He dare not raise his hand to or toward a white or free person, even if his property were forcibly taken from him, or his marriage-bed violated, or his own life assailed.”

Only clergy belonging to the Church of England could administer marriage vows, thereby excluding large numbers of enslaved persons who were Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians and Roman Catholics; or of no Christian tradition.

The 1826 law thus restricted marriage to only those persons who were baptized in Church of England congregations, refusing marriage even to those couples with established long term relationships with children. In bitter language, the abolitionists pointed out that “the laws of India sanction Mussulman and Hindoo (sic) marriages. Why should persons, merely because not baptized, be forced to live in a state of illicit concubinage?”

But even in instances where enslaved persons could marry, such marriages may not become part of the official records. “The act does not require any registry of the marriage of slaves, or even any periodical returns of such marriages.”

With so many legal barriers and institutional obstacles put in the pathways of enslaved persons, it is easy to see why they and their descendants have had such little regard and respect for legal marriage.

There are those who attribute the low marriage rate in Jamaica to practices coming out of Africa. In his 2012 doctoral thesis, Bridgelal M. Seenath of Trinidad and Tobago drew a comparison between enslaved persons in Trinidad and Jamaica. He claimed most enslaved persons in Trinidad “came predominantly from the Yoruba tribe in which no form of illegal unions existed” prior to their arrival in the Caribbean. A source he quoted asserted, “To the Yoruba, the primary purpose of marriage is sustaining the Yoruba race through legitimate and responsible procreation. In earliest times great importance was attached to virginity.”

Seenath deduced that “from this form of African heritage, it could be readily assumed that a greater percentage of marriage was practiced in the Trinidadian society among the African descended groups.”

Jamaica was different. “The Ashanti and Akan tribes of West Africa were the dominant groups,” Seenath claimed. In Ashanti and Akan cultures, the “couple cohabited for several years before marriage in an attempt to prove the marriage.” These “cohabitation practices were transferred” to Jamaica. Seenath concluded that “from these linkages it can be seen that cohabitational relationships was indeed an adaption from the African heritage.”

GBMH 5/24:  A country wedding in Jamaica, c1890s.
A Jamaica wedding in the 1890s

The church and common law unions
The church has had a complicated relationship with those who cohabit and are not legally married. Because of the restrictions imposed on enslaved persons in Jamaican law and practice, including reserving the “power” to preside at marriage ceremonies to Anglican clergy, much of the rest of Jamaican Christianity felt obliged to compromise. Enslaved persons were indeed allowed to hold membership, and even leadership in the church, though not legally married. Vivian Panton in his book, The Church and Common-Law Union, said this changed after full emancipation in 1838. Much of the church began to require legal marriage if persons were to be admitted into membership, not to mention leadership, reversing their previous positions.

Panton, a Baptist pastor who became the chaplain for the Jamaica Constabulary Force, suggested that the church in modern Jamaica need to revisit its position on common law unions, the term used to describe persons in long term relationships who are not married. In instances where a partner in a common law union requests baptism and church membership, Panton said the church should bless the union, and baptize and receive such persons on the profession of their faith.

The matter of church membership while living in common law unions is a vexing one. Most times it is the female in the relationship who seeks church membership, and usually it is the male who rejects or postpones legal marriage. Such couples may be cohabiting for years, sometimes decades, bearing and rearing children, acquiring property, etc. But because persons who live together must be legally married if they are to be received into the church, the women get denied. They are left in no man’s land, trapped between the men in their lives who withhold legal marriage, and rejected by the church who says they must have that status to receive or participate in its rites.

Panton said the situation is untenable:

Common-law union should not be viewed as an immoral and irresponsible family pattern as it is generally conceived by the church in Jamaica. It was not produced, it did not develop, and it is not being sustained in a vacuum. Instead, it may be thought of as a social institution, which is rooted in, and has developed from, concrete historical realities.

He asserted that compelling reasons still exist that drive people to live together without being legally married:

At present, it is being sustained by contemporary factors, which are no less real than the historical ones. These factors, themselves, are the result of motives, emotions, and values that are institutionalized in the present culture. Common-law union, therefore, as an integral component of the Jamaican culture, must be viewed as representing the Jamaican peasants equivalence of marriage, except that it has been denied the legal protection, which is provided in a Legal Union.

Eron Henry is author of  Reverend Mother, a novel

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