“They all said that they loved her”: The Kept Woman in the Late Colonial British West Indies, Kaneesha Cherelle Parsard
This paper concerns the figure of the West Indian kept woman, who exchanges companionship and sex for money. C.L.R. James and his contemporaries in the Beacon Group often featured the kept woman in their barrack yard fiction, set in the so-called “slums” of Port of Spain, Trinidad. In these stories, barrack yard dwellers struggle to pay their rent, feed themselves, and to enjoy their leisure time. However, the Beacon writers were ill-equipped to understand the figure that had so attracted them and emerged in their stories. In this chapter, I read against the grain of their representation. To understand the figure of the kept woman, I draw on close readings of barrack yard fiction that represent kept women as well as archival materials that contain discourse about keeping relationships. I focus on the terms of the exchange in these relationships, depictions of sexual encounters and, most importantly, the strategies of the kept woman. Where she appeared in early-twentieth-century West Indian literature, she was always a woman descending both from enslaved Africans and from indentured Indians. As such, she indexes the failure of the plantation to accommodate labor after emancipation—and the rise of informality. And, she points to a problem with work itself. The kept woman complicates the family wage, whereby a wage-earning man would earn only enough to subsist and to support a wife and children. I demonstrate that, through the figure of the kept woman, intimacy and the wage are linked in the post-emancipation British West Indies.
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