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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Domesticating the West Indies in Canada (Part 1)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 25, 2010

1998 reissue of "The Meeting Point"My Canada stint finished back in December, and much of the four months (ulp!) since then disappeared down the rabbit-hole of Life, which turns out to be one of the pitfalls of Blogging—not to mention other, more important work.  (Who knew?)   I somehow managed to get a bit of the latter done anyway, and sent an essay out for peer review just last week; more on that story as it develops. In the meantime:  part of what got jettisoned from the first draft of the piece—which reads Canada’s efforts to project a postwar “internationalist” identity through the lens of Lord Caresser’s presence there from 1946 till the end of his life—was a long-winded section on the history of trade relations between Canada and the West Indies.  (No, really:  this is the sort of stuff you need to bone up on if you want to figure out what sort of symbolic work calypso was doing in Canada!)  A post last week to the Caribbean culture blog Repeating Islands about the latest wrangling over a trade agreement between Canada and Caricom reminded me that that history isn’t over.  And believe it or not, one episode of the saga revolved around a strange sort of romance—a fitting context for the larger tale of a man with the moniker “Caresser” who styled himself the “King of Hearts” and regularly sang of his imaginary exploits as a cosmopolitan casanova.

Stay with me now: America’s recurring mid-century attraction to calypso is a long and complicated story.  But the short and simple version is: it was all about was sex.  And race.  Oh, let’s come right out and say it:  interracial sex.   As in, racist dread thereof and lurid fascination therewith.   Embracing fantasy-islanders, I’ve argued, was a roundabout way of keeping real live African-Americans at bay.  And keeping “the Negro” in his place (namely, out of the American body politic—and I use the masculine pronoun advisedly) meant, among other things, keeping him out of white women’s pants.

What I came to understand pretty early, though, as I began exploring calypso in Canada, was that its own anxieties over race and citizenship emerged, first of all, from a very different set of demographics.  For a century or so, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, Canada carefully engineered its immigration laws so as to keep the country white, and for the most part, it succeeded.  Second: the True North’s attitudes towards black folks grew out of a rather different relationship to the history of British Empire and Commonwealth.  More on that in a moment.

Domestics and Calypso

From an article in the Globe and Mail, 13 August 1956

Caribbean Domestics

West Indian domestic workers in Toronto celebrating their one-year anniversary with the Negro Citizenship Association, 1959

What I want to focus on for now is the fact that Canada’s jitters were also differently gendered: they fixated on regulating  and containing female, rather than male,  sexuality.  Actually, “domesticating” would be the better word.  For instance: between 1955 and 1966, largely in response to pressure from West Indian labor ministers and Canadian civil rights agitators (many of West Indian background) who were militating against the country’s restrictive immigration laws—oh, and to demand on the Canadian side for cheap household help—Ottawa imported roughly 2600 women from the Caribbean on what was known as the “West Indian Domestic Scheme.”  (Smaller-scale, more ad hoc schemes had taken place earlier in the century.  Several scholars have written about these programs; the details that follow come mainly from Frances Henry.)  Eligible women had to be single and under age thirty-five.  They were screened initially by the Ministries of Labor in their home colonies; put through what Henry describes as a “two-week indoctrination course”; subjected to medical, educational, and character tests—including extensive, often secret, gynecological exams upon arrival in Canada; and given final approval “by a team of Canadian immigration officials who visit[ed] the islands once a year specifically for this purpose.”  Many were actually skilled workers or educated professionals at home (some even had their own domestic servants) who joined the scheme in hopes of finding opportunities for economic or educational advancement once in Canada.  (Henry footnotes a popular calypso lampooning the exodus of overqualified women entitled “Civil Servants Becoming Domestic.”)  They had to pay their own passage, and they were contractually obliged to serve in affluent homes for a period of one year.  Afterwards, they were granted landed immigrant status and were free to seek other careers—though discrimination in the labor market meant they rarely found them.  They were also permitted to send for immediate family members and/or fiancés after the first year, “provided that they marry within thirty days after the men’s arrival” and prove the sincerity of their relationship to immigration authorities in advance with personal letters or other documents.  Women who became pregnant during the period of their contract would be sent home.

Whew.  So not only did Canada restrict these women’s entry fairly severely—100 per year at first, double that a year later, 500 per year by the time the scheme ended—it also subjected their sexuality to a fairly obsessive regime of of policing.  (Not to mention confine the women to the sorts of menial work to which many Canadians imagined West Indians were naturally suited.)   Easier, surely, to go a more traditional, which is to say, connubial, route.  And symbolically speaking, at least, that’s precisely the path laid out in a different sort of domestic arrangement that Canada kept proposing over the years.

But it wasn’t what you think.  And it wasn’t exactly proposed in earnest.  Details in Part 2.

(Above left: women participating in the West Indian Domestic Scheme are the protagonists of novelist Austin Clarke‘s “Toronto Trilogy,” which opens with 1968’s The Meeting Point.   Below: the Canadian National Steamship company’s famous “Lady Boats” began plying the waters between Canada and the West Indies in the 1920s.  By the late 30s, and especially after World War II, airlines, hotels, colonial tourist boards, and other cruise ship companies increasingly aimed their advertising at the Canadian middle classes.  Those tropical journeys no doubt confirmed Canadian preconceptions that West Indians were born to serve.  In touristic settings, the servants included calypsonians, though this naturally involved a gender-role reversal vis-à-vis the scheme above.  A 1949 ad for Jamaica’s Tower Isle Hotel that ran in Canadian newspapers actually used a generic image of the guitar-strumming troubador in its pitch, which read: “Jamaica: Calypsos Calling!  There’s excitement in the throbbing pulse of Jamaica’s calypso singers.”  The indolent woman below is feeling it…)

Serving up some calypso

Upright calypsonians (well, Mento singers--but no one was very particular about the distinction) ministering to the needs of a supine tourist. From a story on the Globe and Mail's travel page, 13 November 1954.)

4 Responses to “Domesticating the West Indies in Canada (Part 1)”

  1. […] Domesticating the West Indies in Canada (Part 1) […]

  2. […] as well as petulant and personal (see “Domesticating the West Indies in Canada,” Part 1 and Part 2)–and if immigrants insisted on coming, some Canadians have felt, then it would be […]

  3. […] as long as I’m back-handedly blowing my own horn (ouch!), I’ll just mention my posts on postwar West Indian immigrants, student calypsonians, and “Bandit” DeCastro, which also fill in one or two crannies in […]

  4. […] literary giant: Bajan-born Canadian writer Austin Clarke, whose early work imagined the lives of West Indian domestics (and other working-class immigrants) in 1950s Toronto with poignant humor, and whose 2002 […]

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