Caribbean Family Diversity: Factors That Shape The Caribbean Family

Family diversity Factors

All the different forms of Caribbean families grew out of varying factors. Factors that have shaped equipped and empowered each type of family unit.


The family is pivotal for the good or ill of society because it shapes the individuals who in turn shape the society.

The family is also impacted on by constraints in the macroeconomic, social, and cultural environment. However, it is in the historical factors that the family pattern has been greatly affected.


Frazier (1966) claimed that the Negro’s enslavement tended to destroy so completely his African culture’ that only insignificant, soon to be forgotten memories remained.

At every stage on the slaves’ journey to the ‘new world’ they were systematically stripped of their culture (Barrow, 1998), and so began the cultural vacuum left by the destruction of African family customs and beliefs.

This vacuum was filled by attempts to adopt white planter ideologies as “the slave tended to take over the attitudes and sentiments of his master toward religion, sex, and marriage” (Frazier, 1966(1939): 27).

The broadly-shared belief, backed by most religious teaching, that the ideal Caribbean family form is the nuclear family bound together in a marriage that is legally and/or religiously approved.

This was the teaching during slavery when the practice of the slave owners and their allies destroyed any possibility of building such families and began the process through which the single parent, the female-headed household became a dominant feature in the Caribbean.

During slavery many families were separated: fathers, mothers, and children were attached to different plantations with the result that some never saw their family members again.

The responsibility of bringing up the children rested primarily with the mothers and grandmothers. This situation gave rise to a matriarchal type of family, which is still common in the Caribbean today.

Common-Law or Faithful Concubinage

Formerly slaves had little or no knowledge or opportunity of legal marriages. (Later the missionaries informed them). The slave owners did not encourage the institution of marriage.

couple on bench

It was felt that the strength and power of the marriage union would offer a threat to the Plantation System. Concubinage was encouraged, as it was believed that this frail type of union would keep the Negroes humble and complacent (Stewart, 2005). Despite the rapid social changes taking place, common-law marriages and concubinage are still with us and will perhaps be for a long time.

African Heritage

The majority of slaves come from West Africa where polygamy was practiced, i.e. one man having many wives.

They all shared the same compound with their husband who was the father of their children.

Some African tribes chose their chief because of his virility and physical prowess. A man’s virility was based on the number of his offspring, especially males (Stewart, 2005). In our society today, it is not uncommon to find men who boast about the number of children they have to show off their virility.

Sexual Exploitation of Slave Women

Many slave women wanted their freedom and the freedom of their children. They wanted also to do housework and be free from the toils of field labor as well as to escape the economic hardship of slavery. So they submitted to the sexual advances of the planters and slave masters and bore them children outside of wedlock (Stewart, 2005).

A similar pattern exists today (even though to a lesser extent) where positions and special considerations are exchanged for sexual favors.

New Farmers

Stewart (2005) made mention of the emancipation period in explaining the diversity of the types of family in the Caribbean. He stated that after emancipation many of the ex-slaves deserted the estates to improve their living conditions and to acquire a sense of independence from their former bosses.

With the help of missionaries, large numbers of them purchased small plots of land, up to five acres, while a few squatted on crown lands or on lands belonging to absentee owners. The missionaries encouraged marriage among these freed people who were by that time establishing families.

Many of the holdings were inaccessible to markets so those farmers with donkeys would buy from other farmers. The food would then be transported by the peasants themselves or by higglers. This practice provides financial support for the Caribbean family, but it is not without its consequences. Here are two:

  • Children are kept from school to care for younger siblings or to help with the preparation of the produce for the market.
  • Children are often left to care for themselves while their parents are away

A similar pattern exists today with ‘barrel children;’ the parents travel to various countries to earn money.



The growing number of single-parent female-headed households is today especially vulnerable because widespread migration from and movement around the Caribbean have dispersed extended family support networks, while alternative support systems are either absent or underdeveloped.

During the latter part of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century (1890-1910) there was a large movement of people from Jamaica to Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States of America in search of jobs.

Fathers traveled away from their families leaving mothers to be solely responsible for the upbringing of their children.

During the 1950s there was an exodus of Jamaicans to England. These included both fathers and mothers, and so, many children left to be cared for by their grandmothers and other relatives.

According to the Guyana National Development Strategy 2001-2010, in Guyana some communities are experiencing an increased absence of active fathers, sometimes due to migration; in Amerindian communities of the hinterland, for example, fathers traveling for long periods to work in the growing mining and logging areas create de facto female-headed, single-parent families.

Migration, while a factor in the weakening of families across class and race, is differently expressed in poor families; while the issue has not been researched, it appears that among poor families there is a greater tendency for the migration of individual adults rather than of whole families, contributing to the small but telling number of child-headed households and to a growth in child-shifting.

According to the abridged version of the report prepared by the WAB for submission to the 4th World Conference on Women, 1995:

“…because the migration is largely of individuals rather than families, it has produced a fragmenting of families and communities. A small survey of 27 Indo- and Afro-Guyanese students aged 11-16 attending school in Georgetown, whose parent or parents had migrated, found that 12 out of 27 families were considered to have broken up permanently, and 19 out of 27 students had negative expectations of a future with their Parent(s). Only 7 out of 27 reported receiving adequate support from their migrant parent(s).”


The family is the birthplace of society. Every culture has its own type and function of the family unit and the Caribbean is no exception.

It is apparent that in speaking of the Caribbean family we are dealing with a number of varying types. Whether it be nuclear, matrifocal, common law, extended, or even the visiting unions. The matrifocal family also largely dominates this region where the female is the head of the family.

Neither in Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, nor elsewhere, is the family static in form.

Instead, the family form is shaped by the environment or history.

Moreover, differences in the social organization and value systems of families are most pronounced in plural societies such as Guyana in which several ethnic groups, originally from different parts of the world, with varying traditions and distinct cultural practices, inhabit one nation-state.

There is therefore no one typical Guyanese family structure but different family structures shaped largely by differences in ancestral patterns of life and local histories

Slavery left its mark deeply imprinted on the family and it is thus in the strengths and weaknesses of family life (Simey, 1946:79).

According to Professor Herskovits,  the status of the Caribbean family and most of the other forms of Caribbean life was determined by the play of various forces brought to bear on the Negro in the new world. Slavery he argues did not ‘cause’ the maternal family: it tended rather to continue certain elements in the culture endowment brought here by the Negroes (Simey, 1946).

Other elements that influenced the Caribbean family types are emigration, cultural factors, sexual exploitation of slave women, African heritage, and concubinage or common law practices.

Many of these occurred during, after, or as a result of slavery. It is our family that makes us even more diverse as our motto states “Out of many one people”.


  1. Barrow, C., (1998). Family in the Caribbean: Themes and Perspectives. Jamaica, Ian Randle Publishers, 1998. p. 1 – 46
  2. Barrow, C., Reddock, R., (2001). Caribbean Sociology: Introductory Readings. Jamaica, Ian Randle Publishers, 2001. p. 418-425.
  3. Booth, R., (2003). Jamaica’s family structure is creating huge societal problems’ – Friday July 4, 2003. Jamaica Gleaner Online. Retrieved from


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