God Parenting in the 1800’s to early 1900’s

Godparenting has a long history in the Caribbean. Karen Fog Olwig writes about the role of godparents in the 1800’s and early 1900’s in Cultural Adaptation & Resistance on St John – Three Centuries of Afro-Caribbean Life.* Childcare, she says, like provisions or cooked food and favors, was passed freely among relatives living in different households in the 1800’s. This practice continued post-emancipation, and she cites many examples of godparents and grandparents being relied upon to care for young children.

“In the 1901 (census) thirty five St Johnian children fifteen years old and under lived on St. Thomas without their parents. Of those, fifteen were living with relatives or Godparents, twenty (as servants) with strangers.” (p.116) The census also shows an additional ten children living with a guardian, godparent, or adoptive parent on St John. Of the 371 St. Johnian children up to 15 years of age, only 64% resided with their parents. (p.133*)Her book documents how the exchange of children intensified the relationship between specific households. In the chapter, The Network of Exchanges, Olwig describes how some laborers asked estate owners to be godparents for their children, an act that may have encouraged patriarchal generosity. Post-emancipation, the institutions of shared family land, clubs (common shared work efforts with implied reciprocity), and the lending of children, were built on exchange relationships among real or fictive kinsmen. These exchange relationships –s of family/common access to land resources, mutual help in farming, and temporary placement of children in the homes of relatives or godparents, she asserts, provided the means for survival and the preservation of this unique way of life. (p.158*)*Olwig, Karen Fog. Cultural Adaptation and Resistance on St John–Three Centuries of Afro American Life. University of Florida Press, 1985.

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thumbnail for Galleries/Photographs/Postcards/Thumbnails/EastEndPicnic.jpg Pic-nicking among the Danish West Indies – at the East End of St. Jan
Creator: J. Lightbourn
Owner: Private collection
Post Card


Robin Swank

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