By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 09, 2019
Trinidad and Tobago is a difficult, contradictory society. Every time we take one step forward, we also take two steps backward. Imagine a progressive leader saying that she won’t invite a man or woman to a government function unless he/she is accompanied by his/her married partner. One would have thought our foremothers had solved that problem two hundred years ago but one of her great granddaughters is doing her best to turn the clock back to even darker days.
Between December 9, 1824 and April 9, 1825, William Hardin Burnley, the biggest slave owner in the country, held hearings on over twenty plantations across the country to determine the social and sexual practices of enslaved people. I have called these hearings the first sociological study of the people of the island.
On one plantation Burnley asked St. Bresson Antoine Victoire, a planter on the island, if he considered chastity to be a virtue among the enslaved to which St. Bresson responded: “Not in the least.”
Asked further if any of the female slaves upon his estate confined her affection to one man, St. Bresson answered: “I have some who have lived regularly with the same man, but who had certainly not been faithful to him during that period.”
Asked if he punished the enslaved “for changing their wives or husbands,” St. Bresson responded: “I have occasionally punished some of the younger ones, but it had little effect. The elder generally allege such plausible reason for a change that I have considered that I should render them miserable by obliging them to remain together.”
St. Bresson continued: “Whenever I find a man with two wives, I endeavor to persuade him to give up one; but their general customs admit it. The women themselves do not object to it; and it is well understood that they have a particular appellation for two women living with the same man: they call each other ‘combosse‘” (See Slave Master of Trinidad).
One would have thought that such a practice died with the past, but it has continued well into the twenty-first century. The term “combosse” or combasse is still used to describe one of the two women in a relationship with the same man.
Nurah-Rosalie Cordner, a Trinidad professional, noted that in her family, the word “combus,” as in “like ah is yuh combus,” was and still is used in “women’s circles by an older woman to a girl who was being fresh or rude.” Many women still use the word “when the tone and/or volume of a girl child who volunteers some gossip which is considered to be too big or grown for the child.”
In another exchange, Burnley asked St. Bresson if it would be in the interest of the master for the enslaved “to be married together, and remain faithful to each other”? St. Bresson responded: “They have invariably objected, and claim the right to consulting their own inclinations.”
Enslaved people preferred to “live together” before they entered into a Christian-type of marriage which they considered a fearful thing sometimes. Even my mother, a married and God-fearing woman, bemoaned that some couples “were living good together until they decided to get married.”
In his insightful book Crisis of the West Indian Family, Dom Basil Matthews noted: “The West Indian slave, with few exceptions, bluntly refused to be bound by matrimonial tie. All but two slaves on a Trinidad estate preferred death to marriage.” They swore, “If ‘Massa King George’ ordered them to marry white wives they would marry as many of them as he wished. Meanwhile the utmost they were willing to do was to “try to live wid ’em first a little bit for trial.”
Living together in an unwed state of life was never a particularly big thing among black folks in the New World. In his path-breaking study The Philadelphia Negro, W. E. B Du Bois recorded this tendency among African Americans in Philadelphia. He noted “many such families, which remain together years and are in effect common law marriages. Some of these connections are broken by whim or desire, although in many cases they are permanent unions.”
Du Bois also observed that the great weakness of the Negro family “is still the lack of respect for the marriage bond, in considerate entrance into it, and bad household economy and family government. Sexual looseness then arises as a secondary consequence, bringing adultery and prostitution in its train.” Our president may have been looking at this negative effect of what she might have considered the detrimental effect of our “loose” matrimonial patterns.
Coming from ancient civilizations (India and Africa), West Indians always had their own ways of solemnizing the matrimonial bond. They even decided that having a deputy was/is essential to make the living vital, as one of our bards has observed in song. Such behavior may not conform to what Europeans outline as “the correct mode” of social or sexual behavior, but then again we, as a people, have always sought to carve out our own path in the world.
Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI, pointed out correctly: “The country has long recognized cohabitation and visiting relations as having a long and diverse history of gender relations and intimate partnerships” (Express, September 30).
In an age when people are trying to organize their lives in ways that are meaningful to them, it makes little sense to impose behaviors that may be inimical to their growth, their history, and their traditions that have evolved over the years.
Isn’t it about time we let them strive without imposing artificial and foreign limitations on them?