Persons outside the Law

Catherine Hall

  • Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 by Daniel Livesay
    North Carolina, 448 pp, £45.00, January, ISBN 978 1 4696 3443 2

Around 1800 William Macpherson, the 16-year-old son and heir to the chief of Clan Macpherson, decided to try his hand at planting in the West Indies. The family had been Jacobites and urgently needed to repair their finances. His father, Allan, had failed to make a fortune in the East Indies and William knew he had to make good. They had kin on his mother’s side, Frasers, living in Berbice in Dutch Guyana, and so the West Indies seemed the next best possibility. He was appointed as an overseer and then manager on one of the Fraser estates, where more than three hundred enslaved men, women and children laboured to produce cotton, not sugar, on the swampy, muddy land. His father soon authorised him to buy six ‘negroes’ for £500 and congratulated William on this first step to prosperity. William’s mother was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause and had copied out lines for him from Phillis Wheatley, freed slave and poet. He had himself heard the Enlightenment philosopher Dugald Stewart’s lectures in Edinburgh and was familiar with the idea that any African inferiority was due to the miserable conditions of slavery. His experience on the plantations, however, soon convinced him that ‘negroes’ were ‘an obstinate ungrateful race’. William, following the well-worn pattern of white colonists, began a relationship with an enslaved woman, Countess. He named their first child Eliza, after his mother. In 1807 he returned to Scotland, having persuaded the man who owned Countess to sell her to him for £120, but leaving her and Eliza behind. He borrowed £2000 from his father to try to establish his own plantation. On his return to Berbice he set up house with Countess, whom he renamed Harriot, after his sister. Their second child, Matilda, was named for his favourite cousin and a son after his father, Allan. William freed Harriot and her children, moved, he recorded, by affection for them. His business did not prosper and he was soon heavily in debt. He contemplated marrying his main creditor’s daughter, but she was of mixed heritage and he could not swallow the idea of a mulatto wife. He surrendered his estate and sailed for Scotland with the two girls, leaving Harriot and their son in Berbice. Allan was to follow when he was a little older. Harriot/Countess, whose African name we do not know, would have to find her own way like many other women abandoned by white men. Affection had its limits. Her motherless children would have to deal with their new environment.

William’s mother had been shocked to hear of his illegitimate children and his father wrote advising him to leave the girls in Glasgow rather than bring them to the parental home, but he didn’t receive the letter. His mother refused to call the children by their names and referred to them as the ‘little moonlight shades’. Difference in skin colour could provoke violence, sometimes affection, rarely indifference; often it elicited mixed feelings. Her grandchildren were not children of the sun, they were ‘moon shades’ born on the wrong side of the law, yet they required her Christian charity. She was determined they must not carry the family name and consequently they became the Williams sisters. Illegitimacy was an infringement of the social and racial order, indeed an attack on it. It raised the question of who was entitled to belong and in what ways. When Allan, aged six, arrived in Scotland, he became Allan Williams.

Within a year William made a respectable marriage to the daughter of the town clerk of Dundee and when their son was born he too was named Allan. This child, however, could be a Macpherson. William urgently needed employment and after an unsuccessful venture with the East India Company headed for another site of empire, eventually securing through patronage the position of collector of internal revenue in New South Wales. His mother was left with the responsibility for his illegitimate children and their schooling. Her attitude to them gradually softened and she was keen to ensure they received a decent education. But at the same time they should not harbour ambitions above their station: they must know their place, know their inferiority, know that their colour would always count against them. The ‘moonlight shades’ could not expect good marriages or genteel occupations. Matilda disappears from the records while Eliza took care of her grandmother in her old age, dying herself at 30. The ‘moonlight shades’ and their mother stand for the women, black and brown, whose near invisibility, yet absolute centrality to the system of slavery, speak to the silences of the archive and the work of recovery that remains to be done.[*]

Eliza, Matilda and Allan Williams are three of the 360 children of mixed heritage – mainly white fathers and ‘mulatto’ or enslaved black mothers – whom Daniel Livesay has tracked in their journeys from Jamaica to Britain between 1733 and 1833. Their stories illuminate the long history of connection between Britain and the Caribbean caught in that evocative phrase: ‘we are here because you were there.’ While approximately 80 per cent of the enslaved children born to white fathers in 18th and early 19th-century Jamaica remained in slavery, a significant number, possibly thousands, of elite ‘coloured’ or ‘brown’ boys and girls were sent to England or Scotland to be educated, either in the hope of improving their prospects when they eventually returned to the island or in the expectation that there would be a better life for them here rather than there. Where might they face less discrimination? Their experiences varied across the period as attitudes to people of colour changed both in the metropole and in the colonies. Relatively fluid understandings of baggy imperial kinship networks, with their legitimate and illegitimate children, often managed by means of spatial separation, were characteristic of the mid-18th century. By the later 18th and early 19th centuries, however, those of mixed heritage were increasingly discriminated against across the empire and were seen in Jamaica as a threat to the stability of the racial order, especially as they began to claim civil and political rights. Families, as Livesay and others have convincingly demonstrated, were at the heart of the Atlantic world, but they were unstable formations and who was included and who excluded, and in what ways, was rarely settled. Family could be constructed along lines of legitimacy and European endogamy, or interpreted as expansive and affective, or indeed move between the two. It was one of the prisms through which race was understood and Jamaicans of colour – Livesay’s ‘children of uncertain fortune’ – played a significant part in shaping attitudes to race in the British Empire and in pushing popular opinion in Britain towards narrower definitions of belonging.

In the mid-18th century the expansion of sugar production meant an ever-increasing demand for slaves. Yet white settlers were hard to attract and the resulting imbalance of population raised serious concerns both in Jamaica and the metropole. The tension between the need for people of colour with substantial inherited property to act as bulwarks against the huge majority of black people and the fear of their increasing presence was long-lasting. Limited efforts were made in the early 18th century to encourage the development of an elite group of people of colour, who would identify with white colonists. A legal decision in 1733 meant that anyone with less than an eighth African ancestry could become white in the eyes of the law. ‘Privilege petitions’ offered the well-to-do the opportunity to improve their position by seeking special legislation by private bill, claiming white status on the grounds of birth and property in the colonial House of Assembly. Free people of colour in the middling ranks, however, were to be kept firmly in their place. The great rebellion of 1760, described by the historian of Jamaica Edward Long as ‘the grand enterprise, whose object was no other than the entire extirpation of the white inhabitants’, provoked a change of policy on the island. The population of people of colour had grown substantially and some had become significant property owners. This posed a threat to the black/white binary which the slave-owners constantly attempted to fix, never with total success, not least because of their own sexual practices. An attempt was made to sharpen racial boundaries with new legislation limiting the inheritance of children of whites and non-whites to £2000. The purpose of the Act, it was explained to the metropolitan authorities, was to check unauthorised ‘fornication & concubinage’ and to encourage ‘the legal propagation of Children by marriage’ and the transmission ‘of property and power to a pure and legitimate race’. Middling men, it was hoped, would be deterred from interracial unions but an elite would still be exempted by privilege petitions. The presence of so many free people of colour in Jamaica was an uncomfortable sign of the failure of the white imperial family to reproduce itself. The law could attempt to control sexuality, but it never succeeded.

From the 1770s there was increasing concern in the metropole, among pro-slavers as well as abolitionists, about the presence of people of colour and the possible ‘bronzing’, as it was described, of the population. Lord Mansfield’s judgment in 1772 in the case of James Somerset, who had escaped from his owner on British soil, holding that he could not be kidnapped and returned to enslavement in the Caribbean, provoked much public comment and an increasing awareness of the ‘unfamiliar strangers’ present in the English heartlands. There were runaways living among the London poor, as well as black American loyalists who had landed after the loss of the 13 Colonies, and enslaved men and women who had been brought to Britain by their owners and lived in the basements and attics of the streets and squares in Marylebone favoured by West Indians. The emergence of an abolitionist movement in the late 1780s and its campaign to abolish the slave trade made Caribbean slavery more visible in the form of pamphlets, poetry, novels and plays as well as parliamentary politics. But in 1791 the revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue – which, as Haiti, became an independent state in 1804 – sent racial fear ricocheting through the white Atlantic world as horrific stories of the murder of white fathers by their mixed-heritage sons circulated, augmented by accounts of the barbarism of the enslaved in their struggle for freedom.

Meanwhile, the families whose stories Livesay has so carefully uncovered were trying to live with their children, legitimate and illegitimate, whose opportunities and expectations they were attempting to manage. John Tailyour, another Scot, moved to Jamaica in 1783, having been encouraged to consider the opportunities there by his extremely wealthy and successful cousin Simon Taylor. Taylor, according to Lady Nugent, the governor’s wife, ‘had a numerous family, some almost on every one of his estates’. Tailyour began a relationship with an enslaved woman, Polly, born Mary Graham, who was described as ‘mulatto’ on the baptismal certificates of her and Tailyour’s children. Like William Macpherson, Tailyour decided to free his growing family. ‘Having now for several years experienced [Polly’s] care and attention … I confess myself much attached to her, and I find myself very much so for the Children,’ he wrote to his cousin. But this attachment didn’t alter his attitude to the Africans he bought and sold. He was a slave factor, his business was to sell people. The voyage of the Eliza, which set off in 1788 from Bristol to the Bight of Biafra, collecting its human cargo and then transporting it to Barbados and Jamaica, provides a clear instance of the splitting that slavers practised between their intimates – my family, my children – and human property, the enslaved. Initially there were 283 men, women and children on the ship; 73 died on the Middle Passage, struck by smallpox and dysentery, another 30 in the weeks after it docked in Kingston. Tailyour’s letters about these deaths, as Livesay notes, ‘reveal a slave trader utterly disconnected from the moral realities of his business’. He was mildly concerned for his reputation, but proud that he had secured some of the highest prices of his career. This splitting speaks to the concept of disavowal, that way of knowing and not knowing at the same time. Enslaved Africans were people who had been transformed into property, commodities: but it was their human capacity to labour and reproduce that made them of value to their owners. Eventually Tailyour made enough money to retire to Scotland in 1792, buy a large house and estate, marry and have legitimate children. He continued to support his illegitimate children, who were sent to Britain. His son James struggled to pass as white in order to be accepted into the East India Company officer corps, since the company had instituted a ban on West Indians of colour joining its ranks. James was supported by Tailyour family connections determined to use their influence on behalf of the young man. His African ancestry had to be explicitly denied. Once in India James’s letters reveal the extent to which he had adopted a white colonial identity: he gives hostile accounts of the Indian ‘natives’ and complains bitterly about lack of opportunity. James and his brother, John, were never welcomed to their father’s grand new house in Scotland. Their mother, Polly, remained in Kingston, deprived of her sons and relying on friends to ask her former lover for kindnesses.

Joseph Marryat, in the early 19th century one of the most vocal opponents of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, had migrated to Grenada in the mid-1780s and established a successful mercantile business. He isn’t one of Livesay’s subjects since he left his children on the island, manumitting before he went ‘my negro woman slave … Fanny, together with her two mulatto children Ann and Joseph’. He had already married the daughter of a prosperous New England planter. On returning to England in 1791 an inheritance from an uncle allowed him to invest in plantations across the Caribbean. He became a significant ship owner, banker and MP, published many pro-slavery pamphlets and spoke in Parliament in defence of West Indian interests. His early ‘outside family’ did not prevent him from becoming passionately hostile to the increase in the numbers of free people of colour. At a meeting of the African and Asiatic Society in 1816 he was horrified to see a black woman leading in a white woman with a ‘party-coloured child’ and he regarded ‘the progressive increase of the free coloured people’ as ‘adverse to the public peace and security’. Meanwhile his daughter Ann Marryat, after some time spent as a ‘housekeeper’ to a planter, had managed to establish herself as a slave-owner in Demerara. She appears in the compensation records, the detailed accounts of the twenty million pounds paid by British taxpayers to slave owners when slavery as an institution was abolished in the British colonies in 1833, largely to secure their votes in Parliament. She was awarded £567 4s. 6d for 13 enslaved people.[†] Women constituted more than 40 per cent of the claimants for compensation in the Caribbean; many of them, like Ann Marryat, were the illegitimate daughters of white men. They never married, allowing them to act as small businesswomen particularly in urban areas. White men were their route to a freedom which brought with it the possibility of enslaving others.

*

The families Livesay has tracked tend to be those in which fathers felt some affection and concern, albeit with limits. Thousands of children were born in a Jamaica where sexual violation and violence was an everyday occurrence. Their legal status was determined by that of their mother and they represented a form of capital accumulation for slave owners. Robert Wedderburn, a radical agitator and Unitarian preacher, provides one of the few voices articulating the sense of loss, bitterness and anger aroused by these ugly practices of power. His pamphlet The Horrors of Slavery, written as an act of restitution to his mother, Rosanna, was published in 1824. Rosanna was, he wrote, ‘a woman of colour’, but a respectable lady’s maid, enslaved to a Lady Douglas. His father, James Wedderburn Esq of Inveresk, was ‘an extensive proprietor of sugar estates in Jamaica’. His father had tricked his way into gaining control of his mother, who then became the manager of his household. ‘But her station there was very disgusting,’ he wrote.

My father’s house was full of female slaves, all objects of his lusts; amongst whom he strutted like Solomon in his grand seraglio, or like a bantam cock upon his own dunghill … It is a common practice, as has been stated by Mr Wilberforce in parliament, for the planters to have lewd intercourse with their female slaves; and so inhuman are many of these said planters, that many well-authenticated instances are known, of their selling their slaves while pregnant, and making that a pretence to enhance their value. A father selling his offspring is no disgrace there. A planter letting out his prettiest female slaves for purposes of lust is by no means uncommon. My father ranged through the whole of his household for his own lewd purposes; for they being his personal property, cost nothing extra; and if any one proved with child – why, it was an acquisition which might one day fetch something in the market, like a horse or pig in Smithfield. In short, amongst his own slaves my father was a perfect parish bull; and his pleasure was the greater, because he at the same time increased his profits.

Rosanna was ‘of a rebellious disposition’ and was sold back to Lady Douglas. Her son was cared for by his grandmother, a Kingston higgler (pedlar) and obi woman known as Talkee Amy. The boy witnessed both his mother and grandmother being flogged and learned the hard way that any appeal to his father was useless.

Children of Uncertain Fortune contributes to new understandings of the long history of connection between Britain and the Caribbean and shifting patterns in racial thinking and racial practices. Work such as this can play a vital part in repairing at least some of the damage done by colonialism. The tensions between browns and blacks that became so closely mapped onto class remain a significant issue in Jamaica. The details that have emerged over these last months of the deportations of the so-called Windrush generation, the denial of housing, benefits, employment and healthcare to those who have lived their lives in Britain, worked, paid taxes and national insurance, contributed in myriad ways, remind us yet again that institutional racism is alive and well at the heart of the state. In 1999 Sir William Macpherson, chief of the clan Macpherson, descendant of William Macpherson, delivered his report on policing. The Metropolitan police, Macpherson said, were ‘institutionally racist’. He knew his family’s history well. Who can say what part those imperial hauntings played in his understanding of the many failures attending the death of Stephen Lawrence?

[*] Stephen Foster’s A Private Empire (2010) tells the Macpherson story in detail.

[†] This information and much more is available online as part of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Project.