Q&A with Daniel Livesay, author of Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833

Daniel Livesay is Associate Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, CA.  His research focuses on questions of race, slavery, and family in the colonial Atlantic World. His first book, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 was published in January 2018 by the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute. Casey Schmitt reviewed it yesterday here at The Junto. Daniel’s research has been supported by an NEH postdoctoral fellowship at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, the Fulbright Foundation, the Institute of Historical Research, and the North American Conference on British Studies, as well as number of short-term fellowships.  He is currently working on a book manuscript about enslaved individuals of advanced age in Virginia and Jamaica from 1776-1865 entitled, Endless Bondage: Old Age in New World Slavery. He graciously agreed to sit down and answer a few questions about his research.

JUNTO: Congratulations on the publication of your book, and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about it for readers of The Junto. Let’s start with a broad question: Where did the idea for this book begin?

DANIEL LIVESAY: First off, thanks for inviting me to The Junto. I really enjoy the site, and I’m very excited to be part of it.

The idea for the book effectively landed at my feet. When I started graduate school at the University of Michigan in 2003, the Clements Library—which, as many readers know, is a stellar manuscripts archive at the University—had just purchased the papers of John Tailyour, who was a slave trader in Jamaica at the end of the eighteenth century. The library needed someone to do an initial catalog of the collection, and since I was interested in the history of slavery, I spent several months working through the papers. The collection is really a jewel of economic history because Tailyour took up so much space writing about slave trading in Kingston. But the thing I became obsessed with were his letters back to family in Britain. In particular, he was asking if his relatives could find boarding schools in England for his four mixed-race children whom he had with an enslaved woman named Polly Graham. I had certainly heard of white men manumitting their children, but I had never heard of those same men sending their offspring of color to expensive institutions in Britain. It seemed like a strange level of parental responsibility from a man who also sold thousands of Africans without the slightest hesitation. I felt that I had to know more about the motivations behind this, what the experiences of these migrants were, and what all of it meant for conceptions of race in the Atlantic World. So, I decided to write a graduate seminar paper on the Tailyour family. I went to Britain for a couple of months, found a few stray references to other migrants of color, but ultimately grew worried that it would be almost impossible to find more families who undertook the journey. I finished the seminar paper, and then put it all away thinking that I would need to find another project for my dissertation.

When I went back to Britain a year later to start my dissertation research, I quickly found that my new project—which was vaguely conceived as a study of abolitionists’ use of racial rhetoric—was not exciting me much. I was getting very bored reading these 8-page pamphlets that were saying very similar things. Every once in a while, though, I would catch a reference to a Jamaican of color in Britain, and I would immediately get excited. So, I decided to devote two hours each day to pulling up manuscripts on Jamaica, just as a way of keeping my attention up. At one point, when I was at the National Archives of England, I randomly called up the minutes of Jamaica’s legislature, the Assembly. I was only a few pages in when I found a petition from a mixed-race woman, asking that she and her children be given exemptions from some of the island’s laws against people of color. She supported her petition by noting that each of her children had gone to school in Britain, and therefore they were very elite. I obviously got excited by that. When I turned the page, I found a similar petition from a different person who had also gone to school in England. As I kept reading, I found more and more of these petitions and realized that I might actually be able to make a dissertation project out of these mixed-race migrants like the Tailyours. I then completely dropped the abolitionist project – though a lot of those records made their way into the book as crucial context – and dedicated myself to the migtrant topic, which formed my dissertation, and eventually became this book.

There were a few other moments where I had a crisis of confidence about whether or not I could actually make this a compelling project, but I got lucky along the way. I found a treasure-trove of biographies looking through wills in Jamaica, and also stumbled upon a few of the key families in the book by pouring through Jamaica’s Chancery Court records. Ultimately, I was able to find out a great deal about half a dozen families in particular, and then I cobbled together a lot of fragments and pieces about several hundred other individuals. Together, I think that they paint an interesting portrait about the intersections of race and family in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World.

JUNTO: Children of Uncertain Fortune stands out as a wonderful example of what Karin Wulf has called Vast Early America: It is geographically expansive and takes as its subject the lives of people “whose experiences traditional historical accounts have overlooked”—in this case, mixed-race Jamaicans living in Britain. What do their experiences over the course of the long eighteenth century add to our understanding of early America and the Atlantic World? What assumptions do they challenge?

LIVESAY: Many of The Junto’s readers have probably seen more and more books lately about colonial Jamaica. It seems clear now that the Caribbean was a really central part of early America because of its location, its centrality for colonial trade, and its stark and oppressive form of slavery. So it was highly integrated into the mainland American system. But Jamaica, in particular, was a kind of nightmare scenario of the limits of slave societies in this period. It was an extreme example of the type of plantation systems in North America, and therefore it can offer really interesting comparisons, in terms of oppression, slave economics, and ideas of race.

The subjects of the study also reveal how porous these early-American boundaries were. Because they were transoceanic migrants, the mixed-race individuals in the book embody the global nature of a “Vast Early America.” Not only were they raised partially in Jamaica— in some cases born originally into slavery—but they left for Britain, and then at times to other locations such as India and Australia. Many even returned back to Jamaica to use their metropolitan upbringing as a stepping stone to colonial advancement. So even though many of them suffered under slavery, and all of them labored under civil rights restrictions, they went on to lead very cosmopolitan lives crossing the globe. There have been biographies of a couple of these migrants—most namely Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was the subject of a 2013 film. But, one of the things that I hope readers take from my book is how much more expansive and routine this migration was than just a few isolated individuals. I found nearly four-hundred examples over the period from 1733-1833, and there were likely far more than that. Indeed, one of the central contentions of the book is that this migration was regular and long lasting. It shows a pathway to Atlantic participation, social advancement, and elite networking among a group largely thought to be fixed in place in the Americas.

There are a couple of other key assumptions that I challenge in the book. First, I hope to paint a more complicated picture of racial conceptions in a slave society as nakedly oppressive as colonial Jamaica. A lot of great work has been coming out to show the complexity of Jamaica in this period, but there’s still a reflexive attitude that the island was simply an apartheid state with little deliberation on the meaning of race. I think it was much more nuanced than that, and that the subtleties of racial thinking in Jamaica were actually critical to the ability of the island’s rulers to impose such a horrible regime of oppression. My initial interest in this project was driven largely out of my confusion about why John Tailyour sent his mixed-race offspring to Britain when he was such a brutal slave trader. As I’ve worked through the sources, I found that the refined distinctions that whites made about race on the island worked directly to help control populations of color, entrench a landed plantocracy, and perpetuate slavery. I believe that we have to come to terms with those subtleties to understand how such a horrific society like eighteenth-century Jamaica could function.

Second, I hope to interject a more focused look at how questions of family belonging informed conceptions of race in this period. In Jamaica, free people of color’s racial statuses were inextricably linked to their kinship with white islanders. Being the daughter or son of an Assemblyman positioned one on a radically higher rung of the social ladder compared to the child of a white laborer. In Britain, these migrants’ statuses as illegitimate children were often more important to their place in the family than their African heritage. But, as historians like to show, this changed over time. Mixed-race migrants fell further out of favor within their British households. This was due not just to changing ideas about race in the Atlantic World, but also to changing ideas of family belonging. As the notion of family membership constricted at the turn of the nineteenth century, migrants of color—who were thought to be financial dead-ends for households—were increasingly seen as inappropriate, if not detrimental, members of extended families. What I hope this shows, then, is that we can’t understand ideas of race in this period without reflecting on the issue of family belonging as well.

JUNTO: I was especially interested in your analysis of slavery and the slave trade. You note that “the advent of abolitionism made mixed-race migration to Britain a cause of official interest” and placed “interracial families … under increase[ed] scrutiny” (196, 203). How did those individuals and families respond to the disruptions of the debates over slavery?

LIVESAY: The debate about the slave trade, and of slavery itself, formed a critical background to everything that happens in the book. In fact, I would contend that the rhetoric around abolitionism was one of the most important factors in how the Anglo-Atlantic World thought about race at the end of the eighteenth century. For mixed-race migrants, there were three specific discussions that were relevant to them. First, activists working to abolish the slave trade started arguing in 1788 that once enslaved people were treated better and encouraged to marry one another, then they would increase naturally as a population, making the slave trade obsolete. That argument produced an ancillary claim that reformers should prevent interracial sex in the colonies because it undercut the natural growth of enslaved populations. In other words, the interracial relationships that produced mixed-race offspring suddenly became political, not just moral, problems for reformers. Second, when the Haitian Revolution broke out in 1791, French and English observers blamed abolitionists for stirring up trouble. But they also pointed to an event in the colony of Saint Domingue (that becomes Haiti) a few months before the Revolution. Vincent Ogé, a mixed-race Dominguan educated in France, led a militia of color demanding equal rights. They were quickly put down, but whites across the Caribbean assumed that his metropolitan education had radicalized him, and helped to inspire the later enslaved uprising. Jamaicans of color living in Britain, who had the same kind of biography as Ogé, were now even more threatening. Third, once the slave trade was abolished in 1807, observers immediately grew concerned that whites would flee the West Indies in droves, as the islands would no longer be economically productive. Someone still had to oversee these colonies, though, and mixed-race migrants who had been educated in Britain came to be seen as the best replacements for that white population that would inevitably leave the Caribbean.

For the migrants of color whom I study, the effects of all of this were more general, rather than acute. The white members of the Tailyour family were quite vicious in their attacks against the abolitionist Parliamentarian William Wilberforce and blamed him for the Haitian Revolution. They continued to care for their mixed-race relatives, but you can see them expressing slightly stronger attitudes about the supposed problems of partial African ancestry as time went on. In general, that was true for most of the migrants that I follow. Prior to the 1780s, there wasn’t much explicit commentary on these migrants’ racial backgrounds. But with each successive decade, white family members grew less accepting of mixed-race kin. They continued to care for them, but more so as recipients of charity as opposed to relatives in need.

The effects are a little more pronounced back in Jamaica. As abolitionism ramped up, and especially after the Haitian Revolution commenced, mixed-race migrants who had returned from Britain pressed more aggressively for equal rights. One migrant in particular, trained as a lawyer in England, drafted a petition asking for full rights within months of the Haitian Revolution’s start. He never submitted it to the Assembly, but the legislature nevertheless learned about the appeal and began worrying about the migrants’ presence. This set off a sustained set of activist demands by Jamaica’s free population of color, which was led by British-educated members. It ultimately resulted in their enfranchisement and civil equality.

JUNTO: The archival source material in the book is ranging and impressive. Is there a favorite source you used, or perhaps a favorite story that emerged from those sources you’d like to share with readers?

LIVESAY: I mentioned earlier that I stumbled across the stories of a few families in the Jamaican Chancery Court records. That court is a really interesting one because it wasn’t really bound by legal statutes. It was more of a common-sense court, which was great for me as I had no legal knowledge whatsoever, so I could actually follow the trials. They are also very interesting because they deal with all manner of issues, so there are just some fascinating interpersonal dynamics that come out of the proceedings. Anyhow, I started perusing these records out of a general curiosity and discovered one of the key families in the book, the Morses.

The court case involving the Morses was amazing by itself. They were mixed-race Jamaicans who moved to Britain, and their white cousin (Edward) sued them for their inheritance after the death of their father. Edward had lived with them for a time in Jamaica and seemed by all other measures perfectly civil to them before their father died. But once he realized how much money was at stake, he pulled out all the stops to get it, including launching a mirror suit in England’s Chancery Court. The whole series of suits turned on one colonial law from 1761 that capped the amount of inheritance that illegitimate people of color could receive at £2000. If Edward could convince the court that his cousins were mixed-race, then he and his legitimate relatives would inherit the lion’s share of the fortune, even though the Jamaican Morses were now living in Britain and were largely disconnected from the West Indies. So the case—which dragged on for sixteen years—was ultimately a race trial in Britain. Edward wasn’t successful, but the case illustrated so many aspects of the complications around family belonging in this time period that I knew it would be a critical part of the book.

Not long after leaving Jamaica, I went back to the British archives to cross-reference a lot of the people that I found in the Caribbean. I was at the Society of Genealogists Library in London and came across a self-published biography of William Cator. He meant nothing to me, except that his name came up when I was searching for the Morses. It turned out that he married Sarah Morse, one of the children in the lawsuit. As I looked through the biography I found lots of information on all of the Morse children, because they were his in-laws. They were all incredibly well-connected people. I discovered that Robert Morse, one of the sons, had gone off to India, as had two of the sisters, Sarah and Ann. Each of the Morse sisters married up, and Ann even wed a key East Indian official who refused to testify against his mentor Warren Hastings during a Parliamentary investigation. Ann became friends with David Garrick, the famous English actor, and each of the children settled down into very elegant British homes. They had the kind of prosperous English upbringing and experience that all of the migrants I studied ultimately wanted, though only a few actually obtained. They were so successful at integrating in Britain, in fact, that the biographer did not know that they were mixed race.

Still, though, the Morses faced a tremendous amount of scrutiny in their time. As I dug deeper into their cousin Edward, I discovered a newspaper editorial in which he outed Sarah and Ann as not only mixed-race Jamaicans, but as close friends of Warren Hastings (who was under intense scrutiny on charges of corruption in India). Edward even published a short biography bemoaning his financial struggles and the need for the Chancery Court to find in his favor in the suit against his cousins. All of this was done to try and win the case, and it exposed his relatives of color, who did not want their Jamaican ancestry made public. It is an amazing story of the complexities of experience among these migrants. Even when they became incredibly successful, they still faced familial and racial pressures at all times, and their fortunes could be made immediately vulnerable if a relative wished to use the law to its fullest extent.

Their biographies also confirmed a trend I was finding with a lot of these families: that they were connected to some of the most elite people in the British Empire. I think the literature about people of African descent in Britain has largely portrayed the group as separate from white society, and highly marginalized. But many of the several hundred migrants I trace were socializing with some of the richest and most influential Britons of the long eighteenth century. The mixed-race Rosses were family friends with William Wilberforce, the lead Parliamentarian leading the antislavery effort. The Tailyours, as well as the Rosses, were closely connected to Admiral Horatio Nelson. Jenny Harry, a young woman of color from Kingston, hung out regularly with Samuel Johnson. With large colonial fortunes behind them, they married quite high up in society – in fact, one of the migrants I trace married into Scottish nobility. What this shows, then, was that the decision makers and cultural influencers on questions of race and slavery at the time were intimately connected, if not personally related, to Jamaican migrants of color. It reveals, to my mind, how important their presence in Britain was.

JUNTO: According to your website, you’re now at work on a project analyzing “elderly enslaved people in Virginia and Jamaica.” Can you tell us more about that and what else is store for you in the future?

LIVESAY: I’m really excited to have the book out and to discuss it with anyone who is willing to listen, or at least unfortunate enough to get stuck talking with me. But I’m also really excited to make some headway on my second manuscript, which focuses—as you note—on the lives of enslaved people once they reach old age. I’m really curious about two things: what happened to enslaved people once they grew to an age in which they were no longer considered productive laborers, and how elderly slaves shaped conceptions of paternalism in the world of Atlantic slavery. In some ways, I’m trying to explain the historical context leading up to the phenomenal success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and how the long history of fascination over aging slaves made it such a hit.

I’ve been looking at a lot of different sources for this project: enslaved autobiographies, emancipation petitions, plantation accounting, planter correspondence, census and taxation records, travel accounts, abolitionist literature, and many other sources. I’m hoping to show not only the crucial role that elderly individuals played in the plantation community, even though they were largely disconnected from the labor that so thoroughly defined their status, but also how critical they were to debates about slavery’s merits. In fact, there’s a really fascinating industry of promoting exceptionally old African Americans and Afro-Jamaicans at the turn of the nineteenth century as a defense of the peculiar institution. The best example of that was Joice Heth, an elderly black Virginian that P.T. Barnum paraded around the United States in 1835, claiming that she was 160 years old and had been George Washington’s nurse. Heth was Barnum’s first sideshow, and the captivation that audiences had with her demonstrated how central elderly enslaved people were in this period.

I’m comparing Virginia and Jamaica because they have such radically different populations. Virginia was far healthier than the Caribbean, so more enslaved people survived to old age. But that made elderly Jamaicans all the more special to Caribbean planters who saw them as examples of slavery’s benevolence, yet also worried about the group’s social status in the enslaved community, which might undercut the planters’ own power.

I’ll be on sabbatical in the fall to dig through a lot of remaining sources on this topic, and I hope to start writing things up in the spring of next year. My other project has been to get my college to approve teaching courses at a nearby prison through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (if anyone is interested in potentially doing the same at your school, please check out www.insideoutcenter.org). Half the students are on the inside of the prison and the other half are on the outside and come from my college; both get college credit and hopefully learn a lot from one another. I’m happy to report that the College just approved it, and I’ll be teaching my first course inside the prison next spring.

3 responses

  1. It is amazing to me how Daniel Livesay can be so shocked that a white slave trader would be a solicitous and loving father to his mixed-race children. Does Lovesay think that the man should have classed his children with Africans and not recognized them as his own blood? Livesay obviously believes in hypodescent and THAT is racist.

  2. Pingback: Q&A with Daniel Livesay, author of Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 – Caribbean Histories: Resources for learning about the Caribbean Past

  3. Pingback: OI Books: On the Road to Germany - Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture - Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

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