Q&A: Brooke N. Newman, author of A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica

Today, The Junto features a Q&A with Brooke Newman, dark inheritance cover smallauthor of A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica (Yale, 2018), which was a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Center’s 2019 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for the best work in English on slavery, resistance, and/or abolition. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender in the context of slavery and abolition in the British empire, focusing on the Caribbean. Newman is an Associate Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is also Interim Director of the Humanities Research Center. Look for a review of A Dark Inheritance later this spring.

JUNTO:  A Dark Inheritance traces the shifting connections between ideas about British subjects’ rights and ideas about race rooted in notions of “blood” and its purity or “corruption.” By what process did this connection become clear to you? Was there a source or moment when the link crystallized for you?

BROOKE NEWMAN: I began by researching the development of local customs and legislation designed to justify the permanent, hereditary enslavement of Africans and curtail the rights of free people of African, Native, Jewish, and multiple ancestries in late seventeenth and eighteenth century Jamaica. I wanted to understand how customary practices and colonial statutes that departed from English common law shaped the development of Jamaican slave society and gave rise to official racial classifications impacting the lives of free people descended from enslaved ancestors as well as other marginalized groups. As I worked on the book, it became increasingly clear to me that the constitutional structure of the British Atlantic empire, which encouraged legal divergence in response to local needs and conditions, empowered colonial legislatures to redefine the terms of freedom and British subject status at will.

In Jamaica, colonial officials established an economic and social order heavily dependent upon the labor of enslaved Africans and undergirded by principles of birthright and blood inheritance. When the elite planters who dominated the Jamaica Assembly defended their local autonomy against the encroachment of metropolitan officials, they articulated constitutional arguments regarding their inherited rights and privileges as English (later British, later white) subjects. These arguments underscored the exclusionary aspects of English liberty as a unique legal inheritance passed down over the generations, secured by both the ancient constitution and the proclamation of Charles II guaranteeing natural-born subjects in Jamaica and their children born on the island the same rights and privileges as the Crown’s free-born subjects in England.

Linking English liberties to blood ancestry enabled colonial officials in Jamaica to deny the full rights and privileges associated with British subjecthood to free persons of servile or non-Christian ancestry. At the same time, the white colonial fixation on blood offered the free descendants of British men and enslaved women of African descent the opportunity to articulate a counter argument for civil and political equality rooted in blood, the Jamaican constitution, and the legal framework of the British Empire. The 1825 petition presented by the freemen of color in Kingston and Spanish Town – with which I open the book – crystalized these connections, allowing me to trace the centrality of fictions of blood all the way from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century.

JUNTO: You lay out the logic of the seeming irony that the Jamaican Assembly provided avenues for legal “whitening” to elite free people of color with blood ties to whites within a society deeply committed to racial slavery. Why did this come about in Jamaica, when other racial slavery regimes denied that the “stain” of “black blood” could disappear?

NEWMAN: Understanding the local context is key. Colonial officials in Jamaica used their discretionary power to fashion a social order privileging white Protestant lineage while continually redefining the precise terms of “whiteness” to suit their own ends. Jamaica’s particular demographic characteristics help to explain why the Assembly approached racial classifications and the privileges associated with white racial identity with some degree of flexibility. As a Caribbean island colony surrounded by foreign powers, with a majority enslaved population, several maroon communities, expanding numbers of free people of African and multiple ancestries, and a stagnant British settler population, Jamaica remained vulnerable to both external and internal threats. Legally “whitening” select individuals with illicit blood ties to wealthy and influential white men enabled colonial legislators to build local allies and bolster the free white population.

But the attitudes of the Jamaica Assembly toward the incorporation of free people descended from enslaved ancestors into the white settler community fluctuated dramatically over time. Enslaved resistance, revolutionary upheavals and warfare across the Atlantic world, the transnational abolition movement, and free men’s collective agitation for equal rights produced political and economic crises that transformed colonial policy in Jamaica and throughout the British Caribbean.

JUNTO:  This book encompasses debates about sex, blood, and rights on multiple scales – from transatlantic debates about the extent to which Jamaicans could alter or redefine British subjecthood, to the intimate negotiations between women of color and the white men who fathered children with them, to the circulation of crude visual and linguistic humor ridiculing interracial sex by caricaturing the black female body. How did you identify the seemingly distinct sources that you draw on? What led you from one group to the next?

NEWMAN: My research interests are interdisciplinary in nature, and although I initially didn’t know how it would all come together, I wanted to write a trans-Atlantic history of colonial Jamaica focused on the intersections of law, social practice, and culture. Due to Jamaica’s importance as the largest, wealthiest colony in the British Atlantic empire, developments on the island were bound to feed into British cultural productions, especially given the fact that the slavery debate overlapped with the so-called “golden age of caricature.” Etched cartoons and humorous prints abounded during this era, and uncomfortable subjects—such as racial slavery, the sexual exploitation of enslaved women, and illicit sex—were often dealt with through the lens of laughter and satirical imagery. It was important for me to connect the brutal treatment of enslaved men and women in colonial Jamaica to the cultural commodification of distant enslaved bodies in metropolitan Britain.

The abolition of the British slave trade led to increased emphasis on the treatment of enslaved people and the sexual and maternal practices of enslaved women, as did growing concerns about interracial sex and the implications for British bloodlines and national identity. Debates over colonial slavery and the place of free people of African and multiple ancestries in the British Empire shaped broader political and cultural conversations about blood, sexual mixture, and national identity. Overall, metropolitan cultural productions capture a deep ambivalence about interracial sex and the place of non-whites in the British imperial world.

JUNTO: By the time you conclude, in 1830, free people of color—as well as the Jewish Jamaican community, the other population constructed as “alien” and thus outside of subjecthood—were recognized as British subjects, yet you identify “hereditary blood status as the most enduring categorical legacy of slavery.” How did white Jamaicans continue to police racial boundaries after they surrendered the potent tool of political distinction? How long and in what ways do you think the legacy of blood as the basis of rights persist?

NEWMAN: In Jamaica, concepts of inheritable blood served as the legal foundation not only for hereditary African slavery but also for the continued subjugation of free people descended from enslaved ancestors. Structural racism rooted in fictions of blood endured long after emancipation. For enslaved men and women, freedom was only the first step in a long struggle for equal rights under the law. Although they were British subjects, free people of African and multiple ancestries were neither viewed nor treated as equal to whites in nineteenth-century Jamaica.

With formal emancipation and the end of the apprenticeship system in 1838, the British government granted £20 million in compensation to Britons with financial interests in enslaved property. Other than acknowledgment of their new status as free subjects of the British Empire, formerly enslaved men and women and their descendants received nothing. During the 1840s, suffrage and political participation was extended to a wider section of Jamaica’s male population for the first time, threatening the white colonial order. In 1866, in the wake of the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 and the declining power of the white political establishment, the two-hundred-year-old Jamaica Assembly voted to abolish itself and institute direct Crown rule. Nevertheless, Jamaica’s minority white propertied classes continued to maintain their privileged social, economic, and political positions, while the vast majority of Jamaica’s population of African descent remained disenfranchised, discriminated against, and impoverished. Colonial slave regimes and white racial privilege shaped both modern Britain and the Caribbean, and the impact of centuries of economic exploitation, inequality, and racism is still significant and widespread throughout the Caribbean.

Jamaica’s repeated calls for Britain to pay reparations for slavery have centered on issues of inheritance. As Sir Hilary Beckles observed in an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron before his visit to the island in September 2015, “You are a grandson of the Jamaican soil who has been privileged and enriched by your forebears’ sins of the enslavement of our ancestors…. [T]he burden of the inherited mess from slavery and colonialism has overwhelmed many of our best efforts. You owe it to us as you return here to communicate a commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire.”

JUNTO: What are you working on now?

NEWMAN: I’m working on a book tentatively titled, “Subjects of the Crown: Slavery, Emancipation, and the British Monarchy, 1660-1860,” which grew out of research completed for A Dark Inheritance. In chapters five and six, I briefly highlighted the public influence of George III’s third son, Prince William, Duke of Clarence, during the slavery debate in the House of Lords and the behind-the-scenes role of the Prince Regent in secret discussions concerning agitation by Jamaica’s free people of color for equal rights. Yet I was only able to scratch the surface of the royal family’s involvement in the enslavement and legal marginalization of people of African, Native, and multiple ancestries in the British Atlantic world and beyond.

The current project focuses on the evolving policies and attitudes of the British Crown and prominent members of the royal family toward imperial rule, slave trading, and colonial slavery between 1660 and 1860. Beginning with the creation of the Royal African Company in the late seventeenth century and continuing through the age of Queen Victoria, it examines the role of the Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs in the transatlantic and intra-American slave trades, the development of colonial Atlantic slave regimes, and the transnational antislavery movement. Adopting a longue durée approach, I hope to illuminate not only how the institution of monarchy and the institution of slavery coevolved over two centuries but also how the actions of enslaved men and women influenced Crown policy.

 

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