Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Migration from the West Indies to Britain, 1750-1820

Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Migration from the West Indies to Britain, 1750-1820

The University of Michigan
481 pages

Daniel Alan Livesay, Assistant Professor of History
Drury University, Springfield, Missouri

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (History) in The University of Michigan 2010

This dissertation shows that the migration of mixed-race individuals from the Caribbean to Britain between 1750 and 1820 helped to harden British attitudes toward those of African descent. The children of wealthy, white fathers and both free and enslaved women of color, many left for Britain in order to escape the deficiencies and bigotry of West Indian society. This study traces the group’s origin in the Caribbean, mainly Jamaica, to its voyage and arrival in Britain. It argues that the perceived threats of these migrants’ financial bounty and potential to marry and reproduce in Britain helped to collapse previous racial distinctions in the metropole which had traditionally differentiated along class and status lines and paved the way for a more monolithic racial viewpoint in the nineteenth century.

This study makes three major contributions to the history of the British Atlantic. First, it provides a thorough examination of the West Indies’ elite population of color, showing its connection to privileged white society in both the Caribbean and Britain. Those who moved to the metropole lend further proof to the agency and influence of such individuals in the Atlantic world. Second, it expands the notion of the British family at the turn of the nineteenth century. Through analyses of wills, inheritance disputes, and correspondence, this project reveals the regularity of British legal and personal interaction with relatives of color across the Atlantic, as well as with those who resettled in the metropole. Third, it allows for a material understanding of Atlantic racial ideologies. By connecting popular discussions in the abolition debate and the sentimental novel to biographical accounts of mixed-race migrants, British notions of racial difference are more strongly linked to social reality. Uncovering an entirely new cohort of British people of color and its members’ lived experiences, this dissertation provides crucial insight into the tightening of British and Atlantic racial attitudes.


In 1840, the Reverend Donald Sage completed his memoirs. Reflecting on the meandering twists and turns of life, he wrote extensively on his education and the different schools he attended as a youth. One of these institutions, where he stayed only briefly between 1801 and 1803, was located in the small seaside town of Dornoch, in the Scottish Highlands. Sage described the village as a “little county town” which had been “considerably on the decrease” by the time his family had arrived. As one would do in such a journal, Sage thought back on his boyhood friends, and noted that while at Dornoch he and his brother became close companions with the Hay family. Like Sage, the three Hay brothers were not originally from the village; they had instead been born in the West Indies. In fact, Sage revealed that they were “the offspring of a negro woman, as their hair, and the tawny colour of their skin, very plainly intimated, [and] [t]heir father was a Scotsman.” Sage became particularly good friends with Fergus, the eldest of the three, of whom he gave a very qualified endorsement: “Notwithstanding the disadvantages of his negro parentage, Fergus was very handsome. He had all the manners of a gentleman, and had first-rate abilities.”

It may seem out of place for three West Indian children, the offspring of an interracial couple, to be living in a small village at Scotland’s northern tip in 1801. Historians tend to think of an Afro-Caribbean presence in Britain as a phenomenon of the last sixty-plus years, and one localized around major urban centers. At the same time, only recently has the topic of inter-racial unions been addressed in the “new” multicultural Britain. The story of the Hay children in Dornoch, however, was not at all unique at the turn of the nineteenth century. Rather, the Hays were members of a regular migration of mixed-race West Indians who arrived in the home country during the period. Facing intense discrimination, few jobs opportunities, and virtually no educational options in the colonies, West Indians of color fled to Britain with their white fathers’ assistance. Once arrived, they encountered myriad responses. While some white relatives accepted them into their homes, others sued to cut them off from the family fortune. Equally, even though a number of fictional and political tracts welcomed their arrival, others condemned their presence and lobbied to ban them from landing on British soil. Regardless of these variable experiences, mixed-race migrants traveled to Britain consistently during the period. The Hay children may have turned heads on the roads of Dornoch, but they would not have been a wholly unfamiliar sight.

This study examines the movement of mixed-race individuals from the Caribbean to Britain at the end of the long eighteenth century. It argues that the frequent and sustained migration of these children of color produced a strong British reaction, at both the personal and popular levels, against their presence, and helped contribute to the simplification and essentialization of British racial ideology in the nineteenth century. A number of personal histories are followed through the various stages of this transplantation, and are compared to published accounts of the phenomenon in general. White patronage and parental ties were vital in the colonies if a mixed-race individual was to leave for Britain. Connected through these kinship and business associations, elite West Indians of color maintained their own Atlantic networks. Once in Britain, they had to monitor their finances vigilantly against rival claimants to Caribbean fortunes. Family attempts at disinheritance were a frequent problem, and demonstrated an increasing British disgust at colonial miscegenation, along with mixed-race resettlement. With the advent of the abolition movement in the 1770s and 1780s, the issue took on greater political importance. Rich heirs of color now in Britain seemed to herald the cataclysmic prophesies of slavery supporters. Certain that abolition would destroy the racial and class barriers between black and white, many Britons recoiled at those of hybrid descent now resident in the metropole. If class distinctions had restrained racial prejudice in the early years of the eighteenth century, they no longer produced the same moderating effects at the century’s close…

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The World They Left Behind: Family Networks and Mixed-Race Children In the West Indies
  • Chapter 2: Patterns of Migration: Push and Pull Factors Sending West Indians of Color to Britain
  • Chapter 3: Inheritance Disputes and Mixed-Race Individuals in Britain
  • Chapter 4: Success and Struggle in Britain
  • Chapter 5: West Indians of Color in Britain, and the Abolition Question
  • Chapter 6: Depictions of Mixed-Race Migrants in British Literature
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

List of Figures

  • Brunias, 1779
  • 1.2 “The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl,” by Agostino Brunias, 1779
  • 1.3 “Joanna,” by William Blake, 1796
  • 1.4 Percentages of Children Born of Mixed Race, and the Percentage of Mixed-Race Children Born in Wedlock, St. Catherine, Jamaica, 1770-1808
  • 1.5 Percentage of Mixed-Race Children Born in Wedlock, Kingston, Jamaica, 1809-1820
  • 1.6 Percentage of Free, Mixed-Race Children with Interracial Parents, Kingston, Jamaica, 1750-1820
  • 1.7 Thomas Hibbert’s House, Kingston, Jamaica, 2008 (erected 1755)
  • 2.1 Deficiency Fines Collected (in pounds current), St. Thomas in the Vale Parish, Jamaica, 1789-1801
  • 2.2 Percentage of West Indians in Student Body (University of Edinburgh Medical School and King’s College, Aberdeen), 1750-1820
  • 2.3 “Johnny New-Come in the Island of Jamaica,” by Abraham James, 1800
  • 4.1 “A Scene on the quarter deck of the Lune,” by Robert Johnson from his Journal, April 8, 1808
  • 4.2 Cartoon by Robert Johnson from his Journal, April 8, 1808
  • 4.3 Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath, London
  • 4.4 “Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray,” unknown artist (formerly attributed to John Zoffany), c. 1780
  • 4.5 “The Morse and Cator Family,” by John Zoffany, c. 1783
  • 4.6 “Nathaniel Middleton,” by Tilly Kettle, c. 1773
  • 4.7 “William Davidson,” by R. Cooper, c. 1820
  • 4.8 “Robert Wedderburn,” 1824..306
  • 5.1 “Sir Thomas Picton,” c. 1810
  • 5.2 Calderon’s Torture, from The Trial of Governor Picton
  • 5.3 Calderon’s Torture, and “Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave,” by William Blake, 1793
  • 6.1 “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787

List of Tables

  • 1.1 Racial Classification of the Mothers of Mixed-Race Children with White Fathers, by Percentage, 1770-1820
  • 1.2 Percentages of Interracial Parents vs. Two Parents of Color Amongst Mixed-Race Children in Jamaica, 1730-1820
  • 2.1 Percentage of white men’s wills, proven in Jamaica, with bequests for mixed-race children in Britain (either presently resident, or soon to be sent there), 1773-1815
  • 2.2 Percentage of white men’s wills with acknowledged mixed-race children, proven In Jamaica, that include bequests for mixed-race children in Britain (either presently resident, or soon to be sent there), 1773-1815.131
  • 2.3 Professions of testators sending mixed-race children to Britain, by percentage, 1773-1815
  • 2.4 Destinations of mixed-race Jamaicans, by percentage, 1773-1815
Tags: , , , , , ,