A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica by Brooke N. Newman (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United Kingdom on 2020-02-18 19:09Z by Steven

A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica by Brooke N. Newman (review)

Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 53, Number 2, Winter 2020
pages 314-316
DOI: 10.1353/ecs.2020.0021

Katherine Johnston, Assistant Professor of History
Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin

Brooke N. Newman, Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2018). Pp. 352; 25 b/w illus. $65.00 cloth.

In eighteenth–century Jamaica, who counted as a British subject? As Brooke N. Newman demonstrates in her impressively researched new book, the answer was complicated. Although a 1661 royal proclamation stated that children of English subjects born on the island would be “free denizens of England,” by the early eighteenth century the colonial assembly in Jamaica had imposed its own restrictions on subjecthood (2). Aligning the rights and privileges of subject status—including the ability to vote, hold public office, and serve on a jury—with whiteness, members of the assembly took it upon themselves to determine who was eligible for this status and who was not. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of the island’s population failed to meet the exclusive standards imposed by the assembly. Only “non–African, non–Indian, non–Jewish, and unmixed” people could claim subject status as a birthright (28). Despite white Jamaicans’ perennial anxiety about Africans and their descendants vastly outnumbering white settlers, colonial legislators’ desire to “preserve the purity of British lineage in the tropics” led them to deny mixed–race people subject status, effectively alienating many children and grandchildren from their white fathers and grandfathers (22).

A select few individuals of mixed descent, however, successfully petitioned the assembly for the right to subjecthood. Newman draws upon these appeals as she seeks to explain the ways that blood inheritance as a means of racial distinction and legal status developed in colonial Jamaica. In Newman’s analysis, the cases of elite individuals and families who requested subject status from the assembly highlight the instability of racial designations throughout the eighteenth century. Social standing, financial position, and religion all entered into the assembly’s calculations regarding who could attain subject status and who counted as white. Timing mattered, too: in the 1730s, 40s, and 50s, for example, mixed-race people could “whiten” within three generations, while in the 1760s, 70s, and 80s it took four generations to erase “the stain of African origins” (91). Moreover, often the elites who were granted white status were denied the full privileges associated with subjecthood. These individuals were “not fully ‘white’ in the eyes of the law but rather legally whitened, on the path toward whiteness” (97). But as Newman makes clear, “legal whiteness” (70) did not make a person “white by blood” (114). This distinction is critical to Newman’s analysis, as she argues that Jamaican legislators “privileged blood as a material and symbolic conduit” that transmitted a variety of qualities, including “character, mind, and temperament” from parents to offspring (69).

Examining petitions for white status by persons of mixed descent in the first half of the book allows Newman to make some critical points about race. First, she shows that racial definitions in the British West Indies looked a great deal like those in the Spanish colonies, with careful delineations of racial categories based upon percentages of African and European blood. In colonial Jamaica, people’s ancestry mattered. Second, and most importantly, the process of legal whitening that took into account a person’s finances, religion, and connections to elite white men reveals the unstable nature of race during this period. As Newman demonstrates, whiteness was fungible rather than fixed; the varying outcomes of people’s petitions provide strong evidence that whiteness was “a malleable social and legal category” (126).

In addition to these important points about race, the legislative appeals also serve as a touchstone for questions of colonial authority and power. The Jamaican colonial assembly made its own laws in some cases, disregarding British common law precedent. But it was not a fully autonomous body, and appeals for citizenship approved by the local assembly had to be confirmed by the Privy Council in London. The relationship between the colonial and British legislative bodies was under continuous negotiation, even though white Jamaicans largely claimed authority for themselves.

While petitions for subject status lie at the heart of a tightly…

Read or purchase the review here.

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Race, Reproduction and Family Romance in Moreau de Saint-Mery’s Description. ..de la partie francaise de l’isle Saint Domingue

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Slavery on 2011-11-08 04:41Z by Steven

Race, Reproduction and Family Romance in Moreau de Saint-Mery’s Description. ..de la partie francaise de l’isle Saint Domingue

Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 38, Number 2, Winter 2005
pages 227-246
DOI: 10.1353/ecs.2005.0008

Doris Lorraine Garraway, Associate Professor of French
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

This paper analyzes the colonial jurist and historian Moreau de Saint-Méry’s racial classification system with an aim to disclose its ideology of family romance and reproduction. By examining the sexual allegory implicit in the tabular demonstration of métissage, I argue that Moreau’s racial science represents a sexual fantasy for white colonials whose libertine practices threatened the fragile demographic balance of colonial society. Moreau de Saint-Méry revises Enlightenment ideas about racial degeneration and infertility to arrive at an original hypothesis for the biological reproduction of colonial humanity, one that places the control of such procreation squarely in the hands of white men.

The publication in 1797 of the colonial jurist and historian Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry’s Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l’isle Saint-Domingue represented a milestone in Enlightenment racial theory. Within the first volume of the encyclopedic account of the colony on the eve of the Haitian Revolution, there appeared a systematic classification of human variety in the colonies, unprecedented in its scope and detail. Expanding on previous taxonomies of De Pauw and Hilliard d’Auberteuil, and borrowing from eighteenth-century innovations in algebra and statistics, Moreau devised an exhaustive tabular, arithmetic and narrative typology of “nuances of the skin” along a continuum between white and black. Comprising nearly twenty pages, this attempt to delineate and classify human color variation in the colony of Saint-Domingue represented much more than an experiment in Enlightenment rationality or the science of amalgamation. By meticulously theorizing the genealogical progression between black and white, Moreau de Saint-Méry fixated on the one difference that carried political consequences in Saint-Domingue—that between white and non-white, or “sang-mêlé” (mixed-blood).

In the decades leading up to the Haitian Revolution, whites faced increasing challenges to their economic and political supremacy from the growing class of free people of color. As established slaveholders, planters, entrepreneurs, skilled laborers, artisans, and military leaders, they had acquired considerable wealth and property in land and slaves. As such, they aspired to the same political recognition and elite titles and offices held by whites. While mulatto activists such as Julien Raymond traveled to Paris to petition the royal government on behalf of free people of color, those at home sought to improve their position by building social networks, sending their children to be educated in France, adhering to French moral codes regarding marriage and legitimacy, and, in some cases, marrying their daughters to white men. The social ambitions of free people of color did little to quell the long-standing controversy over the prevalence of interracial sexual relationships in Saint-Domingue. In addition to engaging in sexual relations with slave women, elite white men frequently sought free women of color to serve as ménagères, their live-in housekeepers and lovers. In the late eighteenth century, colonial writers sensationalized mulatto women as icons of sensual pleasure and sexual excess, figures both loved and blamed for the luxury, indebtedness and moral laxity of the colony. Yet this stereotype concealed the fact that free women of color were among the most entrepreneurial and financially independent women in the colony, owing to their connections to white benefactors and their prevalence in urban marketing and commerce. While interracial marriage was never officially outlawed in the colony, the colonial leadership made many attempts to suppress the practice and in the end settled for a series of punitive measures against “misallied” white men. More difficult to control, however, was the massive increase in the population of free people of color in the last decades of French rule. In the two decades prior to the revolution, their numbers increased at nearly twice the rate of whites in the same period, such that by 1789 each population amounted to approximately 30,000 persons.

Faced with the population increase, social ambition, wealth and political demands of free people of color, the white elite responded with an extraordinarily oppressive regime of racially exclusionary laws intended to halt their advancement. Free people of color were forbidden to wear luxurious clothing, take the name of a white person, carry arms, practice certain professions and hold public office. By 1785, Moreau de Saint-Méry had become a leading figure of colonial jurisprudence. Born in 1750 to the white Creole elite of Martinique, Moreau had risen through the ranks of the magistrature to become a counselor on the Superior Court in Cap-Français, Saint-Domingue, and premier historian of colonial law. He was also a prominent figure of the colonial Enlightenment, holding memberships in the colonial Chamber of Agriculture and the Cercle des Philadelphes, later named the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences. This organization made Cap-Français a center of scientific debate, comparable in its time to Philadelphia and Boston. Moreau’s rise in the colonies was concomitant with his growing notoriety on the French political and cultural scene. In the 1780s, he took a leading role in the pre-revolutionary assemblies in Paris as a spokesperson for the colonial elite, arguing polemically against mulatto rights and the proposals of the Société des Amis des noirs. His address of May 12, 1791 provoked Robespierre’s famous speech calling for the end of the colonies should they compromise revolutionary principles…

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