Daniel Livesay: Belle’s Atlantic Community

Children of Uncertain Fortune by Daniel LivesayToday we welcome a guest post from Daniel Livesay, author of Children of Uncertain Fortune:  Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833, published by our friends at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

By tracing the largely forgotten eighteenth-century migration of elite mixed-race individuals from Jamaica to Great Britain, Children of Uncertain Fortune reinterprets the evolution of British racial ideologies as a matter of negotiating family membership. Using wills, legal petitions, family correspondences, and inheritance lawsuits, Daniel Livesay is the first scholar to follow the hundreds of children born to white planters and Caribbean women of color who crossed the ocean for educational opportunities, professional apprenticeships, marriage prospects, or refuge from colonial prejudices.

Children of Uncertain Fortune is available now in both print and e-book editions.

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Belle’s Atlantic Community

Without question, Dido Elizabeth Belle is the most famous mixed-race Briton of the eighteenth century.  Many people today recognize her as the subject of the 2013 film “Belle.”  Born to a white man and an enslaved woman of color in the Caribbean, she was taken across the Atlantic to live her with great-uncle: England’s highest-seated judge Lord Mansfield.  Dido’s extraordinary biography certainly merited a cinematic interpretation, but her current high profile is also partly due to the existence of a stunning portrait (which graces the cover of Children of Uncertain Fortune) that makes her one of the few eighteenth-century Britons of color visible to a modern audience.  Her kinship to Mansfield, presiding judge over two of England’s most important legal cases on slavery, also linked her to the debates around abolitionism at the time.  As a mixed-race migrant from the Caribbean, she appears to have uniquely embodied so many of the complex issues around race, slavery, and family facing eighteenth century Britain.  But to what degree was she an outlier, and how unfamiliar would the society around her have been with such a migrant?

Scholars have long known about the regularity of African-descended people in Britain, even elites of color like Dido, in the early-modern period.  Yet it has been painfully difficult to sketch out the borders of the particular communities they inhabited.  In Dido’s case, her membership within a high-ranking British family seems like an anomaly, and one that might have confounded her relatives.  However, when examining mixed-race migrants to Britain in this period, it turns out that Dido was not alone, and that the white society she lived in was acquainted with multiple other mixed-race transplants from the colonies.

Dido had a number of cousins, including Lady Amelia Campbell: Dido’s father was the brother of Amelia’s mother.  It is unclear about the degree to which Amelia and Dido interacted, but they were contemporaries in Britain.  Just one year after Dido died, Amelia received a request from a close friend, Robert Taylor, asking for help to get a nephew into the East India Company Army.  Robert hoped that his brother’s son James would be able to secure an interview, despite the fact that the Company had recently banned West Indians of color.  This was a problem because James had been born enslaved in Jamaica.  Amelia could help due to the status of her husband General Archibald Campbell, who had served for years in India.  The prohibition rattled the family’s nerves as it considered whether to lie to the Company to secure James an interview.  Ultimately, though, the Taylors decided to incur the risk, and set about dressing James in different colored clothes to try and mask his skin color.  They even put white powder on his face, but determined that it did not help.  James eventually won a spot in the Army, and set off on a global adventure.

James Taylor’s family was connected to another group of Jamaican migrants of color.  In particular, his father’s family lived in the small Scottish town of Montrose, where Hercules Ross had also grown up.  After a twenty-year stint in Jamaica, Ross returned to Scotland with several mixed-race children.  He successfully placed two of them in the East India Company Army, but a third – Hercules the younger – had not made it through the interview.  Due to increasing racial fears in Britain, the Company decided to prevent young Hercules from joining, and used him as the excuse to ban all future West Indians of color.  In fact, the Taylors likely learned about the prohibition of mixed-race Jamaicans because of their family’s connection to the Rosses.

The mixed-race Rosses, like Dido, were also tied in familial ways to Britain’s effort to end the slave trade.  Their father Hercules was a principal witness brought by William Wilberforce (one of the key politicians in the abolitionist movement) to testify in front of Parliament about the ravages of human trafficking.  Hercules had been initially reluctant to help, especially because he knew that so many of his friends – like the Taylors – would turn against him.  But he ultimately kept up a regular correspondence with Wilberforce about the details of the slave trade, and the horrors that it inflicted on kidnapped Africans.  Wilberforce befriended another family with a relation of color in England as well – the Marshes – demonstrating just how closely Britain’s elite interacted with mixed-race migrants and their households.

Dido Belle was an exceptional woman who struggled against racial prejudice while living within a family deeply entrenched in Britain’s growing debates around race and slavery.  Yet, she was matched by a number of families – some of whom she was connected to through kinship and association – whose lives intersected equally with the Empire’s political and intellectual leaders.  Children of Uncertain Fortune traces many of these families’ lives to reveal an intimate community of mixed-race Britons, who came from an even more insular community of elite Jamaicans of color.  The connections between these families reveal how regular, if not unremarkable, people like Dido were in Britain at the time.  As the book shows, when members of Parliament and natural philosophers reflected on the issues of race and slavery in the Empire, they did so with full knowledge of, and often personal familiarity with, these migrants of color.

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Daniel Livesay is assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College.  You can read his previous UNC Press blog post here.