Thursday, March 22, 2018

Daniel Livesay's "Children of Uncertain Fortune"

Daniel Livesay is associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833, and reported the following:
Children of Uncertain Fortune tracks the lives of over three hundred mixed-race Jamaicans who left the Caribbean for Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were the offspring of white men who presided over colonial plantations, and free and enslaved women of color. At the time, Jamaica was a slave hothouse with hundreds of thousands of enslaved individuals of African descent farming sugar, coffee, and other commodities. Less than ten percent of the island’s population was composed of free white individuals, who both took enslaved mistresses, as well as sexually attacked women of color. Most of the mixed-race children born from these unions were kept in slavery, but a small number of them were manumitted and some went on to live with British relatives across the ocean. The book explores why these individuals left, what their experiences were like in Britain, and how their transatlantic migrations helped to shape conceptions of race, and also family belonging, in the English-speaking world.

The page 99 test works fairly well for the book. On this page I discuss one of the reasons why mixed-race Jamaicans were pushed out of colonial society: they had very few educational opportunities. Almost the entirety of Jamaican life was dedicated to making money, to the point of excluding vital components of civil society. Indeed, the island had almost no schools to educate young people. Moreover, racial divides were quite strong in Jamaica, and many tutors refused to train mixed-race people. Jamaica’s most prestigious secondary school was, and still is, Wolmer’s. For most of the eighteenth century, it did allow students of color through its doors, because many of them came funded by their fathers’ substantial sugar estates. As concerns about enslaved uprisings grew, mixed-race people came under stronger scrutiny and Wolmer’s prohibited their matriculation on scholarship in 1777. This left only the best-heeled students of color in the institution, showing how important class position was to one’s racial status in Jamaica. It also pushed other elites of color to travel to Britain when the option of attending Wolmer’s closed up. This page sets up a longer discussion about what a British education was like for individuals related by birth to both enslaved Africans, as well as some of the wealthiest Britons in the Empire.
Learn more about Children of Uncertain Fortune at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue