Daniel Livesay, NEH postdoctoral fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at William & Mary, presented a paper at the University of Texas in February that discussed the mixed children of white men and black women and their impact on British society in the 18th century. The BBC has contacted him to use some of this new information for a documentary it is working on.
His paper focused on racial groups traditionally labeled as creoles in colonial Louisiana and mulattos in the Caribbean. Livesay’s dissertation centered on social hierarchies in 18th century Britain and the family ties of mixed children both born in Jamaica and of British descent.
According to his paper, “Preparing to Meet the Atlantic Family: Relatives of Color in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” mixed-race children like Edward Thomas Marsh and James Tailyour and their families’ responses signified a time in Britain where society heatedly debated the issue of blacks as inferior.
“During those two decades, debates on the humanity of the slave trade branched into numerous ancillary arguments over skin color, equality, and racial gradation,” he wrote. “The issues of slavery and family overlapped, with observers commenting on the sexual standards of enslaved families, and the demographic implications throughout the Atlantic of an empire with unrestricted connections between races.”
These children faced a serious dilemma. Like the creoles and mulatto, their place in 18th century British society was uncertain. On the one hand, having mothers of color made them slaves by birth; at the same time, their white father’s heritage gave them freedom. Livesay says they stood between the two social placements set out in British and even colonial society. What determined their place was the amount of acceptance they received from their British relatives.
Family acceptance and racial prejudice
In November 1786, when John Marsh, Edward’s brother, received news that his brother had a bastard son of mixed descent, he reacted with acceptance. Instead of taking the 200-pound sum left to Edward’s son, Livesay reports that John and his sister took in the boy and made him part of the Marsh family.
The children of William Macpherson and his enslaved Guyana lover, Countess, landed in Scotland in 1814. Livesay’s research shows that Eliza, Matilda, and Allan Williams were accepted, as Marsh had been, but with a different attitude. Rather than wholly accepting the children as part of their family, members like their grandmother Ellie Macpherson made sure the children stood apart from them socially.
Eventually, these changing attitudes felt by the Macpherson children culminated in the reaction James Tailyour received when he landed in Scotland during the 1790s. While his white grandmother accepted him, the rest of his family grappled with his mixed color. Livesay discovered that the final decision came from his uncle, who suggested that the boy be kept apart from the rest of the relatives. That way, he would feel accepted, but in their minds, remain lower in the social hierarchy and still separate from them.
“Whereas Edward Thomas Marsh had landed in an English society only beginning to grapple seriously with questions of enslavement, James Tailyour grew up in Britain during the heated abolitionist rhetoric of the 1790s and 1800s,” Livesay wrote.
“I argue that there was this change over time,” he later said in an interview. “In the middle of the 18th century, there was a lack of hesitancy. By the beginning of 19th century, families were really struggling in some ways because there was such popular agitation about slavery. That got people’s ideas about race percolating.”
These mixed children and their families personified the escalating issues Livesay expostulated in his paper. Whereas slave children and white children had set places in the social hierarchy, the mixed children had none. How their relatives dealt with them determined their place, leaving the children at the mercy of racial prejudice versus sympathetic tolerance. Livesay argued, through these families, that during the turn of the 19th century, racial prejudice hardened for not only ethnographical reasons, but for familial ones as well.
Giving them a place
Livesay started his study of the mixed-race culture during his graduate work at the University of Michigan.
“I wanted to do something with race, slavery, and the Atlantic world,” Livesay explained. “When I got there, the university’s archive library had just acquired a big trove of documents, the letters of a Jamaican slave merchant in the 1780s and 1790s.”
While Livesay catalogued the collection for the university, he found various letters talking about mixed-race children. His study of the letters took him to later spending six months in Jamaica, where he pored over three-year segments of wills, covering the 1770s to the 1820s. What he discovered among the wills was that about 10 percent of them contained provisions for children being sent from the island back to Great Britain.
“In the majority of cases, a child born of a slave stayed a slave,” Livesay said. “The father went on and they just forgot about it. But there were these handful of men who went there and set up these families.”
He added: “Obviously, it was a very exploitative society, but for the most part these men were in pretty domesticated relationships with women of color. They cared for their children, sent them back, and it was a sort of obligation to take care of them.”
As for the BBC documentary, it focuses on the mixed races of the world, how people of different color enter and change white homogeneous societies. It premieres this autumn on the BBC network, as part of its series on mixed races and cultural heritage.
“There was a lot of stringent racism coming out in the 1970s, with people trying to keep immigrants out.” Livesay explained. “Some Britons are very anti-immigration. They see Turkish people, Middle Eastern people as compromising their identity.
“They were looking for info on racial mixture. It’s a testament to the interest in Britain.”
Livesay is currently at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, revising his dissertation into a manuscript. Though the date is unknown, the manuscript will be published as a book.