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  • Among Her Kinswomen: Legacies of Free Women of Color in Jamaica

Property ownership enabled free Jamaican women of color to shape the contours of their commercial and kinship networks even as they perpetuated the bondage of others. In this slave society, the liberties free women enjoyed rested upon the subjugation of others, whom they held as property. Free women of color profited from the slave economy. Yet their wills demonstrate that working within the system of slavery also enabled them to resist it, creating zones of enslavement that were at odds with the expectations of white rulers in order to free and protect kin. Property ownership and control over its distribution allowed free women of color to carve out an autonomous space for themselves and their heirs in an otherwise hostile white supremacist society. Using this space, they actively constructed an alternative political reality that, over several generations, whittled away at the parameters of white hegemony. Analyzing what slave ownership meant for women of color and how they successfully navigated within the system of slavery to liberate and protect their kin and friends adds complexity to scholarly understanding of free people of color’s politics, black resistance, and the role of people of African descent in the process of emancipation across the Americas.

WHEN Amey Crooks, an elderly “free mulatto spinster” of Hanover Parish, Jamaica, penned her will in 1791, she did so with intention. She was a mother and grandmother who owned 174 acres in a mountainous parish on the island’s northwest coast—not insignificant real estate for a single woman of African descent in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world. In her last will and testament, she carefully parceled out Rockingham Estate among her children and grandchildren, giving them acreage neatly abutting one another. Though Amey provided her sons and grandsons with gifts of twenty to thirty acres, it was the future of two of her daughters and their children that she was most anxious to secure. She gave one hundred acres of Rockingham to them to share and directed that immediately after her death it was her “express will and meaning” that they “shall live in and govern as Mistresses of the aforesaid dwelling house” for their lives “without any manner of interruption, disturbance of or from any other person or persons whomsoever.”1 Amey then divided her twenty slaves among her children and grandchildren, keeping two groups of enslaved mothers and children together while separating another mother-and-daughter pair among her granddaughters. Long after she was gone, Rockingham was to be a bulwark and a safeguard for her [End Page 257] family—bonding them together, empowering them within society, and providing for them for many generations—even if at a high human cost.

Careful analysis of the wills and property inventories of free women of color—a rich cache of sources virtually untouched by scholars—illuminates the centrality of those women in the administration of colonial property in this period. Property ownership and participation in the institution of slavery enabled free Jamaican women of color to shape the contours of their social, commercial, and familial worlds, even as they perpetuated the bondage of others. In this slave society, the liberties and status free women enjoyed rested upon the subjugation of others whom they held as property.2 Free women were crucial holders of property among the island’s community of color, a position they owed to their participation in the system of slavery. Yet working within the system also enabled them to resist it, creating zones of slavery that were at odds with the expectations of the society’s white rulers in order to free and protect kin. Slave ownership, the acquisition of property, and control over its distribution allowed some women of color to carve out an autonomous space for themselves and their heirs in an otherwise hostile white supremacist society. Using this space, they actively constructed an alternative political reality—a reality that over several generations whittled away at the limits of white hegemony.3 In creating [End Page 258] a semiautonomous community, free women of color laid the groundwork for further, institutionalized political mobilization in the postemancipation period.

Through the distribution of property and the practice of an alternative politics within the system of slavery, free women strengthened the networks of kinship that allowed Jamaica’s free population of color to achieve a degree of independence outside of white control. In this deadly slave society, plagued by endemic disease and high mortality rates for adults and children, tragedy and loss fostered diverse intimate attachments and domestic arrangements. In the face of the severance of natal ties, free women of color played a central role in the social reproduction of familial networks within the black community. These structures, like others constructed by Africans across the Atlantic world at this time, incorporated biological and social ties, crossed the bounds of slave and free, and worked to mitigate the effects of death and dislocation wrought by colonialism and the slave trade. In particular, women’s ties to one another, which sometimes blurred the lines between slavery and freedom, were fundamental to the making of networks of commerce and belonging. Their bonds with each other enabled them to get by, if not flourish, in this brutal slave society, and those same relationships allowed them to provide opportunities for their friends and children. Focusing on women’s kinship networks and their relations with one another in no way ignores the brutal realities of this society—a world characterized by terror and by racial and sexual violence.4 Rather, placing women and their relations at the center of our analysis opens our eyes to the ways women contended with, negotiated within, and resisted this system in their [End Page 259] own households and communities, even as they exploited it to improve their own station. Through the distribution of property, women endeavored to reinforce personal connections, to reconstitute family groups, and to construct new ones—goals that all too often entailed the fracturing of familial networks among enslaved people. In their wills, free Jamaican women of color acknowledged the profound importance of the bonds that secured and supported them emotionally, physically, spiritually, and materially in the face of the loss of lovers, children, and other relatives.

In slave societies in southeastern North America and the Caribbean, scholars have demonstrated that gender was a determinative element in one’s access to freedom and property and that women were prominent actors in the making of free black communities. In French colonial societies in the lower South and the Caribbean, free African women and women of mixed European and African descent capitalized on their status and strategic intimate liaisons with European men to secure material wealth, influence, and social mobility for themselves and their children.5 In Saint Augustine and New Orleans, much as in Jamaica, free women of color outnumbered free men of color and possessed a considerable share of the free black community’s wealth and resources. In Saint Augustine free women of color employed African as well as Spanish definitions of familial belonging—both of which were fundamentally rooted in the importance of expansive family networks—to obtain freedom and opportunity for others.6 Yet in Jamaica, the only Anglo American colony with a free population of color comparable to those in the French and Iberian colonies in the lower South and Caribbean, the intricate yet essential linkages between gender, property circulation, [End Page 260] and kinship have not been fully explored. Though recent scholarship has done much to overturn the notion that the Jamaican economy was a male-centered enterprise, we still do not know as much as we should about either property ownership by free women of color on the island or the nature of those women’s emotional investments in their economic relationships.7

A fresh recovery of the experiences and perspectives of free Jamaican women of color underscores their socioeconomic importance to this colony and enriches our understanding of the complex yet integral role played by free women of African descent in slave societies across the Atlantic world.8 [End Page 261] Analyzing what slave ownership meant for women of color and how they successfully navigated within the system of slavery to liberate and protect their kin and relations adds complexity to scholarly understanding of free people of color’s politics, black resistance, and the role of people of African descent in the process of emancipation across the Americas.9 Finally, showing how Jamaica’s culture of death offered unusual spaces for women of color to change their own circumstances as well as the lives of those—free and enslaved—who surrounded them offers a powerful counterpoint to an earlier scholarly understanding of Jamaica as a “failed” society due to high mortality and the ubiquity of nonnormative, illegitimate, and interracial [End Page 262] familial structures.10 Instead, analysis of the kinship networks of free women of color encourages us to adopt a new approach—one that does not take death, rupture, and demographic crisis as an endpoint but rather acknowledges the multiplicity of familial formations that Jamaicans, free and enslaved, fashioned out of the brokenness.11 Due to the particular exigencies of this colonial environment, the extended families that African-descended people formed were creatively and “essentially constructed.” Yet these “fictive” families were no less real, nor less powerful, than those forged through patriarchal lineage.12 Free women of color’s use of property, and the world they managed to create by using it, was essential to the formation of kin, social, and commercial ties within the island’s free community of color.


In Jamaica, and in other black communities across the early modern Americas, conceptions of property ownership—grounded in the fundamental link between property and kinship—were essential to the formation of social and familial networks. Among the enslaved in Jamaica, patterns of property distribution typically did not adhere to patriarchal norms of inheritance based on primogeniture because kinship networks were broad and complex, bound together by an extensive range of social bonds, rather than strictly by bloodlines or marital ties. The enslaved typically acquired property of their own through their participation in the island’s provision system and the internal market economy. The provision system, which was set up primarily as a way for planters to evade their obligation to feed their workers, provided enslaved families with plots to grow food in their spare time. Enslaved men and women viewed their gardens and livestock as their own property. Slave owners also permitted the enslaved to informally dispose of their possessions, and occasionally their land, to friends and kin at death. In the few wills that exist, enslaved men distributed their possessions in a varied and adaptable manner, giving property widely to blood relations as well as friends and providing wives and daughters with inheritances that equaled, if not surpassed, those given to sons. Land that the enslaved possessed but did not legally own held great significance, as it secured social networks and connected the living to family and ancestors.13 [End Page 263]

Africans in Jamaica were descended from many ethnic and cultural groups and maintained a range of regional, cultural, and religious identities. Still, as 47 percent of all enslaved Jamaicans were descended from people from the Gold Coast region, the practices of the Fante—an ethnic subgroup of the Akan—likely represented one type of thinking that animated property circulation among African-descended people in Jamaica. Among the Fante people, property did not descend through strict lines of blood or marriage. Rather, property was distributed lineally and laterally, among blood kin and other social relations, based on ties of affection and mutual obligation. Property took on profound social power because exchanges of land and money honored social bonds from the past and shored up ties in the present.14 Though it is difficult to trace African understandings of property and family within Jamaica’s African-descended population, it is clear that among both enslaved and free people, kinship ties powerfully conditioned practices of property ownership and often motivated inheritance decisions.

Jamaica’s widely recognized culture of death provided women with unique opportunities to shape the futures of those within their kinship networks. Throughout the period of slavery, mortality rates for adults and children were higher in Jamaica than anywhere else in British America. Because diseases such as malaria and yellow fever often reached epidemic proportions, neither the white population nor the enslaved population sustained itself naturally over the period of slavery. In a society singularly defined by abundant wealth and prevalent death, inheritance was an incredibly powerful tool that shaped and changed the contours of society. Wills were not [End Page 264] documents that disappeared with the dead but road maps that guided the present and future of others.15 In the face of early and sudden death, patriarchal inheritance norms were sometimes weakened, if not broken entirely, precipitating more generous inheritances for women. Inheritance provided women with the material foundation necessary to participate in tropical commerce and acquire further assets. In this slave society, however, opportunity for some meant slavery and coercion for others. As a result, Jamaica offers an ideal and powerful case study of women’s experiences and economies in the eighteenth-century Caribbean.

In the archive, where few firsthand accounts by colonial women exist, the wills and property inventories left by free women of color are extremely important sources. Women’s wills both illuminate patterns of women’s personal property ownership and reveal the emotional and personal value women placed upon their material belongings, as well as the social and familial relations that they held most dear. Though white men often followed dictates of law in their wills, women of all races were far more selective in the choosing of their heirs and were more likely than men to play favorites among their legatees, prioritizing those whom they believed were most in need and those to whom they felt the strongest emotional attachment or obligation. In this racially ordered society, women of color valued property for the status and economic autonomy it afforded, and they attached particular importance to the possibility of disposing of their property according to their own desires. The act of writing a will also held political significance. In these documents, free women asserted the importance of their kinship networks, their individual rights, and the role they played in the property relations of the colony. Jamaican women’s wills are incredibly rich sources for illuminating their lives. Still, historians have given them little attention.16

Though wills and probate inventories at death are excellent sources, they are problematic in their own way. Elite women are far more visible [End Page 265] than the rest, as they were taxpayers, owners of considerable amounts of property, and investors in networks of commerce and credit. The deaths of poor women were often not registered, and they had few material possessions to pass on. Thus, the bulk of free women who were poor, if not destitute, are nearly invisible within the historical record. Additionally, it is not always possible to know whether a woman’s last wishes were fulfilled, as wills could be contested. Nevertheless, the wills of wealthier women are invaluable because they provide a remarkably revealing window into the configurations of their kinship networks—including the livelihoods and experiences of enslaved and poorer free women within those networks.

This study draws upon a sample of 42 wills of women of color in Jamaica, taken from a larger sample of 107 women’s wills, including those of white women. As this sample consists of free women of color who possessed an estate significant enough to warrant writing a will, it is representative not of the full free population of color but of a certain property-holding class. Though women of color from thirteen distinct parishes are represented, the majority—58 percent—lived in the cities of Kingston, Spanish Town, and Savanna-la-Mar, with the largest number—37 percent—owning property in Kingston.17 Six women identified themselves explicitly as a “free black woman” or a “free negro woman,” and twenty-four as women of mixed African and European descent, using various categorizations including “free woman of colour,” “free mulatto,” “free quadroon,” and “free brown.” However, twelve women of African descent did not identify themselves by race in legal documents. Only after further research in Anglican Church records could their race be identified.18 [End Page 266]

Due to imbalanced sex ratios among the island’s community of color and local conventions governing marriage, a significant number of single women of color participated in the economy as independent property holders. As women were freed in greater numbers than men, women outnumbered men among the island’s free community of color for much of the period leading up to emancipation. In Spanish Town in the 1750s, women of color made up 38.9 percent of the free “mulatto” population, while adult men constituted only 5.5 percent. By 1829, many parishes had reached nearly balanced sex ratios of free people of color, but others still had many more women of color than men.19 Moreover, due to local social conventions governing relationships between women of color and white men, many free women of color were unmarried. In my sample, only one self-identified woman of color was married; the rest were single. Though relationships between white men and women of color were sometimes long-lasting, they were rarely formalized with legal marriage. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, free women married men of color with greater frequency. Still, a very considerable number of free women of color chose to remain single. Doing so enabled them to participate in the economy as autonomous agents and to own property on their own terms, without the constraints of marriage and coverture.20 [End Page 267]

Women’s wills suggest that in Jamaica, constructions of gender identity for white women matched those of women of color in some ways but not in others. In their wills, many women of color were categorized as “spinsters.” Within the larger sample of 107 wills of both white women and women of African descent, seventeen women were categorized as spinsters. Of these women, four were white and thirteen were nonwhite. None of the white women identified as spinsters had children, whereas eight of the thirteen women of African descent had children, and some had grandchildren. In early modern Britain, the term spinster typically encompassed unmarried women without children—including young women who would one day marry, as well as older women.21 Because white male agents recorded wills and probate inventories, it is often unclear who chose how a woman’s race and marital status was presented in these records. The usage of the term spinster might indicate a conscious choice by the female testator of color to draw attention to her position as a sole property holder, rather than to her marital or racial status. Alternatively, however, the term was secondarily employed beginning in late seventeenth-century England in a derogatory way to describe “unwomanly” and “unmarried” women. In a colonial context, spinster may have been used to downplay women of color’s economic successes on the basis of alleged degenerate femininity that was linked to their racial inferiority.22 These observations help us to reconsider and reimagine the impact of race and property ownership upon constructions of gender identity and femininity in Jamaica.

The principal way by which free women of color amassed property was through inheritance. Until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, they inherited property primarily through sexual and familial ties to the white community. Though white men, on the whole, disadvantaged illegitimate mixed-race children and consorts in favor of legitimate heirs, many mistresses and daughters of color inherited considerable estates. In 1761, in the aftermath of Tacky’s Rebellion, the amount any illegitimate individual of African descent without legal privileges could inherit from a parent, white or nonwhite, was limited to 2,000 pounds current.23 Legal privileges enabled women of color to testify against white individuals in a court of law and exempted them from “deficiency” taxes, which discouraged most free [End Page 268] people of color from owning agricultural enterprises.24 However, by 1768, even free people of color with legal privileges were not exempt from inheritance laws. Nonetheless, affluent parents petitioned for exemptions, which allowed them to circumvent this restriction. By the turn of the nineteenth century, as ties to white families weakened and the free population of color grew more endogamous, property was increasingly distributed through Afro-Jamaican kin networks.25 As a result, free people two or three generations removed from slavery no longer inherited predominantly from whites; instead, their inheritances mostly came from family members and friends of color. In addition to inheritance, women of color also accumulated wealth through their own enterprise. Though some owned property in rural parishes, most lived in urban areas and worked as seamstresses, washerwomen, cooks, boardinghouse keepers, poulterers, nurses, milliners, mantua-makers, shopkeepers, traders, retailers of imported merchandise, landladies, and distillers of spirits.26 Work in urban enterprise enabled free women to make a living, to make the most of inherited assets, and to acquire further property.

Women’s experiences as property holders were shaped by a specific set of legal circumstances in Jamaica. Though provisions were put in place to ensure that most free people of African descent would never rise above poor to middling status, legal loopholes empowered a few such individuals of substance, endowing them with greater legal and economic liberties and the status of “surrogate whites.”27 Over the course of the eighteenth century, whites and free people of color petitioned the Jamaican House of Assembly requesting greater legal rights and privileges. From 1733 to 1802, members of the assembly granted privileged rights to approximately 650 individuals who could prove their relationship to a white parent, their prominent social connections, and their adherence to Christianity. Though white men submitting on behalf of their mistresses and children of color made up the majority of the petitioners, female petitioners of color may have accounted for 75, [End Page 269] or approximately 45 percent, of the petitioners; 10 petitions were submitted jointly with a white man. By contrast, men of color submitted only a few over the whole of the eighteenth century.28 A class of “surrogate whites” was created, partly because of elite familial ties but also because colonial authorities felt that the creation of such a class would constitute a buffer between the small white population and an enslaved majority, thus reducing the risk of slave rebellion. The granting of legal privileges was not synonymous with full equality to whites, however; only in four instances were absolute rights of white English persons granted. Largely as a result of the legal privilege system, the opportunities for well-connected and entrepreneurial women of color in Jamaica to inherit property and build wealth were unparalleled within a British American context.29 Over time, this class of elite Jamaican people of color came to constitute a considerable property-holding class.

Still, the wealth of free women of color, and the free community of color as a whole, should not be overstated. Some women prospered through participating in the slave economy, but this was certainly not the case for the majority. Most free women of color occupied a legally and racially liminal space in Jamaican society, and they labored in menial or artisanal occupations. Legal and economic barriers—including the inability to vote, hold public office, and testify against whites in court—marginalized most free people of color in the colony. Anyone born to a free mother was entitled to trial by jury. By contrast, individuals born to enslaved women who were freed later in life were denied this privilege, as well as the right to testify against other free blacks or free people of color. Thus, with few legal protections, many free women of color found themselves discriminated against and taken advantage of in property dealings. White family members treated heiresses of color unjustly out of jealousy or disapproval, cheating them out of their rightful inheritances. After two thousand prominent free people of color successfully petitioned in 1813, the House of Assembly revoked discriminating legislation. At this time, free people of color also won the right to defend their property in court. Economic gains laid the foundation for the acquisition of greater civil rights in the following decades.30 [End Page 270]

By securing significant estates and exerting considerable social influence, wealthy free women of color contributed to the weakening and remaking of social categories in this colony. Consider, for example, the use of the honor-ific gentlewoman. In my sample of wills, three nonwhite women were given that title. By contrast, among white women in the sample—even those of noble Scottish or English descent—only one was called a gentlewoman. Of the three nonwhite “gentlewomen,” none possessed legal privileges, yet all were independently wealthy: Isabella Hall was a cattle and sheep farmer who owned multiple homes in Kingston; Mary Vidal was a retailer who did business with merchants in London; and Sarah Masias was a landlord who rented out numerous urban properties in Port Royal and Kingston. Two of them had children, and two lived in a household with other single women; none of them was married. Two were wealthy enough to have their estates probated in Britain and Jamaica—one of whom, notably, left gifts to her enslaved family.31 In the early modern English context, the term gentlewoman was reserved for elite white women of genteel birth. In addition to superior status, a woman’s position as a gentlewoman was tied to her elegant manners, education, and good reputation as a woman of virtue and chastity.32 The use of this term to describe women of African descent—women who were neither legally white nor finely educated and who had in all likelihood been born slaves or the daughters of ex-slaves—demonstrates the powerful effect of wealth and property ownership upon the reconstruction of social categories in the decades leading up to emancipation. For most free women of color, slave ownership and participation in the slave economy were central to prosperity and social mobility.

Free women—many of whom had been enslaved—were dynamic participants in the system of slavery. As slaveholders and property owners, women of color supported and reproduced the social and racial order [End Page 271] on which slavery was grounded, and they garnered economic and social resources on the backs of others’ bodies and labors. Even women who possessed few material goods when they died purchased slaves if they could because owning people was both the primary means of upward mobility in this slave society and a symbol of status. Indeed, 98 percent—forty-one out of forty-two—of the women of African descent in my sample were slave owners, compared to 85 percent of white women in the sample.33

Yet free women of color’s practice of slavery and relationship with their slaves differed from those of whites. Numerous contemporary accounts describe free female slave owners of color as harsh slave mistresses. One must exercise caution in the ready acceptance of these observations, however, as most were found in political discourse and fit neatly within certain proslavery tropes.34 Moreover, as Jerome S. Handler has established in Barbados, free people of African descent owned two types of slaves: those to whom they “bore no relationship as mate, spouse, parent, or child” and those with whom they shared a familial or social bond. The treatment of these two types of slaves was often dissimilar, and slaves who shared no kinship bond with their owners were far less likely to be manumitted.35 By practicing a dual system of slavery—purchasing some slaves strictly as economic assets while liberating or protecting those within their familial networks, effectively allowing them to live as free people—free women carefully and adeptly manipulated the system of slavery to suit their purposes. Free women owned slaves and took part in a horribly exploitative system because doing so was one of the few avenues to success in this slave society. But by practicing a covert politics within the system of slavery in order to liberate and protect their kin, free women resisted that system even as they benefited from its inequalities.


Free Afro-Jamaican women’s varied constellations of property distribution and patterns of slave ownership, illuminated within their wills, illustrate poignantly that their family relations entangled blood and non- biological affective ties, slave and free. Many of their kin were still in slavery, and free black women carried on intimate relationships and bore children [End Page 272] with enslaved men, as well as with free men of all colors.36 Due to high mortality, the need for both social and economic security, and the predominance of women among the free community of color, free women in urban areas often lived in households that were female-headed and creatively constructed. Among the community of free blacks and free people of color in Spanish Town and Kingston in the 1750s, women headed more than half of households. Meanwhile, in other towns such as Martha Brae and Montego Bay in rural Saint James Parish, free women of color headed 87.5 percent of households of color.37 Female-headed households were sources of essential emotional and communal support. Moreover, they allowed women to pool their resources, enabling them to make a meaningful living for themselves and their children and to exert a degree of power over the futures of their friends and kin.

Female-headed households were bound together by ties of friendship, blood, adoption, business, and financial support. Often, two or more generations of women lived together, with a free daughter providing a house for her mother, or vice versa. Mary Crymble acquired multiple homes over her lifetime and divided them into tenements (likely with the intention of renting them out). She lived with her mother, Dolly Montgomery, in one of these houses and left the home to her mother if she happened to outlive her. Other situations of female-headed households were economically driven. Ann Perry lived with an adolescent girl of no blood relation, Anna Maria Landsdown, who was learning Ann’s trade as her apprentice.38 Likewise, though Mary Rogers had no children of her own, she stipulated that a boy named Alexander Thompson, who resided with her, “be put and placed out as an apprentice by my executors . . . to any art trade . . . or profession such as he the said Alexander Thompson shall think proper.” We do not know Mary’s relationship to Alexander, but she was raising this free child as if he were her own adopted son and working to ensure his future prospects once she was gone.39

The system of race and gender motivated the inheritance behaviors of women of color. Both white women and women of color sometimes suffered [End Page 273] under inheritance restrictions, which limited their ability to freely dispose of their estates. Male testators, for example, often defined their bequests to women as being for life only, which limited their ability to dispose of that property in the future. However, much as in Barbados, when white women and free women of color in Jamaica were given the opportunity to dispose of their property according to their own desires, they often favored and assisted female friends and kin in their wills.40 Though gendered patterns of property distribution were evident among both white women and women of color, there are several possible explanations as to why free women of color were particularly considerate of their female friends and kin. Free women of color’s behavior may have been influenced by their understandings of family and property, which sometimes differed from those of white women. Moreover, because free women of color outnumbered free men of color for much of the period under consideration, and because most of these women remained single, they relied on one another to survive in this colonial environment, and their inheritance behaviors reflect this interdependence.

In a place where high mortality, migration, and slavery separated couples, parents, and children, female friends functioned as family. Women often acted as adoptive mothers, guardians, and godparents, helping to raise friends’ children and provide financially for them, if necessary.41 Mary Crymble, for example, gave a house to her son in trust for the “sole use and benefit” of her “god daughter,” Johanna Seagrove, described as a “mulatto woman.”42 Likewise, Mary Winter, a free black woman from Kingston, left the only property included in her will—a “piece of land in [the] town of Savanna Mar . . . southernmost half of lot no. 169”—to a friend’s daughter, “Miss Henrietta Ritchie daughter of Sarah Ritchie, widow.”43 As custodians and adoptive parents, free women of color endeavored to ensure that their friends’ and relations’ children were provided with the material foundation necessary to make a living.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, as Jamaica’s free population of color grew considerably and became ever more insular and distinct from [End Page 274] white society, free propertied women of color on the island increasingly established “communit[ies] of property” at death in order to economically empower other free female friends and relatives with gifts of land, cash, and slaves.44 Practices of that sort help explain why John Stewart, a planter, observed in 1823 that “independent people of colour” lived in “a separate society of themselves.”45 Expressing their bequests in the language of intimacy and sentiment, free women of color sketched out the contours of their families and their social worlds. By assisting friends and blood relations in any way they could, they reinforced the indispensable function of these “fictive” familial connections.46 Mary Harris, a free woman of color and spinster from Clarendon, gave all of her earthly possessions to free female friends. To her “dear beloved friend Frances Falconer,” Mary gave “a negro woman named Grace”; to “Nancy Robb a free mulatto woman,” she gave “a negro wench named Molly”; and to her “beloved friend Sarah Bryan,” she gave all the rest of her estate, real and personal.47 Likewise, Mary Adams, a free woman of color from Saint Catherine Parish, attempted to provide security and economic independence for her mother, who was free but propertyless. Mary left all of her estate, real and personal, including land and slaves, to her mother—a fellow free woman who had worked hard for many years as a housekeeper for a white family.48 Along the same lines, Elizabeth Collins, from Clarendon Parish, demanded that her executors sell her slave woman named Friendship and use the money to purchase the freedom of Elizabeth’s mother, Kates, and to provide five pounds a year for her support.49 This bittersweet example of an enslaved woman—poignantly and ironically named Friendship—being sold in order to secure Kates’s freedom serves as a reminder of free women’s messy entanglements in reproducing the unequal racial and social hierarchies of slavery, even as they strove to secure the freedom of their own enslaved loved ones.

Free women were attentive to the needs of their free female kin when bequeathing property at death, using property to buffer against gendered and racial vulnerability, marginalization, and helplessness. For example, [End Page 275] Mary Gwyn of Kingston died without children but ensured that her valuable land in town and her slaves stayed within her network of “kinswom[e]n.” The closest British term used to describe such individuals was cousin, and Mary’s invocation of “kinswomen” therefore marked the distinctive and valuable nature of African-descended bonds of affection and affiliation.50 To her “kinswoman Grace Adams” (considered kin through blood, marriage, or bonds of friendship, though it is not clear which one), “a free quadroon woman,” Mary left half a lot of land in Kingston, a slave girl named Juliet, and a “half-dozen silver table spoons marked MG.” To her mother, Margaret, she left five enslaved women. She gave her house and the rest of her estate to her beloved sister Abigail Case but instructed that her mother, a “free negro woman,” be allowed to “occupy possess and enjoy her present residence . . . in my yard.” Mary’s bequests, moreover, blurred the boundaries between slavery and freedom, corresponding with the intricate nature of her network of kin ties. She left part of her wearing apparel to her “two black sisters Phibba and Benneba,” who were likely enslaved since she neither identified them as free women nor listed their last names. She even included a bequest for Benneba’s son, asking that her executors give him twenty pounds to set him up in a “trade” and that they purchase the proper “tools and implements”—thus allowing him the means to pursue a skilled “occupation” even if his own mother did not have sufficient resources to provide for him.51 Much like Mary, Ann Thomas Richards, a free woman of color, put her estate to good use to support her female kin on the island. She made sure that a portion of her generous annuity of more than six hundred pounds, inherited from John McCall (a Scottish man with whom she had several children, who were then living in Glasgow), was used to benefit her good friend, a free black woman named Frances Williams. Ann directed that the other part of her annuity be given to her husband, John Richards, to purchase the [End Page 276] freedom of a “sambo called Jane Richards the property of Mrs. Dawson”—a girl whose last name implies she was a relative or child of Ann’s husband, John.52 By assisting their female friends and relations, free women of color recognized and remunerated the women whose essential support had sustained them during their lives.

Capitalizing upon their social ties, free women of color borrowed money from their kinswomen in order to secure and obtain further property. In their wills, free women repaid and rewarded friends for loans that had enabled them to expand their estates. For example, Sarah Gordon, a free black woman from Kingston, had only one daughter, Catherine Despard, who was married and living in London when Sarah drafted her will. As her only child was not living with her in Jamaica, she gave half of her land (constituting three lots in the city) to her friend Hannah Williams and her children; Sarah identified Hannah as a “free Sambo woman” with whom she had done business in the past. Sarah explained in her will that when she purchased these lots in Kingston, “in fact only one-half of the . . . money was advanced by me out of my own proper monies.” The rest of the funds, she wrote, were “paid for out of the proper monies then in my hands belonging to Hannah Williams of the parish of St Andrew.” Sarah acknowledged that if Hannah had not lent her the necessary funds, it would have been impossible for her to purchase these lots in Kingston; thus, at death, she was reciprocating a favor from long ago.53

Affluent free women of color were often connected to networks of family and kin—both free and enslaved—across the Atlantic and on the island, and they utilized gifts of property at death to foster and reinforce these intimate bonds. Even if such women had children living abroad, decisions made at death illustrate that they were equally (if not to a greater extent) embedded within their community on the island and were deeply invested in bettering the futures of those friends and relatives. Frances Brown, for example, was a former slave and housekeeper on Belmont Estate who was freed as a result of her long-term partnership with John Shand, a Scottish planter and owner of several estates, including Belmont. Frances and John had seven mixed-race children together, all of whom were baptized on the island. John left Frances in 1816, taking all of their children with him to Scotland. It is not known why or how the relationship ended. All that is known for sure is that Frances requested that John provide her with portraits of all their children before he departed, although there is little doubt she recognized that their “family” could exist formally only in this place and could never withstand the censure of metropolitan scrutiny.54 When Frances died, she specified that her [End Page 277] home in Spanish Town and the bulk of her property be sold and the profits be divided equally among her seven children, all of whom were now settled in Britain. Even so, Frances thought carefully and deliberately about the well-being of her friends and kin in Jamaica, who grounded and buoyed her long after John had left the island with their children.55

As a result, Frances’s beneficiaries included many other free women. She left monetary gifts to eight free women, including friends, daughters of friends, and Caroline Booth, a “relation.” Frances split her wearing apparel among her four free sisters. These gifts were not trivial; in an era when clothing had to be made from scratch, a new dress or a good-quality pair of shoes offered free women many possibilities, including the opportunity to enter the upper echelons of society. She also gave four other free women material gifts. To Eliza Newell, for example, she left “half a dozen silver spoons”; to a Miss C. Lawrence, bedroom furniture and accoutrements and silver spoons; to a Miss Jane Park, a “top chaise, a pair of silver salt cellars, and a silver fish slice”; and to a Mrs. Mary Ann Dalhouse, “half a dozen chairs, a pair of half round tables, a large looking glass, and half a dozen silver table spoons.” It is reasonable to assume that these gifts, which constituted some of Frances’s most precious personal property, were expressions of sentiment, love, and gratitude as well as carefully selected tokens of affection and familial belonging. Across the eighteenth-century British Atlantic, women’s gifts such as clothing evoked aspects of the wearer’s “individuality,” while pieces such as furniture symbolized “lineage” within families. More mundane items used regularly in the household or kitchen were chosen for their distinctiveness or their ability to call to mind shared remembrances.56 Taken together, these objects were tangible representations of the ties, affection, and interdependence that bound these women together in this place.

Frances’s possessions, which were invested with public as well as emotional meaning, demonstrated her position as a woman of influence, taste, and gentility in Jamaica. As Amanda Vickery has written, during the eighteenth century the ownership of “mahogany, silver, porcelain and silk . . . announced the wealth and taste of the privileged.”57 The wealthiest elite women of color, including Frances, owned items of this sort, in addition to gold and coral jewelry and, on occasion, artwork, which enhanced the splendor of their homes.58 Since Frances entertained on a grand scale, she [End Page 278] also owned “ivory handle[d] knives and forks,” several sets of painted china, and a tea set. The silver tableware that she distributed among her female kin enabled them to host other elites of color for sociable events such as tea and fine dining. Likewise, her “top chaise,” given to Jane Park, was an item laden with cultural meaning, as it was typically used by elite whites and was designed to display the owner in public. By giving Jane a carriage, Frances enabled her to parade down the principal streets of Spanish Town among the white planters, merchants, and politicians and their wives and daughters. In her chaise, driven by her horses and her enslaved coachman, Jane would be viewed as a person of affluence—and one far removed socially from the enslaved women and less prosperous free women of color who walked down the streets—thus visibly blurring and challenging distinctions of racial and social difference.59 Just as affluent free Afro-Jamaican women purchased enslaved servants, lived in elegant homes situated alongside well-to-do whites, and—as one observer noted—dressed in “finery” and “the most expensive sorts of linen,” they “lavish[ed] almost all the money they get in ornaments,” which they shared with others after their death. By conspicuously displaying objects of gentility, reproducing the consumption habits of elite whites through their own material culture, and bestowing culturally significant possessions on friends and family, free women reinforced their social and economic influence within Jamaican society.60

Frances Brown’s gifts to women she considered kin, however, were not limited to free people alone; instead, they spanned the worlds of slave and free. Though Frances was free, many of her relatives were still enslaved laborers on John Shand’s plantations. For example, slave lists from John’s Kellits Estate reveal that Thomas Brown, a field slave; Mary and Margaret Brown, both field-workers; Catalina Brown; John Brown; William Brown; and an infant child, Sarah Brown—all of whom were very likely extended relations of Frances’s—were still enslaved in the 1820s.61 Although Frances could not free all of the Browns, she instructed her executors to purchase the freedom of a “Sambo girl” named Sophia Elizabeth Gale, a relation of hers (perhaps her sister, as Sophia shared the last name of Frances’s sisters) on John Shand’s Belmont Estate, and she stipulated that Sophia be given a ten-pound annuity [End Page 279] on which to live.62 Bequests of that sort suggest that, while Frances lived as a single woman for the remainder of her life and there is no evidence that she ever saw any of her children again, she was far from alone. As her will attests, her life was deeply anchored, socially and economically, in island-wide networks of relationships that sustained and supported her.

Many free women of color gave their businesses to other women—usually daughters, friends, or business associates. For example, when the “notable Bessy Foord” died, her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Wynter, began “to superintend” their hotel in Spanish Town and run an adjoining tavern.63 Similarly, when Jane Charlotte Beckford died in 1823, she left her lodging house to her daughter Ann Eliza Ffrench.64 A particularly evocative example of the sorts of ties that business-centered bequests could mark surfaces in the will of Mary Vidal. Mary, a shopkeeper and retailer of imported goods in Savanna-la-Mar, gave her land and her residence where she kept her shop to “Hellen Forrest at present residing with me.” While Mary directed that one of her slave women, Louisa, be freed, she gave all the rest of her slaves to Hellen. Hellen was very likely not only Mary’s roommate but also her business partner and possibly life partner; thus, Mary gave Hellen her store, surrounding premises, and slaves so that she could continue the business on her own. Mary also sold all her remaining stock in the store to Hellen and directed that the proceeds from the sale of these goods were to provide for her two daughters, Ann and Elizabeth Darlington. Mary had children with several white men, including David Finlayson Sr., a notable politician and assemblyman who was the coexecutor of her will, and while that document indicates that she provided for her daughters, she also left a great deal of her property to Hellen. Though the sources do not allow us a further window into the precise nature of their relationship, it is clear that the two women shared a partnership of trust and deep connection, a relationship (perhaps even an intimate one) that extended beyond the requirements of business.65 While business-related bequests between women of color may not have generally marked exactly this sort of relationship, those gifts were still indicative of the strong commercial as well as social ties that bound women together. Free women of color passed on their businesses to female friends and kin, providing them with a means to make a living, but in doing so they perpetuated the bondage of the enslaved men and women whose livelihoods were [End Page 280] bound up in the outcomes of these commercial transactions, as Mary Vidal did when she gave most of her slaves to Hellen.

Nevertheless, high manumission rates among free women of color reveal the ways in which they navigated within the interstices of the slavery system itself, bending its limits to liberate loved ones and strengthen the free community of color. At death, free women of color often freed a favored slave (or slaves), many of whom were friends or kin. In my samples, eighteen out of forty-two, or approximately 43 percent, of female slaveholders of African descent manumitted a slave in their last will and testament, compared to 20 percent of white female slaveholders. Unlike in colonies such as Virginia, legislation barring slave manumission was never passed in Jamaica. Moreover, in contrast to Barbados, where steep manumission fees essentially prohibited all but the richest free men and women of color from freeing their own slaves, Jamaica charged no such fees until 1774, when an act was passed requiring slave owners to provide newly manumitted slaves with an annuity of five pounds. Though slave owners of color did manumit favored non-kin slaves, particularly domestic slaves who had served them well, they were far more likely to manumit those with whom they had a blood relationship.66 Free women in Jamaica worked within the institution of slavery itself to protect and free those they loved, acquiring ownership rights over such individuals if necessary, with the hope of eventual, if not immediate, emancipation. Manumission was also politically significant, as it allowed free women to bolster the size of the alternative political community that they belonged to and were actively building. By manumitting those within their wider kinship networks, free women reinforced patronage networks and generated social capital, strengthening bonds within the island’s community of color.

By owning enslaved people as a means of protecting them, if not eventually emancipating them, free women of color created zones of slavery that were at odds with the practices of Jamaica’s white rulers.67 For example, Mary Crymble freed her “negro woman named Dolly,” but she did so with an odd stipulation: Mary wrote that if Dolly wished, she could purchase her other slave woman, Beck, and directed that her executors would “execute a sufficient title to her for the sum of twenty-nine pounds current money of [End Page 281] Jamaica.” Dolly’s relationship to Beck is not known, nor is the true nature of Mary’s motivations in making such a particular request. Why Mary did not simply bequeath Beck to Dolly is also unclear. Yet the very lack of clarity surrounding Mary’s demands raises important, if ultimately unanswerable, questions about the potential kin relationship between Beck and Dolly, as well as the significance of Mary’s request, the purposeful ambiguity of which may have served to mask Beck and Dolly’s kinship connection.68 Similarly, Rebecca Stewart, a “penn” keeper who died in 1821 and identified as a “free person of colour,” freed her slave girl Elizabeth Stewart, gave her 150 pounds and all of her jewels and clothing, and demanded that her executors purchase a house for Elizabeth in town. However, Rebecca then insisted that Diana, Elizabeth’s enslaved mother, be given to her daughter as her property. Rebecca was not a wealthy woman, and it might have been beyond her means to provide Diana with adequate material support in freedom. Perhaps Rebecca, as paradoxical as it may seem, felt that giving Diana to Elizabeth was the only way to guarantee that they would not be separated and that the daughter could care for her mother in her old age. By giving Elizabeth ownership rights over her mother, Rebecca ensured that Diana was both safe and one step closer to manumission. Until financial circumstances permitted Elizabeth to free Diana, Rebecca knew that Diana would be protected within her network of female kin.69

As Rebecca’s will demonstrates, when immediate manumission was not possible, free women’s protection of enslaved men and women within free kinship networks constituted a particular form of freedom, even within bondage.70 In certain scenarios, Jamaican women instructed that specific people be kept within their family or kinship community, remaining the property of a particular child, sister, brother, or close friend. For example, Frances Brown asked that Edward Burke be freed but requested that he purchase his own manumission. She hoped he could afford to do so, but if he could not, she directed that he go live with her sister.71 Similarly, Amey Crooks did not grant her slave woman Robin or her daughter Sharlot their legal freedom. Yet Amey instructed that Robin and Sharlot be given to her eldest daughter, Mary, then afterwards be returned to Amey’s estate, Rockingham, to live with her two younger daughters, Margaret and Ann.72 [End Page 282] Although it is difficult to believe that life would ever have been better in slavery than in freedom, it is possible that the opportunity to live and work in the household of a free kinswoman may have been viewed as preferable to a life lived legally free yet marginalized, vulnerable, and exploited.73 After all, an enslaved person owned by a relative might well have enjoyed certain liberties, such as greater control over one’s time and labor and the ability to be close to other family members, to say nothing of the protection and support of prominent members of the free community. Through the practice of a covert politics within the system of slavery, free women of color endeavored to provide sustenance and protection to enslaved as well as free people within their kinship networks.

Free women of color took advantage of their status and material assets to free their own children as well as other children in their kinship networks and to support them in freedom.74 For example, Ann Thomas Richards, a married “woman of colour” from Kingston, freed her slave woman Cordelia and a child named Bella. She then demanded that her executors “take care” of Bella and “instruct her in the Christian religion” until she came of age.75 Rosanna Simpson, a free woman of color, freed her “mulatto boy slave” George Sieband. She directed that her niece Mary Dodson act as George’s formal guardian after her death and ensure that he was properly educated and maintained for at least fourteen years. Nothing is known about the relationship between Rosanna and George. Nor do we know if any agreement was made between Rosanna and George’s mother—who may have been deceased or enslaved—regarding George’s custodianship and care. But it is clear that Rosanna had taken George under her roof and felt a responsibility and duty to provide for his future.76 When free women of color were unable to free the children of their siblings, they made every effort to ensure that property stayed within their kinship network rather than falling into the hands of the children’s masters. Elizabeth Bell, a free “mulatto” woman from Kingston, demanded that—following her mother’s death—the “rest, residue and remainder” of her estate was to support Elizabeth’s three brothers and their children. However, Elizabeth had the foresight to know that her brothers, [End Page 283] though free, might have children with women who were still in bondage, and thus her nieces and nephews would also be enslaved. As such, Elizabeth instructed that her legacy would be passed to her brothers’ children if, and only if, they were free or had been freed during her brothers’ lifetimes. By doing so, she ensured that her estate would continue to support her family and friends.77 As mothers, guardians, and godmothers, free women of color attempted to leave legacies that would ensure liberty, security, and opportunity for their children even as these actions sometimes produced tragic outcomes for others.

It is important to remember, in fact, that while the arrangements and responses that legacies fostered within free women of color’s kinship networks were often positive, they could also be the cause of heartbreak, trauma, and dispute.78 A gift could trigger ill will, infighting, and jealousy among the testator’s network of female kin. Likewise, a legacy that ensured the emancipation of a single individual could perpetuate another’s enslavement or increase the social alienation and geographic distance between the newly freed person and his or her enslaved family. For example, Ann Thomas Richards of Kingston, who was married to John Richards, a free man of color, instructed that a portion of her estate go toward the manumission of a “sambo” girl named “Jane Richards,” who was owned by Mrs. Susanna Dawson of Kingston. Mrs. Dawson owned Jane, aged seven years, as well as Amelia, her younger sister, aged five years. Both were the daughters of Mary Ann Allred, an enslaved woman who was also employed on Dawson’s property. The girls’ last name suggests that they were the children of Ann’s husband or one of his male relatives. Ann’s motivations in freeing Jane are unclear. Maybe Ann and John had an understanding, and he planned to free Amelia later. However, the fact that Ann was a woman of means who owned several urban properties and could thus have afforded to free Amelia (and possibly Mary Ann) suggests several less pleasant possibilities. Ann might have harbored a grudge against John’s former (or current) love, or she might have favored Jane over her sister. We will never know the truth, but we do know that by partially uniting her own stepfamily across the bounds of slavery and freedom and providing her stepdaughter with freedom and support, Ann separated Jane from her mother and sister, who remained in bondage. In fact, free women’s bequests were often a product of entangled, and perhaps competing, interests, emotions, and motivations. Their gifts could be employed as instruments of ill as well as good will, and they could produce grief and rupture alongside opportunity and reunification.79 Ultimately, [End Page 284] Ann’s and other free women of color’s conflicted legacies were products of the realities of the slave system in which they operated.


Free women of African descent who built economic and social assets played a crucial role in Jamaica’s transition from slavery to freedom. The extensive influence of free matriarchs who were critical agents of economic continuity in the decades surrounding emancipation can be traced within individual families. Thus, Jane Charlotte Beckford, the free mixed-race daughter of a prominent politician and an enslaved woman, became wealthy and influential through inheritance and social connections as well as her lodging-house enterprise.80 Jane’s long-term partner, assemblyman George Ffrench, set her up in an elegant house in Spanish Town, which was prominently situated at the very center of elite white social and political life. Through the endorsement of prominent white patrons, Jane Charlotte’s lodging enterprise received ample economic and social visibility. She owned a magnificent home and fine material possessions, including numerous sets of mahogany furniture. When she died, her personal property, excluding the value of her home, was valued at the considerable—though by no means prodigious—amount of 132 pounds, seven shillings, and sixpence.81 She gave her lodging house to her eldest daughter, Ann Eliza Ffrench. Jane Charlotte was a successful entrepreneur whose exploitation of the slave economy, employment of personal and intimate strategies, and keen business acumen gave her economic power, social leverage, and the capacity to secure her children’s financial security and social position. Moreover, Jane Charlotte’s daughter Ann successfully built upon the groundwork laid by her mother to amass a personal estate of 2,985 pounds, two shillings, and fourpence—nearly twenty-two times the size of her mother’s personal estate—at the time of her death only ten years later. Ann still owned the five mahogany bedroom sets she inherited from her mother, but overall her collection of material belongings was far more genteel; it included additional mahogany furniture, six horses, a leather saddle, silver tableware, and a gold watch. Moreover, in addition to her lodging business, Ann owned an estate in Manchester Parish. Though slavery had been abolished in 1834, Ann’s prior investment in the slave economy furnished her with ample capital after emancipation. For the ownership of fifty-two enslaved men and women—the value of whom had accrued interest at a 13 percent premium—Ann was compensated 1,740 pounds, which added to her already [End Page 285] prosperous estate.82 By capitalizing upon their social ties, inheritances, and business acumen, free women of color navigated within the bounds of this slave economy in order to contribute to their families’ success in future generations.

Jane Charlotte’s legacy, and the economic continuity made possible through her efforts, extended well beyond the next generation. Ann’s children and Jane Charlotte’s grandchildren were among an elite cadre of Jamaicans of color who traversed the British Atlantic world at this time. For example, in 1841 Charles French Swaby, one of Ann’s children with a free man of color named John Swaby, lived in Yorkshire, where he was known as a “Gentleman.” Sarah Ann Swaby married a white man named John Smith in York, while her sister Marie Antoinette Swaby married Thomas Moyle, an Irish soldier in Marylebone, London—the affluent neighborhood where the wealthiest West Indian planters and merchants resided. Horatio, Ann’s only child who remained in Jamaica, was a landowner and an influential politician who was named Magistrate of Mandeville in Manchester Parish in 1861. Though none of Ann’s children who moved to Britain returned to Jamaica, other elite mixed-race children returned to the island upon the conclusion of their educations in Britain and formed the core of the island’s new leadership in the years following emancipation.83 As this single familial example illustrates, the personal, intimate, and public strategies that free matriarchs such as Jane Charlotte employed to acquire wealth and status made possible the greater prosperity experienced by their children and grandchildren after emancipation.

Free women of color attained success in this society while overcoming concerted efforts to stop them. The inheritance cap of 1761 was part of a larger effort by the colonial government to place greater social and economic distance between whites and free people of African descent. In the 1790s, after the beginnings of what would come to be called the Haitian Revolution, white Jamaicans feared that elite Jamaicans of color might incite a similar rebellion. Though we have no evidence that propertied individuals of color had any such plans, they did intend to challenge their inferior status [End Page 286] through other means. As abolitionists and humanitarians in Britain disparaged the existence of interracial families there and as ties between elites of color and their white relatives in Jamaica deteriorated, social and material bonds within the island’s freed community gained greater force.84 The efforts of whites failed to prevent free women with legal privileges from inheriting considerable estates and obtaining wealth. Nor did they stop free women—including those who had inherited property previously and those who became wealthy through urban enterprise—from building networks of social and economic capital. In fact, free women of color used their economic and social success to create more than wealth. In building “communities of property” through their social, emotional, and economic investments in their own kinship networks, free women were strengthening the bonds within and independence of a freed community that would eventually, in the not-so- distant future, directly challenge white hegemony.85

The successes of free women of color laid the groundwork for campaigns for greater independence. When propertied free people of color began their push for greater social, legal, and economic rights in the early decades of the nineteenth century, they did so armed with social standing, economic clout, and communal support. In 1792 propertied men and women of color drafted their first petition, demanding the right to give legal testimony against whites in a court of law and the abolition of inheritance legislation. Because this petition was only partially successful, 2,400 propertied men and women submitted another version in 1812, making the same demands. By 1814 all of their requests had been granted. Greater property rights fueled the push for political enfranchisement in the following years. In many ways, the work, struggle, and sacrifices that kinswomen and friends made on behalf of their children, their female friends, and others within their extended kinship networks laid the foundation for free people of color’s movements for greater rights.86


The families that free women made in Jamaica were entangled and complex, bound together by social and material ties that traversed lines of slavery and freedom in complicated and often incongruous ways. Yet it was these intricate and complex networks of support and security that enabled them to survive, if not thrive, in a harsh world where families were ripped apart every day by the traumas of death and the horrors of slavery. Free women participated in the slave economy because it offered one of the few pathways to social and economic mobility in this colony. However, working within the system of slavery also enabled them to resist it—bending its limits to liberate and protect their friends and relations. Participation in the institution of slavery as well as the ownership of property and control over its distribution [End Page 287] enabled women to carve out a space for themselves and their heirs within an oppressive society, even as they perpetuated the bondage of others.

Afro-Jamaican matriarchs were critical contributors to the growth and empowerment of the island’s free community of color.87 Women amassed property—sometimes at a high cost—to survive and to acquire influence and status within this plantation society. But they did so also because they knew that their legacies would bind their family and kin together and shape the futures of children and grandchildren in positive ways. They hoped that their estates would augment the liberties their children and grandchildren experienced and that property would be a source of protection for the vulnerable, a buffer against society’s violence, a formidable equalizer, and a “weapon of the weak” against ill will and discrimination.88

And by the beginning of the nineteenth century, whites were aware of the extent of free people of color’s property accumulation and success and felt powerless to stop them. As white planter John Stewart lamented in the 1820s: “Into the hands of the first and second class [within the free community of color] much of the property of the country is fast falling.—So that there can be little doubt that the time is not far distant when the free people of colour, feeling their own weight in numbers, property, and information, will not rest content with any qualifications short of what the whites enjoy.”89 Indeed, the burgeoning independence from whites of free Jamaicans of color and their campaigns for greater economic and civil rights contributed to the “fall of the planter class.”90 Because of their gender, women of color did not benefit equally from the passage of legislation that gave free people of color greater civil rights. But through the accumulation and distribution of material resources, the formation of social networks, and the practice of a covert politics within the system of slavery, they too helped to bring about the “social emancipation” of Jamaica’s free people of color.91 [End Page 288]

Erin Trahey

Erin Trahey received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge.

She would like to thank Drs. Seth Archer, Amy Erickson, Nicholas Guyatt, Amanda Herbert, Daniel Livesay, Diana Paton, Sarah Pearsall, and Daniel Robinson, as well as the anonymous readers at the William and Mary Quarterly, for reading and critiquing versions of this manuscript. Their extremely thoughtful guidance was indispensable throughout the revision process. She is also indebted to all of the archival staff who corresponded with her and helped to track down documents. In particular, she is very appreciative of the continued assistance of Mario Reynolds and Nadine Smith at the Registrar General’s Department of Jamaica and Kimberly Blackwin at the Jamaica Archives and Records Department. She would also like to extend her sincere gratitude to Nancy and Keith Atkinson for sharing their Jamaican family history with her.


1. Will of Amey Crooks, proved Apr. 2, 1792, Liber Old Series (LOS) 56, fol. 202, Registrar General’s Department of Jamaica (RGDJ), Twickenham Park, St. Catherine, Jamaica.

2. As Marisa J. Fuentes has written, the “agency” of free female entrepreneurs of color in the colonial Caribbean “depended upon the sexual subjugation of other black women and supported a system of slavery established and perpetuated by the white colonial authority.” Fuentes, “Power and Historical Figuring: Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s Troubled Archive,” Gender and History 22, no. 3 (November 2010): 564–84 (quotations, 566).

3. Race and racial difference in Jamaica were understood as a spectrum rather than a strict binary. The island’s inhabitants used a taxonomy of terms to categorize mixed-race individuals based on descent and complexion. I use these terms only when they appear in historical documents. In Jamaica, a “free person of color” most often referred to a person of mixed African and European ancestry. For the purposes of this study, I use the term free person of color to denote a free person of African descent when precise racial identification is unclear. By contrast, I use the term free black as it was used at the time: to describe a person entirely or predominantly of African origin. Though I deploy the term community of color to describe the island’s free community of African descent as a whole, this group was far from homogenous and remained divided along lines of class and complexion throughout the period of slavery. See Gad J. Heuman, Between Black and White: Race, Politics, and the Free Coloreds in Jamaica, 1792–1865 (Oxford, 1981), 16; Kamau Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (Kingston, 2005), 167; Daniel Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733–1833 (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2018), 386. On the relationship between Jamaica’s free population of color and the power of the planter class during the age of abolition, see Livesay, “The Decline of Jamaica’s Interracial Households and the Fall of the Planter Class, 1733–1823,” Atlantic Studies 9, no. 1 (March 2012): 107–23, esp. 107. See also Christer Petley, “Rethinking the Fall of the Planter Class,” Atlantic Studies 9, no. 1 (March 2012): 1–17, esp. 13; Livesay, “Privileging Kinship: Family and Race in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” Early American Studies 14, no. 4 (Fall 2016): 688–711.

4. On death and disease in colonial Jamaica, see Trevor Burnard, “‘The Countrie Continues Sicklie’: White Mortality in Jamaica, 1655–1780,” Social History of Medicine 12, no. 1 (April 1999): 45–72, esp. 51; Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, Mass., 2008), 17. On families in Atlantic histories, see James H. Sweet, “Defying Social Death: The Multiple Configurations of African Slave Family in the Atlantic World,” in “Centering Families in Atlantic Histories,” special issue, William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 70, no. 2 (April 2013): 251–72; Bianca Premo, “Familiar: Thinking beyond Lineage and across Race in Spanish Atlantic Family History,” in “Centering Families in Atlantic Histories,” special issue, WMQ 70, no. 2 (April 2013): 295–316. On women’s relations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America and in the wider British Atlantic world, see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1, no. 1 (Autumn 1975): 1–29; Pedro L. V. Welch with Richard A. Goodridge, “Red” and Black over White: Free Coloured Women in Pre-Emancipation Barbados (Bridgetown, Barbados, 2000); Katy Simpson Smith, We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750–1835 (Baton Rouge, La., 2013), 232; Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford, 2014); Amanda E. Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven, Conn., 2014). On the terror and brutality of the Jamaican slave economy and the sexual exploitation experienced by enslaved women, see Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004).

5. Wilma King, “Out of Bounds: Emancipated and Enslaved Women in Ante-bellum America,” in Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas, ed. David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine (Urbana, Ill., 2004), 127–44, esp. 128; Loren Schweninger, “The Fragile Nature of Freedom: Free Women of Color in the U.S. South,” ibid., 106–24, esp. 107–8; Kimberly S. Hanger, “Landlords, Shopkeepers, Farmers, and Slave-Owners: Free Black Female Property-Holders in Colonial New Orleans,” ibid., 219–36, esp. 229–30; Jennifer M. Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans (Baltimore, 2009), 92; Jessica Marie Johnson, “Freedom, Kinship, and Property: Free Women of African Descent in the French Atlantic, 1685–1810” (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, College Park, 2012); Terri L. Snyder, “Marriage on the Margins: Free Wives, Enslaved Husbands, and the Law in Early Virginia,” Law and History Review 30, no. 1 (February 2012): 141–71, esp. 147; Elizabeth Clark Neidenbach, “The Life and Legacy of Marie Couvent: Social Networks, Property Ownership, and the Making of a Free People of Color Community in New Orleans” (Ph.D. diss., College of William and Mary, 2015); Snyder, “Women, Race and the Law in Early America,” Oxford Research Encyclopedias: American History, September 2015,

6. For the resources of free women of color in New Orleans, see Kimberly S. Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803 (Durham, N.C., 1997), 79–83. For familial belonging in Saint Augustine, see Jane Landers, Black Society in Spanish Florida (Urbana, Ill., 1999), 150–51. On the families and kinship networks constructed among people of color in New Orleans, see Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places, 89–108.

7. Hilary McD. Beckles, “White Women and Slavery in the Caribbean,” in “Colonial and Post-colonial History,” special issue, History Workshop Journal, no. 36 (Autumn 1993): 66–82, esp. 69–70; Linda L. Sturtz, “The ‘Dimduke’ and the Duchess of Chandos: Gender and Power in Jamaican Plantation Management—A Case Study or, A Different Story of ‘A Man [and His Wife] from a Place Called Hope,’” in “Caribbean Perspectives on Gender, Nature, Colonization and Law: A Selection of Papers Presented at the 29th Annual Conference of the Association of Caribbean Historians,” special issue, Revista/Review interamericana 29, no. 1–4 (January–December 1999): [1–15]; Christine Walker, “Pursuing Her Profits: Women in Jamaica, Atlantic Slavery and a Globalising Market, 1700–60,” Gender and History 26, no. 3 (November 2014): 478–501; Walker, “Womanly Masters: Gendering Slave Ownership in Colonial Jamaica,” in Women in Early America, ed. Thomas A. Foster (New York, 2015), 139–58. For women as slave-holders in other Caribbean islands, see Kathleen Mary Butler, The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica and Barbados, 1823–1843 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1995); Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton, and Barbara Baily, eds., Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective (New York, 1995); Cecily Jones, Engendering Whiteness: White Women and Colonialism in Barbados and North Carolina, 1627–1865 (Manchester, 2007); Verene A. Shepherd, Engendering Caribbean History: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, A Reader (Kingston, 2011); Natalie Zacek, “Between Lady and Slave: White Working Women in the Eighteenth-Century Leeward Islands,” in Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500–1800, ed. Douglas Catterall and Jodi Campbell (Leiden, 2012), 127–50. Though several Caribbean scholars have briefly discussed the enterprise of free women of color, no single monograph has considered their lives and labors. See for example Lorna Elaine Simmonds, “The Afro-Jamaican and the Internal Marketing System: Kingston, 1780–1834,” in Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom: History, Heritage and Culture, ed. Kathleen E. A. Monteith and Glen Richards (Kingston, 2002), 274–90, esp. 278; Lucille Mathurin Mair, A Historical Study of Women in Jamaica, 1655–1844, ed. Beckles and Shepherd (Kingston, 2006), 268–94; Sturtz, “Mary Rose: ‘White’ African Jamaican Woman? Race and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” in Gendering the African Diaspora: Women, Culture, and Historical Change in the Caribbean and Nigerian Hinterland, ed. Judith A. Byfield, LaRay Denzer, and Anthea Morrison (Bloomington, Ind., 2010), 59–87.

8. On the enterprise of free women of color in Barbados, see Jerome S. Handler, “Joseph Rachell and Rachael Pringle-Polgreen: Petty Entrepreneurs,” in Struggle and Survival in Colonial America, ed. David G. Sweet and Gary B. Nash (Berkeley, Calif., 1981), 376–90; Fuentes, Gender and History 22: 564–84; Welch with Goodridge, “Red” and Black over White; Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, 2016). Other works on free women of color in slave societies across the Americas include Jane G. Landers, ed., Against the Odds: Free Blacks in the Slave Societies of the Americas (London, 1996); Kathleen J. Higgins, “Licentious Liberty” in a Brazilian Gold-Mining Region: Slavery, Gender, and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Sabará, Minas Gerais (University Park, Pa., 1999); Gaspar and Hine, Beyond Bondage; Júnia Ferreira Furtado, Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 2009); Johnson, “Freedom, Kinship, and Property”; Emily Clark, The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2013); Neidenbach, “Life and Legacy of Marie Couvent.” On the role of free African women in slave-trading societies in Africa, see George E. Brooks, Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Athens, Ohio, 2003); Mark Hinchman, “Anne Pépin (1758–1837): Entrepreneur, Landlady, and Mixed-Race Signare in Senegal,” in The Human Tradition in the Atlantic World, 1500–1850, ed. Karen Racine and Beatriz G. Mamigonian (Lanham, Md., 2010), 133–50; Pernille Ipsen, “‘The Christened Mulatresses’: Euro-African Families in a Slave-Trading Town,” in “Centering Families in Atlantic Histories,” special issue, WMQ 70, no. 2 (April 2013): 371–98; Hilary Jones, The Métis of Senegal: Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa (Bloomington, Ind., 2013), 47; Ipsen, Daughters of the Trade: Atlantic Slavers and Interracial Marriage on the Gold Coast (Philadelphia, 2015).

9. As scholars such as Jane Landers have demonstrated, during the age of revolutions free and enslaved people of color living along the Atlantic coast employed political agency, making “astute political decisions” in order to navigate within oppressive systems of control and to manipulate these systems to their advantage. See Landers, Black Society in Spanish Florida, 4 (quotation). See also Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York, 1974); Gwen-dolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge, La., 1992); Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places; Jane G. Landers, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, Mass., 2010). Most studies on abolition and emancipation in the British Caribbean focus on black resistance or white political debates. On slave resistance, see Mary Turner, Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (1982; repr., Kingston, 1998); Mair, Historical Study of Women; Barbara Bush, “‘The Family Tree Is Not Cut’: Women and Resistance in Slave Family Life in the British Caribbean,” in In Resistance: Studies in African, Caribbean, and Afro-American History, ed. Gary Y. Okihiro (Amherst, Mass., 1986), 117–32; Gad Heuman, ed., Out of the House of Bondage: Runaways, Resistance and Marronage in Africa and the New World (London, 1986); Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Ithaca, N.Y., 2009). On white political debates, see for example Trevor Burnard, “Powerless Masters: The Curious Decline of Jamaican Sugar Planters in the Foundational Period of British Abolitionism,” Slavery and Abolition 32, no. 2 (June 2011): 185–98; Christer Petley, “‘Devoted Islands’ and ‘That Madman Wilberforce’: British Proslavery Patriotism during the Age of Abolition,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39, no. 3 (2011): 393–415. On the political activism of Robert Wedderburn, a free Jamaican man of color, in key political debates pertaining to slavery and abolitionism, see Iain McCalman, ed., The Horrors of Slavery and Other Writings by Robert Wedderburn (Kingston, 1997); Malcolm Chase, “Wedderburn, Robert,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, May 24, 2008,

10. Trevor Burnard, “A Failed Settler Society: Marriage and Demographic Failure in Early Jamaica,” Journal of Social History 28, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 63–82, esp. 76.

11. Recent work on the familial and kinship networks of African-descended people in colonial Jamaica includes Brown, Reaper’s Garden; Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune.

12. Premo, WMQ 70: 297–98 (quotations, 297); for “fictive,” see also Brown, Reaper’s Garden, 118–19 (quotation, 118).

13. For understandings of property among slaves and ex-slaves in the American South, see Dylan C. Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2003), 89; Penningroth, “The Claims of Slaves and Ex-Slaves to Family and Property: A Transatlantic Comparison,” American Historical Review 112, no. 4 (October 2007): 1039–69. On inheritance patterns among the enslaved in Jamaica, see Brown, Reaper’s Garden, 118–19. On the provision system in Jamaica, see Roderick A. McDonald, The Economy and Material Culture of Slaves: Goods and Chattels on the Sugar Plantations of Jamaica and Louisiana (Baton Rouge, La., 1993), 25. The provision system served a dual purpose: provision grounds constituted enslaved people’s primary source of nutrition, while surplus goods produced on these grounds and sold at market fed much of the rest of the free population. B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston, 2008), 36. On the provision grounds, livestock, and gardens of the enslaved, see Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807–1834 (Kingston, 1995), 171; Brathwaite, Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 133; Brown, Reaper’s Garden, 120–21. Enslaved wills were “extra-legal arrangements” and thus were not probated in any formal way. Brown, Reaper’s Garden, 113–28 (quotation, 113); Jean Besson, Martha Brae’s Two Histories: European Expansion and Caribbean Culture-Building in Jamaica (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2002), 28.

14. On the ethnicity of enslaved people in Jamaica, see Simon P. Newman et al., “The West African Ethnicity of the Enslaved in Jamaica,” Slavery and Abolition 34, no. 3 (2013): 376–400, esp. 385, 388. For property distribution patterns among the Fante, see Penningroth, Claims of Kinfolk, 11. Recent work on material culture and exchanges among the enslaved in the early modern Americas includes Helen Bradley Foster, “New Raiments of Self ”: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South (Oxford, 1997); Silvia Hunold Lara, “Customs and Costumes: Carlos Julião and the Image of Black Slaves in Late Eighteenth-Century Brazil,” Slavery and Abolition 23, no. 2 (2002): 123–46; Tamara J. Walker, “‘He outfitted his family in notable decency’: Slavery, Honour and Dress in Eighteenth-Century Lima, Peru,” Slavery and Abolition 30, no. 3 (September 2009): 383–402; Robert S. DuPlessis, The Material Atlantic: Clothing, Commerce, and Colonization in the Atlantic World, 1650–1800 (Cambridge, 2016). For inheritance patterns among the enslaved in the American South, see Penningroth, Claims of Kinfolk, 89.

15. On disease and mortality in Jamaica, see Richard B. Sheridan, Doctors and Slaves: A Medical and Demographic History of Slavery in the British West Indies, 1680–1834 (Cambridge, 1985), 186; Burnard, Social History of Medicine 12: 51; Brown, Reaper’s Garden, 17. For death in Jamaica, see Brown, Reaper’s Garden, 92.

16. For analysis of women’s wills in the colonial Caribbean and wider British Atlantic world, see Suzanne Lebsock, The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784–1860 (London, 1984), 136; Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993), 217; Jones, Engendering Whiteness, 111. As Jennifer L. Morgan has shown, for the “middling sort” of white colonists in the colonial Caribbean, who wrote very little about their lives, wills represent some of the few artifacts we have to understand their ideas about the world around them, especially in regards to gender, reproduction, and race. See Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia, 2004), 69–71 (quotation, 70). Studies of white men’s wills in colonial Jamaica include Trevor Burnard, “Inheritance and Independence: Women’s Status in Early Colonial Jamaica,” WMQ 48, no. 1 (January 1991): 93–114; Christer Petley, “‘Legitimacy’ and Social Boundaries: Free People of Colour and the Social Order in Jamaican Slave Society,” Social History 30, no. 4 (November 2005): 481–98.

17. The forty-two wills of free women of color in the sample were probated in the period 1750–1834. Thirty-two of the wills are housed by the Registrar General’s Department in Jamaica, while ten are held by the National Archives of the United Kingdom (NA), Kew, and were probated by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) in London. Due to time and photography restrictions, this sample of forty-two wills from free women of color was gathered along with a sample of white women’s wills. Women’s wills were randomly selected from each decade using will books housed at the Registrar General’s Department in Jamaica. Ten to fifteen wills were selected per decade if possible, though in many cases the fragility of the volumes did not allow for this. The remaining wills were drawn at random from the NA online database by searching for all wills from women (regardless of race) that were probated in Jamaica in the period 1750–1834. These research methods produced two distinct samples of wills: sample one, which includes the wills of sixty-five white women, and sample two, which includes forty-two wills from free women of color. It is impossible to be certain how many free women lived in Jamaica during this period or how many total women left wills. Female testators whose wills were probated by the PCC held property in two jurisdictions and thus were relatively wealthy. See “Wills or Administrations before 1858,” NA, accessed Aug. 17, 2018,

18. For an example of a woman who identified herself as a “free black woman,” see Will of Mary Winter, proved Mar. 20, 1799, LOS 44, fol. 41, RGDJ. For an example of a woman who called herself a “free negro woman,” see Will of Martha Barjeau, proved Jan. 17, 1780, LOS 41, fol. 210, RGDJ. For examples of women who identified themselves as being of mixed descent, see Will of Elizabeth Collins, proved Jan. 16, 1799, LOS 65, fol. 144 (“of colour”), RGDJ; Will of Mary Campbell, proved Nov. 21, 1773, LOS 41, fol. 176 (“free mulatto”), RGDJ; Will of Frances Sadler, proved Dec. 10, 1789, LOS 55, fols. 22–23 (“free quadroon,” 22), RGDJ; Will of Ann Upton, proved Dec. 17, 1798, LOS 65, fol. 1 (“free brown”), RGDJ.

19. For estimates on the population size of the free community of color, see Mair, Historical Study of Women, 271–73; Jack P. Greene, Settler Jamaica in the 1750s: A Social Portrait (Charlottesville, Va., 2016), 191. Women also outnumbered men in Barbados and in many of the free black communities in the upper and lower American South. See Schweninger, “Fragile Nature of Freedom,” 107; Jerome S. Handler, The Unappropriated People: Freedmen in the Slave Society of Barbados (Kingston, 2009), 22. Mixed-race women were freed more frequently than black women. See Heuman, Between Black and White, 7–9; Mair, Historical Study of Women, 271–72, 275; Greene, Settler Jamaica, 191.

20. Though interracial marriages were rare, they did occur. For example, in the parish of St. Elizabeth from 1750 to 1815, there were fourteen marriages recorded between either white men and women of color or white women and men of color. Two interracial marriages were recorded in St. Ann and one in Clarendon in the same period. However, there were none recorded in Kingston, and records for Spanish Town have not survived. See Brathwaite, Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 188–89. Examples of marriages between free men and women of color in the decade prior to emancipation can be found in Anglican parish registers. See Jamaica, Church of England Parish Register Transcripts, 1664–1880, database with images, FamilySearch (citing Diocese of Jamaica, RGDJ), On the economic roles played by single women of color in other Caribbean colonies, see Susan M. Socolow, “Economic Roles of the Free Women of Color of Cap Français,” in More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, ed. David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine (Bloomington, Ind., 1996), 279–97, esp. 292–93; Pedro L. V. Welch, “‘Unhappy and Afflicted Women?’ Free Colored Women in Barbados: 1780–1834,” in “Caribbean Perspectives on Gender, Nature, Colonization and Law,” special issue, Revista/Review interamericana 29, no. 1–4 (January–December 1999): [1–23], esp. [2].

21. Amy M. Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2005), 9.

22. Erickson, Women and Property, 48 (quotations).

23. For an analysis of bequests that white Jamaican men left to housekeepers and illegitimate children of color during the early nineteenth century, see Petley, Social History 30: 482. The 1761 provision restricting the inheritance bequests of free people of color can be found here: “An Act to Prevent the Inconveniencies Arising from Exorbitant Grants and Devises, Made by White Persons to Negroes, and the Issue of Negroes; and to Restrain and Limit Such Grants and Devises,” Dec. 19, 1761, in [Alexander Aikman, ed.], The Laws of Jamaica: Comprehending All the Acts in Force, Passed between the First-Year of the Reign of King George the Third, and the Thirty-Second Year of the Reign of King George the Third, inclusive. . . ., 2d ed. (St. Jago de La Vega, 1802), 2: 23–26. For more on inheritance restriction legislation and its implications for free people of color, see Livesay, Atlantic Studies 9: 111.

24. Livesay, Atlantic Studies 9: 111 (quotation); Mair, Historical Study of Women, 93.

25. Free people of color’s ties to white families weakened by the turn of the nineteenth century as British conceptions of familial belonging narrowed and the proportion of children of color born to white parents decreased. See Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune, 4, 386. From 1764 to 1834, the free black population grew by 1,000 percent and the free mixed-race population by 933 percent, while the white population grew by only 10.6 percent. In part, the free population of African descent on Jamaica grew rapidly, compared to the population in places such as Barbados, because there were no manumission fees in place to restrict growth. See Welch, Revista/Review interamericana 29: [12]; Pedro L. V. Welch, Slave Society in the City: Bridgetown, Barbados, 1680–1834 (Kingston, 2003), 168; Petley, Atlantic Studies 9: 13; Livesay, Atlantic Studies 9: 115–17; Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune, 24.

26. Charles White, “Census of St. Jago de la Vega [Spanish Town] undertaken by Charles White, gent. in July and August 1754,” Fuller Family of Rosehill in Brightling Papers, SAS/RF 20/7, East Sussex County Record Office, Brighton, U.K.; “House Rent in Savanna La Mar, 1804,” in “Vestry Minutes: 1780–1781, Tax Rolls. . . . ,” Jamaica Archives and Records Department (JARD), Spanish Town.

27. Mair, Historical Study of Women, 88.

28. The number 650 is approximate. One hundred petitions were passed, each one containing (on average) 6 individuals, for a total of approximately 650 individuals who received dispensations. See Livesay, Atlantic Studies 9: 109. As petitions do not always list the name of the petitioner, it is impossible to know exactly who was responsible for submitting all of the petitions; Livesay, Early American Studies 14: 698–99.

29. Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune, 30; Mair, Historical Study of Women, 93. In Barbados, women were also considerable property owners among the free population of African descent—and indeed, by the 1790s, they outnumbered men among the wealthiest upper echelon of free property holders of color. Yet the population of free people of color was smaller, and constituted a smaller percentage of the free population, in Barbados than in Jamaica. See Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel, eds., A Population History of North America (Cambridge, 2000), 494–97; Welch, Slave Society, 169–70.

30. With rare exceptions, even the rights of privileged people of color did not include the right to vote or hold political office. See Mair, Historical Study of Women, 93. On the legal limitations placed upon free people of color, see Heuman, Between Black and White, 5. For an instance when a free woman of color was cheated out of her rightful inheritance, see Will of Emma Freeman, Aug. 20, 1791, LOS 56, fol. 82, RGDJ. In one case, even a wealthy woman of color with legal privileges was forced to give her inherited property away to heirs in Great Britain, including the white wife and child of her former lover. See “Case 353: Robert Wadham Spraage, an Infant, Appellant; Jane Stone, Respondent: Jane Stone, Appellant; Robert Wadham Spraage, Respondent [Lib. Reg. 1767, A. fo. 344],” Mar. 27, 1773, in Charles Ambler, Report of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery With Some Other Cases [1716–1783], 2d ed., [ed.] John Elijah Blunt (London, 1828), 2: 721–23. On the efforts of free people of color to gain greater civil rights in the early nineteenth century, see Livesay, Atlantic Studies 9: 114–16.

31. Will of Mary Vidal, Sept. 3, 1784, Probate (Prob.) 11/1690, NA; Will of Sarah Masias, May 24, 1792, LOS 56, fol. 220, RGDJ; Will of Isabella Hall, Feb. 25, 1825, Prob. 11/1708, NA. For the only white woman’s will that used the term gentlewoman, see Will of Elizabeth McCrae, Feb. 17, 1800, LOS 66, fol. 167, RGDJ.

32. “Gentlewoman,” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, accessed Feb. 2, 2018, As Amanda Vickery has written, “A gentlewoman’s honour lay in the public recognition of her virtue, a gentleman’s in the reliability of his word.” See Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (New Haven, Conn., 1998), 54.

33. In eighteenth-century Kingston, 87 percent of free people of color owned slaves, making their frequency of slave ownership higher than any other racial demographic, though on average they owned fewer slaves. Free women of all races were the third most frequent slaveholding group, with 80.6 percent owning slaves in property inventories surveyed. See Trevor Burnard, “Kingston, Jamaica: Crucible of Modernity,” in The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade, ed. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Matt D. Childs, and James Sidbury (Philadelphia, 2013), 122–44, esp. 141–42.

34. See for example Mrs. [A. C.] Carmichael, Domestic Manners and Social Condition of the White, Coloured, and Negro Population of the West Indies (London, 1833), 2: 75.

35. Handler, Unappropriated People, 56 (quotation). See also Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places, 1, 45–47; Welch, Slave Society in the City, 175, 185.

36. For example, on Mar. 31, 1792, Cordelia and Ann, the daughters of Jane Jeffry, a “free negro woman,” and Peter Jackson, a “mulatto man slave,” were baptized in Kingston. See Kingston Baptisms, 1722–1792, Jamaica, Church of England Parish Register Transcripts, 1664–1880, database with images, vol. 1, 443, FamilySearch (citing Diocese of Jamaica, RGDJ),

37. Greene, Settler Jamaica, 113, 191. On women’s households in other colonial port cities, see Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, The Ties that Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia, 2009), 13–14. See also Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996), 229.

38. Will of Mary Crymble, proved June 28, 1764, LOS 35, fol. 113, RGDJ; Will of Ann Perry, May 27, 1812, Prob. 11/1533, NA.

39. Will of Mary Rogers, Nov. 29, 1765, LOS 35, fol. 191, RGDJ.

40. On limitations placed on Anglo-Jamaican women’s inheritances, see Catherine Hall, “Gendering Property, Racing Capital,” History Workshop Journal, no. 78 (Autumn 2014): 22–38, esp. 32. For conditions that white men placed on the inheritances of free women of color, see Petley, Social History 30: 491. For patterns of property distribution among white women in Barbados, see Jones, Engendering Whiteness, 111. Examples of white women’s wills include Will of Anne Bridge, Sept. 15, 1762, Prob. 11/879, NA; Will of Mary Elletson, entered Mar. 1, 1773, LOS 41, fol. 28, RGDJ; Will of Martha Barton, Sept. 7, 1781, LOS 55, fols. 20–22, RGDJ; Will of Mary Stott, entered Mar. 8, 1783, Prob. 11/1122, NA; Will of Elizabeth Anderson, Sept. 11, 1783, LOS 47, fol. 159, RGDJ; Will of Margaret Eleanor Alpress, Apr. 17, 1797, Prob. 11/1288, NA; Will of Frances Gent Campbell, July 13, 1814, Prob. 11/1604, NA; Will of Rebecca Burbary Case, entered July 1, 1820, LOS 99, fol. 23, RGDJ; Will of Ann Pinnock, Oct. 26, 1826, Prob. 11/1718, NA.

41. Sarah M. S. Pearsall, Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2008), 62.

42. Will of Mary Crymble, proved June 28, 1764, LOS 35, fol. 113, RGDJ.

43. Will of Mary Winter, proved Mar. 20, 1799, LOS 66, fol. 41, RGDJ.

44. The term “community of property” was originally used by John D. Garrigus to describe communities established by free elites of color in Haiti. See Garrigus, “‘To establish a community of property’: Marriage and Race before and during the Haitian Revolution,” in “The Plantation and the Family,” special issue, History of the Family 12, no. 2 (2007): 142–52. See also Jessica Marie Johnson, “Death Rites as Birthrights in Atlantic New Orleans: Kinship and Race in the Case of María Teresa v. Perine Dauphine,” Slavery and Abolition 36, no. 2 (2015): 233–56, esp. 235. On the expansion of the free population of color and its growing independence from the white population at the turn of the nineteenth century, see Livesay, Atlantic Studies 9: 107; Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune, 397.

45. J[ohn] Stewart, A View of the Past and Present State of the Island of Jamaica. . . . (Edinburgh, 1823), 329.

46. Pearsall, Atlantic Families, 56–57 (quotation, 56).

47. Will of Mary Harris, proved Feb. 4, 1799, LOS 66, fol. 41, RGDJ.

48. Will of Mary Adams, proved June 6, 1809, LOS 81, fol. 193, RGDJ.

49. Will of Elizabeth Collins, proved Jan. 16, 1799, LOS 65, fol. 144, RGDJ.

50. Will of Mary Gwyn, proved June 21, 1783, LOS 47, fols. 114–115 (“kinswom[e]n,” 114), RGDJ. Many thanks to Amanda Herbert for providing me with this insight. See also Naomi Tadmor, Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England: Household, Kinship, and Patronage (Cambridge, 2001), 150. Notably, the Jamaican word for “kins-woman,” yaya (or yaaya), which typically describes a grandmother or mother, has similar roots in five African languages, all of which have been linked to origins of the enslaved in Jamaica. The relatively broad African usage of this term, despite slight cross-linguistic variations, suggests the possible West African origins of this particular Jamaican kinship term. In Themne, the word o-ya meant “mother” or “aunt.” In Igbo, the term iyaa referred to “mother” or “mum.” In Yoruba, iya referred to “mother” or any kinswoman in the generation of one’s mother; in Gbari, eya meant “mother”; and in Koonga, yaya meant “mother,” “mother’s sister,” and “other maternal relations.” According to Joseph Tito Farquharson, the “high level of formal similarity” in kinship terms among these otherwise-unrelated languages is significant. He postulates that similarities may have arisen because these words were widely used “nursery” terms, which were taught to young children. Farquharson, “The African Lexis in Jamaican: Its Linguistic and Socio-historical Significance” (Ph.D. diss., University of the West Indies, 2012), 326, 330.

51. Will of Mary Gwyn, proved June 21, 1783, LOS 47, fols. 114–115 (“kinswoman,” 114, “occupy,” 115), RGDJ.

52. Will of Ann Thomas Richards, proved Apr. 8, 1819, Prob. 11/1615, NA.

53. Will of Sarah Gordon, May 19, 1799, proved Aug. 10, 1799, LOS 66, fol. 6, RGDJ.

54. Adele Perry, Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World (Cambridge, 2015), 20 (quotation), 25; “John Shand and Frances Brown,” “African-Scottish Families,” A North East Story: Scotland, Africa, and Slavery in the Caribbean, organized by Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Bicentenary Committee, 2008,

55. Will of Frances Brown, Apr. 7, 1834, Prob. 11/1953, NA.

56. Ibid. (“relation”); Vickery, Gentleman’s Daughter, 192 (“individuality”). The only men Frances left bequests to were John Shand’s brother William and her own brother John Plummer, along with his sons.

57. Vickery, Gentleman’s Daughter, 161 (quotation), 192.

58. Will of Charity Harry, probated Nov. 13, 1793, Prob. 11/1247, NA; Probate inventory of Charity Harry, 1B/11/3/80, fol. 146, JARD; Probate inventory of Frances Brown, Jan. 21, 1835, no. 151, fols. 10–12, JARD.

59. Probate inventory of Frances Brown, Jan. 21, 1835, no. 151, fols. 10–12 (“ivory,” 11), JARD; Will of Frances Brown, Apr. 7, 1834, Prob. 11/1953, NA (“top”); Vickery, Gentleman’s Daughter, 10. On the social role of tea, see ibid., 222.

60. [Edward Long], The History of Jamaica: or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of that Island: With Reflections on its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government (London, 1774), 2: 335 (quotations).

61. On John Shand, Frances Brown, and their children, see “John Shand and Frances Brown,” “African-Scottish Families,” A North East Story: Scotland, Africa, and Slavery in the Caribbean, organized by Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Bicentenary Committee, 2008, For plantation accounts relating to John Shand’s Jamaican estates, see “John Shand Slave List Kellits Estate 1818,” MS 3652_8_3, Special Collections, University of Aberdeen, U.K.; “John Shand Slave List Kellits Estate 1823,” MS 3652_8_18, ibid.

62. Will of Frances Brown, Apr. 7, 1834, Prob. 11/1953, NA.

63. Robert Johnston journal, Jamaica, 1809–1818, entry dated June 25, 1818, Powel Family Papers, collection 1582, box 49, ser. 10g, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

64. “Ann Eliza French: Profile and Legacies Summary,” Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, database, UCL Department of History, accessed Mar. 14, 2017,

65. Will of Mary Vidal, Sept. 3, 1824, Prob 11/1690, NA (quotation); David Dobson, Scots in the West Indies, 1707–1857 (Baltimore, 1998), 1: 47; Cleves, Charity and Sylvia.

66. On slave manumission in Virginia, see Snyder, “Women, Race and the Law,” 7. For slave manumission in Barbados, see Welch, Revista/Review interamericana 29: [12–13]; Handler, Unappropriated People, 55. In Barbados manumission fees of fifty pounds sterling were first instituted in 1739. By 1801 these fees had increased to three hundred pounds for a woman and two hundred pounds for a man. See “An act for regulating the manumission of negro, mulatto, and other slaves, and to oblige the owners to make a provision for them during their lives,” Dec. 24, 1774, in Journals of the Assembly of Jamaica, 6: 571–72; Keith Hanley and Greg Kucich, eds., Nineteenth-Century Worlds: Global Formations Past and Present (London, 2013), 48. On the slaveholding practices of free people of color in Barbados, see Handler, Unappropriated People, 56–57.

67. On similar strategies employed by free women of color in New Orleans, see Hanger, “Landlords, Shopkeepers, Farmers, and Slave-Owners,” 225.

68. Will of Mary Crymble, proved June 28, 1764, LOS 35, fol. 113, RGDJ.

69. Will of Rebecca Stewart, entered Apr. 27, 1821, LOS 99, fol. 9, RGDJ.

70. As María Elena Díaz has argued in regards to the Afro-Cuban community in eighteenth-century Cuba, “the affirmation of . . . kinship identities . . . should be regarded as one of several ways in which ‘freedom’ was enacted in colonial slave societies.” In place of legal freedom, incorporation into a family, with the protections and securities it offered, could provide enslaved kin with “personal,” “social,” and “de facto forms of freedom” within a kinship network. See Díaz, “Of Life and Freedom at the (Tropical) Hearth: El Cobre, Cuba, 1709–73,” in Gaspar and Hine, Beyond Bondage, 19–36 (quotations, 31).

71. Will of Frances Brown, Apr. 7, 1834, Prob. 11/1953, NA.

72. Will of Amey Crooks, proved Apr. 2, 1792, LOS 56, fol. 202, RGDJ.

73. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, across early America the line between slavery and freedom was messier and more complicated than it might at first seem. The “slave-free binary” was in many cases neither absolute nor distinct, and experiences and definitions of freedom were often dependent upon time, custom, and place. Emily Clark, “Liberty’s Paradoxes: A Free Black Soldier in New Orleans, 1744–1804” (paper presented at “Freedom and Coercion in Early America,” British Group of Early American Historians Conference, University of Cambridge, U.K., Sept. 1, 2016), 1 (quotation); Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York, 2015), 62–63; Simon P. Newman, “Rethinking Runaways in the British Atlantic World: Britain, the Caribbean, West Africa, and North America,” Slavery and Abolition 38, no. 1 (2017): 49–75, esp. 50.

74. Premo, WMQ 70: 298.

75. Will of Ann Thomas Richards, proved Apr. 8, 1819, Prob. 11/1615, NA.

76. Will of Rosanna Simpson, proved Mar. 3, 1790, LOS 56, fol. 9, RGDJ.

77. Will of Elizabeth Bell, Dec. 2, 1789, LOS 55, fols. 15–16 (quotations, 15), RGDJ.

78. Kathleen M. Brown, “‘A P[ar]cell of Murdereing Bitches’: Female Relationships in an Eighteenth-Century Slaveholding Household,” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England, ed. Susan Frye and Karen Robertson (New York, 1999), 87–97.

79. Will of Ann Thomas Richards, proved Apr. 8, 1819, Prob. 11/1615, NA (quotations); “A Return of Slaves in the Parish of Kingston in the possession of Joseph Delpratt as Attorney to Mrs. Susanna Dawson on the 28th day of June in the year of our Lord 1817,” Slave Register, Kingston, Jamaica, 1817, Former British Colonial Dependencies, Slave Registers, 1813–1834, database online,

80. Many thanks to Nancy Ffrench Atkinson for sharing her Jamaican family history with me: Atkinson, The Ffrench Connection (self-pub., 2014).

81. Property inventory of Jane Charlotte Beckford, Feb. 14, 1829, 1B/11/3/145, fol. 172, JARD.

82. Property inventory of Ann Ffrench, June 15, 1836, 1B/11/3/152, fol. 55, JARD; “Ann Eliza French: Profile and Legacies Summary,” Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, database, UCL Department of History, accessed Dec. 20, 2017,; “John Swaby: Profile and Legacies Summary,” Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, database, UCL Department of History, accessed Feb. 20, 2018,; “Horatio Swaby: Profile and Legacies Summary,” Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, database, UCL Department of History, accessed Feb. 3, 2018,

83. “John Swaby: Profile and Legacies Summary,” Legacies of British Slave- Ownership, database, UCL Department of History, accessed Feb. 20, 2018, (quotation); “Horatio Swaby: Profile and Legacies Summary,” Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, database, UCL Department of History, accessed Feb. 3, 2018, On other elite mixed-race Jamaicans of color who returned to Jamaica from Britain, see Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune, 397.

84. Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune, 238, 396–97; Heuman, Between Black and White, 38.

85. For “communit[ies] of property,” see Garrigus, History of the Family 12: 142.

86. Heuman, Between Black and White, 23–31, 50.

87. Livesay, Atlantic Studies 9: 115–17.

88. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, Conn., 1985).

89. Stewart, View of the Past and Present State, 334.

90. Livesay, Atlantic Studies 9: 107 (quotation); Petley, Atlantic Studies 9: 13.

91. Welch, Slave Society in the City, 170 (quotation).

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