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  • Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733–1833 by Daniel Livesay
  • Linda L. Sturtz
Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733–1833. By Daniel Livesay. Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 431 pages. Cloth, ebook.

Daniel Livesay's Children of Uncertain Fortune explores how the relatively small population of "mixed-race" free Jamaicans who migrated to England and Scotland reflected and transformed ideas about family, kinship, race, and the significance of ancestry within Britain and its global empire. The imperial framing of family and color categorization that began in the early eighteenth-century Atlantic world, Livesay shows, eventually expanded to incorporate anglophone South Asia as well. He explores the dynamic ways that race and family defined each other to interrogate broader questions about the history of Britain and its empire, showing how transitory people became central to the making of culture, society, law, and civil rights by embodying new identities and shaping expectations in Britain. Livesay's Atlantic world includes people in the colonies, policy makers who never set foot on its western shores, and residents of the metropole who watched more mobile family members travel back and forth across the ocean, sending their Jamaican-born progeny "home" to a place they had never been before.

The book focuses on free Caribbean children of "mixed-race" families whose white fathers acknowledged and provided for them financially but who never married their mothers. The individuals Livesay studied were exceptional because most white fathers never officially recognized their "mixed-race" children, who often remained enslaved. He follows more than 360 "people of colour" (42) descended from African mothers and British fathers while delving more deeply into the histories of two especially well-documented families, the Tailyours and Rosses, to illuminate the complex ways that British families acknowledged or resisted incorporating "mixed-race" children.

The white fathers Livesay studied secured freedom for their children, supported them financially, and planned their educations. He deftly interprets their histories to interrogate what social and cultural differences coded as "race" meant in historical moments, how that meaning changed over time, and how the lived experience of African-descended people in Britain and the Caribbean contributed to the transformation of human classification systems during the early modern period. He persuasively shows that the presence of "mixed-race" families fueled debates about abolition and the [End Page 579] nature of citizenship in the British Empire, as changes in modes of thinking percolated up from the experiences of Atlantic people to shape ideas promulgated by armchair philosophers and the policies imposed from on high by politicians and their occasional abolitionist allies.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, Livesay reveals, some white extended kin groups accepted the "mixed-race" free children born to unmarried Caribbean parents into their families and even into their homes. The most famous example is Dido Elizabeth Belle, who in 1765 accompanied her white British father to England, where she was raised as a free gentlewoman in the household of her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. In his position as Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield heard the 1772 case of Somerset v. Stewart, which debated the role of slavery in Britain. Other less visible British families also looked after the free "mixed-race" children of their white kin, and Livesay highlights white men in Jamaica cohabiting with black women in relationships that were "not [just] families of a sort, but functionally legitimate ones" (61), as white British kin recognized "mixed-race" children and provided financial support and personal guidance for them.

By the 1790s, however, British attitudes toward "mixed-race" family members had begun to change. Livesay argues that three transformations accounted for the shifts. First, white fathers' autonomy in shaping their children's futures was limited by changes in inheritance laws and attitudes toward marriage in England after Hardwicke's Marriage Act (1793), along with colonial legislation in Jamaica that restricted large legacies for "mixed-race" children. Second, the revolutionary movements in the Atlantic world—notably in Saint Domingue...

Additional Information

ISSN
1933-7698
Print ISSN
0043-5597
Pages
pp. 579-583
Launched on MUSE
2019-07-31
Open Access
No
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