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  • A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica by Brooke N. Newman
  • Kate L. Mulry
A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica. By Brooke N. Newman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2018. 352 pages. Cloth, ebook.

Brooke N. Newman's ambitious and meticulously argued A Dark Inheritance explains how, when, and why blood became the critical determinative marker of legal status and racial classification in colonial Jamaica and the British Atlantic world. As she shows, the decentralized nature of the British Empire allowed colonial officials to develop distinct local laws governing who could claim the rights of a British subject. To preserve and amplify their power in a slave society, white residents claimed that their children inherited their status as British subjects—and the attendant rights and privileges—through parental blood, rather than from place of birth or by swearing oaths of allegiance. Conversely, these colonists excluded those who did not share their ancestry and bloodlines. Newman argues that legal claims about British subject status as a blood inheritance paralleled emerging claims that racial differences were similarly conveyed in blood. These "fictions of blood" (272) were mutually reinforcing and used by white Jamaican colonists both to create an exclusionary legal system and to justify hereditary slavery. Due to the sexual exploitation of women of African descent by white colonists, however, a growing population of mixed-race individuals challenged planters' claims about blood and identity. Free people of color pointed to their own "blood ties to whites" (2) to dispute restrictive local laws and, ultimately, transform definitions of subjecthood.

Newman's primary contribution is her emphasis on the centrality of the concept "of blood purity" (6) developed by colonial Jamaicans. Though other scholars have scrutinized French and Spanish anxieties and conceptions of purity of blood, Newman reminds us that the English similarly viewed blood as a medium that transmitted qualities ranging from religious belief to ethnic identity. By translating medieval ideas about blood and genealogy into a new context, Jamaican planters articulated a specifically colonial and racialized conception of blood purity designed to exclude a range of colonial subjects, including people of African and Jewish ancestry.

Newman emphasizes the importance of Jamaica as a comparatively understudied region in which critical questions about race and identity in the British Atlantic were developed, while also acknowledging the extent to which the Jamaican assembly adopted and adapted elements from myriad legal cultures when it suited their needs. Though in the British Atlantic world the status of children customarily followed that of an enslaved mother, in Jamaica a very small number of the many individuals with mixed parentage were manumitted by well-connected white fathers and were [End Page 835] "legally whitened" (97) to augment the white population. Newman highlights the legal innovations of Jamaica's assembly in order to reveal provincial divergences from other Anglo-Atlantic practices.

Newman crafts a nuanced and multilayered narrative by weaving together cultural, legal, and social history. She pays careful attention to the multiple and shifting meanings of blood and bloodlines found in private papers of planters, records of colonial assembly proceedings, wills, lawsuits, census records, newspapers, prints, plays, and poems. The book is structured chronologically, covering the years from English conquest through the eve of emancipation. Part 1 consists of three chapters highlighting the dynamic relationship between slave law and Jamaica's changing political and demographic landscape. Newman begins by considering how the tangle of debates about the heritability of British subjecthood unfolded in colonial Jamaica. In the wake of Oliver Cromwell's Western Design, the legal status of the island—as a colony of conquest—remained uncertain. Seeking to prevent what they believed to be overreach by the crown after the Restoration, the elite planters who controlled the assembly claimed that they had inherited certain rights and privileges at birth that could not be taken away. To assert local autonomy more strongly, the colonists articulated their rights and claims of English subjecthood, much like their Protestantism, as a "hereditary blood status" (31). Embedded in these claims to blood inheritance was the differential application of rights and the means of denying it to those who did not share...

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