- Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733–1833 by Daniel Livesay
Daniel Livesay's beautifully researched 2018 monograph Children of Uncertain Fortune further enlivens an ongoing conversation in our field about the British eighteenth century's complicated relationship to race. Before, during, and after race comes to be associated with notions of an indelible, biological, and bodily phenomenon, we see eighteenth-century British literature and culture struggling to come to grips with how best to categorize, define, and control human difference. Livesay's book engages scholarly methods in the study of race in the eighteenth century that pay particular attention to the ways race was constructed across the Atlantic. Children of Uncertain Fortune thus speaks to the work of scholars like Nicole Aljoe, whose 2012 monograph Creole Testimonies invites consideration of eighteenth-century race and racism, among other things, through the lens of slave narratives and testimony in the British West Indies. Marisa Fuentes also demands a transatlantic look at race in the eighteenth century when she invites her readers to imagine the lives of enslaved Caribbean women and the spaces they inhabited in Dispossessed Lives (2016). Sharon Block's Colonial Complexions (2018) posits race in the period as a process of stripping African-descended and enslaved subjects of personal specificity in media circulating in British North America. Children of Uncertain Fortune joins these scholars in thinking in both transatlantic and trans-historic ways about race, while also focusing on the ways the concept is constructed outside of, and beyond, any fixed bodily category.
Family dynamics as we find them in archival documents such as wills, assembly records, and letters provide the primary lens through which Livesay investigates race in Children of Uncertain Fortune. Livesay introduces crucial nuance to the ways we think about race in the eighteenth century by mapping out, in wonderfully rich detail, the unique case of the small but substantial portion of [End Page 311] mixed-race Jamaicans of African descent who were acknowledged and supported by white families in both Jamaica and Great Britain. This research presents readers with a fascinating set of case studies that, together, convince us just how profoundly the dauntingly hegemonic discourse of eighteenth-century racism contains points at which its power begins to break down. After all, Livesay's text foregrounds the chosen few mixed–race Jamaicans who were able to benefit from these very points, special cases in which kinship connections and affective bonds trumped the brutal ideological and economic commitments most at work in colonialism and chattel slavery. This special case of a group navigating "an awkward position between an enslaved class defined primarily by African ancestry and a ruling class open almost exclusively to those of supposedly pure Christian European heritage" (3) illuminates a pressure point in a British empire that perpetually renegotiated and reinvented itself through its all too fraught relationship with colonial politics. Livesay's sharp, insightful writing brings to life the points at which the unique colonial situation in Jamaica bred its own particular narratives of race and politics, complementary to but in many ways divergent from contemporaneous discourse on race in Great Britain. Putting this small, privileged group of well–educated and often well–traveled individuals in historical context, Livesay considers their fraught relationship with the issues of chattel slavery and Abolitionism, early fights against racist legal structures, and struggles for Black rights.
Moving chronologically from the early eighteenth century all the way to British emancipation in 1833, Livesay traces the fates of several mixed-race Jamaicans of African descent who show up in a diverse set of archives and puts their stories in conversation with shifting attitudes surrounding race as well as discourses of kinship, politics, and inheritance. Livesay's introduction is a gem, making a solid and compelling case for familial, interpersonal, and intimate relationships as a crucial lens through which...