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Q&A with VCU history professor Brooke Newman, author of ‘A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica’

Brooke Newman's book shows how colonial racial ideologies justified hereditary African slavery an...
Brooke Newman's book shows how colonial racial ideologies justified hereditary African slavery and also barred members of marginalized groups from claiming the inherited rights of British subjects.

A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica,” a new book by Brooke N. Newman, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is a major reassessment of the development of race and subjecthood in the British Atlantic.

Examining 18th-century Jamaica, the book shows how colonial racial ideologies rooted in fictions of blood ancestry at once justified hereditary African slavery and barred members of marginalized groups from claiming the inherited rights of British subjects.

Newman, who is also associate director of the Humanities Research Center at VCU and co-editor of “Native Diasporas: Indigenous Identities and Settler Colonialism in the Americas,” will give a talk about “A Dark Inheritance” at 4 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 17, in the second-floor multipurpose room (Room 250) of James Branch Cabell Library, 901 Park Ave. The event, sponsored by the Humanities Research Center and VCU Libraries, will be free and open to the public.

Newman recently discussed her new book, which is published by Yale University Press, with VCU News.


 

How would you describe the central thesis of “A Dark Inheritance”?

Focusing on Jamaica, Britain’s largest and richest slave colony by the mid-18th century, the book argues that notions of inheritable blood informed racial conceptions and determined who was eligible for the rights of English subjects at the provincial level.

In the decades after the English conquest of Jamaica in 1655, colonial legislators developed a brutal system of slave laws to control the thousands of African captives imported to the island. By the early 18th century, enslaved Africans outnumbered English colonists by a wide margin and there was also a growing number of manumitted slaves, free people of joint European and African ancestry, and Jewish traders and planters residing in Jamaica.

In response to concerns about the future security of the island as an English settler society, the Jamaica Assembly passed measures to exclude free people of African, mixed, Jewish and Indian ancestries from exercising the inherited rights of Englishmen. Only white Christian male freeholders were eligible to vote, hold office, serve on juries, or work in supervisory positions on estates.

Over time, threats posed by rebellious Maroons, a shrinking white settler community, and concern over both slave revolt and foreign invasion prompted legislators to limit the amount of property free people descended from enslaved mothers could inherit, purchase or bequeath.

While the vast majority of free people of African ancestry faced mounting restrictions designed to keep them subjugated and impoverished, select mixed-race individuals with paternal blood ties to the island’s wealthiest ranks were granted limited white privileges. But this discretionary whitening policy was controversial from the start and ultimately abandoned at the end of the 18th century as a result of abolitionist attacks on West Indian slaveholders and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

What were the implications of this system of racial classification?

My research demonstrates that racial classifications — both their legal codification and their selective blurring at the individual level — served the interests of the colonial state and helped to maintain British imperial rule.

Racial conceptions were instrumental to the development of Britain’s slave empire and to the separation of free colonial populations into distinct demographic categories with different rights and responsibilities based on alleged hereditary differences. Free individuals descended from slave ancestors were legally marginalized and treated as permanent aliens, barred from access to equal rights enjoyed under law by white British subjects.

In Jamaican slave society, race was one of the most important political efforts used to maintain British control in the teeth of a massive demographic imbalance.

What led you to want to explore this topic?

The legislature’s discretionary power to determine who could claim white status and English privileges was the most important tool at the colonial government’s disposal.

When considering racial conceptions in 18th-century slave societies, we tend to assume that “whiteness” was a privileged legal category that demanded clear and rigid boundaries. How could racial distinctions serve as an effective tool of social control if colonial authorities approached whiteness with some measure of flexibility? I wanted to know why the rich planters who dominated the Jamaica Assembly defined whiteness in terms of blood purity (free of the “stain” of African or Indian blood) while also allowing for the possibility that illicit sexual relations between white men and enslaved women could gradually whiten the colonial population over multiple generations.

The answer, in my view, lies in the local context. In Jamaican slave society, legitimate white families were in short supply and whiteness was the most privileged racial category. By defining whiteness as a potentially attainable status for the offspring of illicit unions between white men and enslaved or free women of African descent, colonial legislators hoped that the rapidly expanding numbers of mixed-race people would align themselves with the interests of the white minority rather than the enslaved majority. The legislature’s discretionary power to determine who could claim white status and English privileges was the most important tool at the colonial government’s disposal.

What did the research for this book entail?

The book blends legal, social and cultural history and required a significant amount of archival research. I traveled to a number of different archives in the U.K., Jamaica and the U.S. to work with manuscript collections and to consult rare books and prints. Some of the most important evidence included British state records and official correspondence, Jamaican laws and the journals of the Jamaica Assembly, plantation accounts and vestry books, the personal papers of planters, slave traders and British abolitionists, and petitions presented by individuals of African and mixed descent to the colonial government.

How does the story that you tell here about British colonial rule in Jamaica fit within the larger history of slavery and abolition?

Although West Indian slaveholders were largely successful at promoting their interests in Parliament and casting abolitionists as humanitarian fanatics in the final decades of the 18th century, they had already lost the support of the British public. Planters in the British Caribbean, and Jamaica particularly, were increasingly depicted as brutal tyrants whose reckless pursuit of personal profit and illicit pleasure imperiled both British imperial rule and whiteness. Defending slavery and manipulating racial classifications gave power to colonial authorities at the local level but ultimately undermined their prominent position in the British empire.