Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833

Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833

Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833

Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833


By tracing the largely forgotten eighteenth-century migration of elite mixed-race individuals from Jamaica to Great Britain, Children of Uncertain Fortune reinterprets the evolution of British racial ideologies as a matter of negotiating family membership. Using wills, legal petitions, family correspondences, and inheritance lawsuits, Daniel Livesay is the first scholar to follow the hundreds of children born to white planters and Caribbean women of color who crossed the ocean for educational opportunities, professional apprenticeships, marriage prospects, or refuge from colonial prejudices.

The presence of these elite children of color in Britain pushed popular opinion in the British Atlantic world toward narrower conceptions of race and kinship. Members of Parliament, colonial assemblymen, merchant kings, and cultural arbiters--the very people who decided Britain's colonial policies, debated abolition, passed marital laws, and arbitrated inheritance disputes--rubbed shoulders with these mixed-race Caribbean migrants in parlors and sitting rooms. Upper-class Britons also resented colonial transplants and coveted their inheritances; family intimacy gave way to racial exclusion. By the early nineteenth century, relatives had become strangers.


Robert Morse kept fine lodgings in London. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, he rented part of a home, which he might have briefly shared with Admiral Horatio Nelson, only blocks from the mansion later to become Buckingham Palace. Morse stocked the dwelling with elegant furniture, exotic goods, and exquisite art. Walking up the first flights of stairs, visitors were greeted by a remarkable painting of a dancer in motion. the piece sat near a chimney mantel, on which Morse kept a golden watch that he dutifully wound every night before bed. Dominating the large parlor was a harpsichord, one of many musical instruments he played in the house. Morse had also purchased a piano and several cellos, which included models built by the famous Stradivari luthiers. Morse was well known for “his fine taste, particularly as a musical amateur.” His home also included numerous books, an impressive collection of British engravings, contemporary artwork, and the requisite supply of Madeira and claret. the calico handkerchiefs draping his couches lent evidence of a previous residency in Bengal. a housemaid and manservant kept the home, and Morse’s affairs, in order. It was a proper residence befitting the lifestyle of a wealthy and influential barrister in England’s capital. It was also a far cry from his birth in Jamaica to a woman of color and a white merchant.

At the same moment, on the opposite end of Britain, the three Hay brothers played alongside their schoolmates. Fergus, John, and Alexander Hay lived in the small seaside town of Dornoch, nestled in the Scottish Highlands. They were not natives of the village, however. Like Morse, they had been born in

1. The Morning Chronicle (London), Mar. 29, Apr. 18, June 10, 19, 1816; Baptism of Robert Morse, June 15, 1752, Kingston baptisms, copy register, I, fol. 102, IRO; jaj, May 28, 1747, iv, 66. Morse’s house was located at 147 New Bond Street; see P[atrick] Boyle, With Near Five Thousand Alterations; Boyle’s New Fashionable Court and Country Guide; and Town Visiting Directory, for 1798… (London, 1798), 151. For Nelson’s residence at 147 New Bond Street, see “Memorial Tablets,” Journal of the Society of Arts, xxiv (London, 1876), 613. Additional details of Morse’s home come from an Old Bailey trial in which one of Morse’s servants stole the watch from his mantelpiece; see The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online: London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913, “Thomas Gladwell, Thomas Yates, Theft,” Sept. 20, 1797, reference number: t17970920–44, For more on the ubiquity of Madeira in eighteenth-century Atlantic households, see David Hancock, Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste (New Haven, Conn., 2009).

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