Black, White and In Between – Categories of Colour
The Kneeling Slave – ‘Am I not a Man & a Brother’ (oil on canvas) English School (18th century)
© Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright
It is only a generation since the ending of apartheid, and not much longer since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus that December day in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. In my lifetime rental properties in the UK displayed signs saying “No Irish, Blacks or dogs”, and forty years ago I sat with a friend in a rental agency in London as the woman who had just shown us details of several properties turned away a black couple telling them she had nothing on her books. Such is the legacy of slavery and imperialism.
To understand older Jamaican records it can be helpful to know the categories into which people were put for legal and social purposes.
Not all black people, referred to as negroes in old documents, were slaves. Indeed not all white people were free, as a substantial number of indentured servants from Britain sold their labour for a fixed period of years hoping for a better life at the end of it, when if they survived they did become completely free.
There were already free negroes in Jamaica when the British arrived. For example, Peter Moore and Black Betty, free negroes, were married at St Catherine on the 8th November 1677; and Isabella Husee the daughter of Domingo and Maria, free negroes, was baptised at St Catherine on 13th July 1679.
The Spanish conquerors of the island had owned many African slaves whom they freed, or who escaped into the Jamaican interior when the British arrived, becoming the independent and much feared Maroons (probably from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning wild or untamed). There were also still some of the original Arawak or Taino Indians, and occasionally you will come across a reference in the old parish registers to someone as an ‘Indian’. Charles Benoist and Uańah ‘an Indian Woman’ were married in the parish of St Andrew on the 30th May 1675.
Both the church registers and the slave registers categorised people by their colour, but different vicars varied in the extent to which they entered the racial mix of the person being baptised and whether they were illegitimate. Of course many slaves were not baptised at all and their lives have gone unrecorded unless in slave registers on the plantations they were sold to.
The following explains the categories used throughout the colonial period.
Negro – a black person with two black parents of African origin, but who might have been born in Jamaica and hence might be referred to as a creole.
Creole – any person, whether black, white or mixed race born in a British colony, although over time this has tended to be thought of as referring to someone of mixed race.
Mulatto – a person with one negro and one white parent.
Sambo – a person with one parent a negro and the other mulatto i.e one quarter white.
Quadroon – the child of a white person and a mulatto i.e. one quarter black, with one grandparent of African origin.
Mustee, Mestee or Octaroon – a person who is one-eighth black i.e. with one black great grandparent.
Mesteefeena – a rarely used term for the child of a white parent and a mestee. One-sixteenth black, they were legally regarded as white and free.
You will often come across references in Wills to legacies left for a white man’s ‘housekeeper’. In the Jamaican context this almost always means a woman living with a man effectively as his wife, but not married to him, and who was the mother of his ‘reputed children’. In the case of better-off white men, often they lived with a free mulatto or quadroon woman who might have property of her own including slaves. Another time I will tell some of the stories of their children.
In the mid eighteenth century the Jamaican Plantocracy and Merchants became concerned at the amounts of money being left to the non-white offspring of wealthy whites. Consequently in October 1761 they passed an Act of the Assembly “to prevent the inconveniences arising from exorbitant grants and devises made by white persons to negroes, and the issue of negroes, and to restrain and limit such grants and devises”. This limited the amount that could be inherited by a non-white to £2000. However many white planters wished to leave their wealth to their ‘reputed’ children and consequently took out private Acts in the Jamaican Assembly, which had to be ratified in the London parliament, to enable them to dispose of their property as they wished.
An earlier and more unusual and interesting case is that of Mary Johnston Rose who was ‘housekeeper’ to Dr Rose Fuller and mother of two sons – Thomas Wynter and William Fuller. William was the son of Rose Fuller born on the 28th January 1734/35 and his paternity was acknowledged at his baptism the following April. I suspect Thomas Wynter was the son of Dr William Wynter and born about 1730. I have not yet found a baptism for him but William Wynter left him £50 for mourning in his Will, which left the bulk of his estate to his legitimate son Edward Hampson Wynter.
Mary, who was a free mulatto, applied to have her sons given full legal rights equivalent to white men. In the 1754 census of Spanish Town she is recorded as being legally white and the owner of a house worth £30 a year.
“At the Court of St. James 17.12.1746. Present the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council. Whereas the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Island of Jamaica with the Council and Assembly of the said Island did in 1745 pass an Act which hath been transmitted in the words following viz An Act to Intitle Mary Johnston Rose of the Parish of St. Catherines in the said Island, a free mulatto woman and her sons Thomas Wynter and William Fuller begotten by white fathers to the same rights and privileges with English subjects born of white parents. The Act was confirmed, finally enacted and ratified accordingly.”
There is no mention of William Fuller in his father’s Will and it is likely that he died before him, as Rose Fuller made generous provision for Mary Rose.
Thomas Wynter became a successful and wealthy man, but in spite of his earlier recognition still had to apply for the rights of his (presumably mixed race) illegitimate children William Rose Wynter and Mary Mede.
Thomas Wynter to settle his estate as he shall think fit notwithstanding the Act to “prevent exorbitant grants and devises to Negroes”.
The Act was eventually repealed, but the categorisation of the inhabitants of Jamaica according to their colour and racial mix continued beyond the ending of slavery, made even more complex by the arrival of thousands of Indian ‘coolies’ imported to provide cheap labour after emancipation.