Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Meghan Markle and the Long History of American Brides of Color in Britain

· January 24th, 2018 · No Comments

This post, by OI author Daniel Livesay, comes to us courtesy of the UNC Press blog.

Daniel Livesay is the author of Children of Uncertain Fortune:  Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833, published with our friends at the University of North Carolina Press.

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.

Children of Uncertain Fortune is available now in both print and e-book editions.

by Daniel Livesay

In the United States, nothing seems to garner more interest in the British royal family than a regal wedding.  When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement last fall, the typical fanfare of royal nuptials was amplified by Markle’s family background.  As a mixed-race child of a white father and a black mother from the U.S., Markle appears to embody the growing diversity of Britain, as interracial unions, particularly among the working and middle classes increase.  What feels so extraordinary is that Markle brings a supposedly new ancestral strain to the uppermost tier of British society: the nobility.

As with most major events, however, an historical gaze makes the wedding appear less unique than at first glance. Britons have long tied the knot with individuals of color from abroad.  Beginning in the 1970s, scholars documented the regularity of African- and Asian-descended people in early-modern Britain.  These studies demonstrated the ubiquity of black and brown servants walking the streets of London in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  People of color served colonial masters who were in Europe for business, worked as sailors on oceanic voyages, or were sold to British enslavers.  Oftentimes, they married poor white individuals, and raised mixed-race families who frequently struggled in poverty.  Historians originally highlighted these stories in order to push back against a growing anti-black sentiment that arose after largescale migrations of West Indians and Africans into Britain after World War II.  These scholars revealed that Britain did not have a lily-white and uncomplicated ancestral history.  Instead, the United Kingdom had long been something of a melting pot.

Working class families were not the only interracial households in early-modern Britain.  Indeed, there were many Meghan Markles populating eighteenth century England and Scotland.  Mixed-race women regularly came from the Americas – primarily from Jamaica – during this period, seeking well-to-do husbands.  They were, themselves, supported by large fortunes meant to attract suitors.  In these cases, the money came from their white fathers’ sugar plantations, which were some of the most profitable (and most brutal) economic ventures in the Empire. Kidnapped Africans had been brought to Jamaica to farm those plantations, and white managers and estate owners preyed on the women among them, both to satisfy lusts, as well as to terrorize and control their workers. A large mixed-race population emerged in turn, and in some instances, white men raised their offspring of color as dutiful fathers, including sending them off to Britain for school, professional opportunities, or marriage.

Children of Uncertain Fortune traces the stories of more than three hundred of these mixed-race migrants from Jamaica, and follows the plight of a number of young women who hoped to marry as well as Meghan Markle.  Their goals were ambitious and not easily attained.  Peggy Ker arrived in Scotland to live with her father’s kin, but struggled to find a place in the family, let alone attract a groom.  Her cousins and step-grandmother complained about her supposed bad habits, but mostly insisted that she was too exotic to be accepted.  After several years of moving from one relative’s house to another, she decided to return to Jamaica.  Eliza Williams’s Scottish relatives were more explicit in their racial distrust.  Although her grandparents took good care of her, they regularly commented that she would have little luck marrying well considering her dark complexion.  Williams eventually died with almost no money to her name.

Yet not all female migrants failed in their nuptial endeavors.  Each of the Morse daughters wed prominent British men after leaving Jamaica in 1760: Catherine met and married Edmund Green, an active London lawyer; Sarah tied the knot with William Cator, a rising merchant and businessman; and Ann wed Nathaniel Middleton, an East India Company official who had been close friends with Bengal’s governor Warren Hastings.  These men were drawn not only by their brides’ social graces and beauty, but also the £120,000 pound fortune they stood to share.  Many of the Morses’ children would go on to lead privileged lives in Britain, with little – if any – knowledge about their African ancestry.  Frances Dalzell, a cousin of the Morses, did even better.  She arrived in England several years before them and eventually met George Duff, son of the Earl of Fife.  The couple married and had two children together, all of whom took their place in the Scottish aristocracy.  Dalzell and the Morses each suffered under Jamaica law for their status as mixed-race people, but their family arrangements in Britain all but erased that subjected status.

There is much to celebrate about Meghan Markle, and the entry of a woman of color into British royalty.  Her marriage looks much more similar to those of other Britons in the twenty-first century.  But this momentous event is not altogether a radical departure from the past.  Rather, it is a reflection of a much more complicated and silenced aspect of British and American history.

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Daniel Livesay is assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College.

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