Misrepresented Subjects? Claiming the Rights and Privileges of British Citizenship in Abolition-Era Jamaica

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM
Columbia Hall 11 (Washington Hilton)
Brooke N. Newman, Virginia Commonwealth University
This paper explores the extent to which abolitionism in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain fuelled local debates in Jamaica about the nature and limitations of British citizenship in a slave colony. In particular, it considers how, faced with metropolitan intervention, Jamaican planters strove to defend their own entitlement to British rights and privileges while simultaneously denying the benefits of full citizenship to free persons of African descent. In the 1760s and early 1770s, Jamaica held a position of great strength within the empire as Britain’s wealthiest overseas colony. Yet, with its demographic concentration of enslaved Africans, shrinking numbers of whites, and growing population of persons of mixed ancestry, Britain’s most valuable overseas possession was also one of its most vulnerable. Long cognizant of Jamaica’s ongoing demographic challenges, colonial legislators alternately expanded and constricted free people’s opportunities for social and economic advancement, allowing a privileged few of mixed descent to assume the legal status of white settlers. Overwhelmingly, however, the trend in Jamaica was to restrict free people’s access to the myriad privileges of whiteness, thereby limiting their wealth and power and protecting the alleged integrity of white British identity. Free Jamaicans of African ancestry were not passive in this process of legal circumscription. They responded, both individually and collectively, by invoking their status as free subjects of the Crown of Great Britain, eligible to receive all the rights and privileges of Britons. Increasingly uneasy about the uncertain place and loyalties of free people of color in colonial society, white Jamaicans were thus doubly shocked to discover, as abolitionism emerged as a potent political force, that their position in the British Empire had become another area of uncertainty.
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