‘Legitimacy’ and Social Boundaries

This article explores relations between free people of colour and white men in early nineteenth-century Jamaica. Using evidence from wills and other contemporary sources, it considers the types of bequests that white slaveholders made to free people of colour and to white people. In a slave society divided by racialized boundaries of rule, slaveholders’ liaisons with non-white concubines and the existence of mixed-race children had the potential to undermine the local social order. However, slaveholders sought to limit the wealth of nonwhites and did not recognize mixed-race children as their legitimate heirs. Therefore, free people of colour gained only limited benefits from their relations with white men. While free non-whites frequently received bequests of land, personal property and slaves from white testators, the main beneficiaries of slaveholders’ wills were almost always white men. These practices kept wealth mainly in the hands of whites and perpetuated racialized boundaries of rule in Jamaica. However, they also led to the emergence of a relatively privileged coloured section of local society that became an important element in social and political life. Click here.