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Overview Essay on Building Communities
Apprenticeship and Emancipation in Barbados with a Focus on Education
Vive chef coumbite!" : The New Masters in Post-Emancipation Haiti
Mixed-race People and Emancipation-Era Jamaica

Following the emancipation of all enslaved Africans in 1834, the island of Jamaica was left in a stage of rebuilding.  Religion, education, and family structure were all in disarray and were in need of reconstruction.  With their new-found freedom, people also had the task of establishing a new way of life that would allow them prosperity and fulfillment.  However, the group that faced the most complex rebuilding process was the so-called “people of color.”  People of color, who were a result of “miscegenation,” or sexual relationships between people of African and European descent, faced the challenge of readjusting in the midst of distinct color lines on the island.  They faced particular challenges in the areas of politics, marriage and family, and child education. 

During slavery, white slave owners fathered numerous children with black slaves, and generations of children of mixed race heritage were the result.  White observers tried to subdivide these people of color into various categories.  Mulattos were one half-black and one half-white.  Samboes were black and mulatto (three fourths black and one fourth white).  Quadroons were the offspring of whites and mulattos (three fourths white and one fourth black).  Mestees were the offspring of whites and quadroons (one eight black).  After the Mestees few could perceive a color distinction because it is unlikely that one could detect “black” characteristics if an individual had less than one eighth African ancestry.  Observers also believed that one could detect the differences between the various subdivisions of people of color based on particular qualities, in addition to physical appearance.  The Sambo, although three-fourths black and one fourth white, was still seen differently from the “Negro” in various manners and habits.  Generally, people believed that people of color were less subject to disease than whites or “Negro.”  White observers also firmly adhered to the idea that most people of color felt a distinct advantage and pride in being slightly removed from the “Negro race” and attempted to take on manners and customs of whites. [1]

Regardless of the distinctions that observers made among people of color, they still enjoyed many advances politically.  When James Thome went on a sixth month tour of the island of Jamaica following emancipation, he observed Harbour Streetthe activity of people of color in various social institutions.  By 1831, free people of color had all of the political offices open to them, and after emancipation they were represented in an array of offices in Kingston.  They were justices of the peace, alderman of the city, justices of the peace, public institution inspectors, and school trustees.   At a local legislature meeting, Thome noticed that there were fifteen members present, and just as many different shades of complexion.  A planter who clearly had aristocratic blood was sitting next to a “deep mulatto,” born in the same parish as a slave.  Yet they all conversed freely as though they were one color, providing a sense of “harmony, confidence and good feeling.” [2]   There were ten colored special magistrates and four colored members of the Assembly at the time of his visit.  However they occupied only one third of the seats in the Assembly, as whites filled the others.  Yet as people of color filled seats, they voted for white alderman and city officers.  Thome observed, “The influential men among them, have always urged them to take up white men, unless they could find competent men of their own color.  As they remarked to us, if they were obliged to send an ass to the Assembly, it was far better for them  to send a white as than a black one.” [3]   Nonetheless, colored people were gradually participating in political and civil bodies on the Island and dividing the legislative and judicial powers with whites.

In a community that is rebuilding, marriage and family are important because those institutions are essential for its growth.  However, few marriages took place among people of color because many females believed that it was more Native Domestic Servantsreputable to be the kept mistress of a wealthy white man than to marry a “Negro” or another person of color. Beautiful women of color were “fortune-made if they got a place in a white man’s harem.” [4] When females of color were asked why they did not generally intermarry with men of their own class, the typical response was that most brown men were either too poor or indolent to support a wife and children and that as husbands they could be jealous and tyrannical.  Many women also disliked the idea of marriage and viewed it as an unnecessary and unnatural restraint.  Yet numerous females of color found themselves as a “housekeeper” to white men, while men of color found for themselves the comfort of a black woman. [5]

James Stewart, an Englishman who lived for some time in Jamaica, also observed that men of color were divided by society into three classes.  The first was the offspring of men of fortune, who were sent to Great Britain to receive a liberal educated and expected to inherit independent fortunes.  Next came the offspring of men in moderate circumstances, who gave their children a plain education and left the bulk of property among their children at their death.  Finally, there were the men who did not have the means or inclination to provide for their children, which he noted as the most numerous class.  These children lived in idleness and were what Stewart considered a burden to themselves and the community.  Few men of color were elevated above their social stratum by the advantages of fortune and a liberal education and received into the white population. [6]

Thome also visited the streets of Jamaica and places of business to see how people of color were employed.  The market that he visited was one of the largest and the best and people of color were the primary attendants and Taken by Daguerreotype by A. Duperlysuppliers.  People of color owned furniture and cabinet manufactures.  They were also artisans, bookstore owners, controlled newspapers, and as well as merchants, druggists, and grocers.  He noticed that colors freely associated in the streets, making business transactions.  After emancipation and the establishment of a working class of people of color, the general trade of the island was passing into their hands.  Prior to emancipation people of color rarely reached a status higher than that of a clerk.  Those who conducted their own business faced the limits imposed by white-owned monopolies, which were a direct result of slavery.  “Since emancipation,” Thome noted, “they have been unshackling themselves from white domination in matters of trade, extending their connections and becoming every day more and more independent.” [7]

Education is essential in building a community, especially among children, as they are being groomed to be the future leaders of the community.  Thome observed that in schools in Kingston, there was not a lot of division among color lines and students were thoroughly intermingled.  In a letter Thome received from E. Reid, the “principle” of the Wolmer School he said he had “no hesitation in saying that children of color are equal in both conduct and ability to the white.” [8]   However, as other observers noted, schools were few and far between. While children may have been taught well, most did not get to attend them.   

As all communities rebuilt themselves, people of color not only had to build a community in the face of a distinct color line between blacks and whites, but also in the light of division among themselves.  This division ranged from social standing to skin tone, and affected areas such as politics, marriage and family, employment, and education.  Authors have pointed out that this division made their rebuilding process more complex than that of any other group.  Yet people of color were also able to integrate themselves into post-emancipation life, and today play an intricate role on an island that is known for producing individuals with multi-ethnic backgrounds.

[1] [John] Stewart,  A View of the Past and Present State of the Island of Jamaica, (Edinburgh, 1823,) 325.

[2] James Thome, Emancipation in the West Indies.  A Six Months’ Tour in the Islands of Antigua, Barbados, and Jamaica, in the Year 1837, (New York, 1838), 368.

[3] Thome, 362.

[4] Thome, 88.

[5] Stewart, 326.

[6] Stewart, 335.

[7] Thome, 365.

[8] Thome, 365.