Blocking Legacies to Negroes and Mulattoes

 

In December 1761 the Jamaican Assembly passed an Act, which was subsequently ratified in London, “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.” It is sometimes referred to as the Devises Act.

You can read the full text of the Act here.

Owing in part to the shortage of white women settlers in Jamaica, and to a more relaxed attitude to marriage than would be the case a century later, many white planters and other European migrants formed relationships with non-whites both free and enslaved.  The children resulting from these relationships were often brought up in what amounted to a stable family situation, and their education and welfare was provided for in the Wills of their white fathers.  In many cases the children were apprenticed to a trade, or sent to England for a liberal education in one of the professions.  Many had careers in the Army or Navy, as merchants, or later in the 18th century in the developing colonies of south Asia.  Where there were no legitimate offspring to inherit the wealth the father had accumulated in Jamaica, that wealth and property, including slaves, was often left to their illegitimate mixed race children.  It was this that the act of 1761 was designed to prevent or at least to limit.

Under the act the amount that a child could inherit was to be limited to £2000 which although it was a large amount of money, equivalent perhaps to £286,000 today using the retail price index, or £2,850,000 relative to average earnings[1], was a mere fraction of the total of some of the larger estates.  The act was designed to prevent the leaving of a larger legacy to “any negro whatever, or to any mulatto, or other person not being in their own issue born in lawful wedlock, and being the issue of a negro, and deemed a mulatto.”  This therefore restricted legacies, even if left to a legitimate child, where that child was mixed race and at least one eighth black.  Nor could the restriction be avoided by leaving the property in trust to a white person on behalf of such child.  The  limitation of £2000 even extended to property left by such a mixed-race person to their children.  The only exception related to those mixed race Jamaicans who had already been granted the legal status of white persons.

In the event, until this act was later repealed, it was possible for white planters and others who had made their fortune in Jamaica to apply for a private act of the Jamaican Assembly to permit them to transmit their inheritance to their children, or to remove their property from Jamaica.

Robert Cooper Lee who had four mixed-race children born illegitimate in Jamaica, and was responsible as a trustee and guardian for his illegitimate mixed-race nephews, made such an application in December, 1776, in an Act “to authorize and enable Robert Cooper Lee, late of the Island of Jamaica, but now of the kingdom of Great Britain, esquire, to settle and dispose of his estates, both real and personal in this island, by deed or will as he shall think proper, notwithstanding an Act of the Governor, Council and Assembly of this island, intituled, an Act to prevent inconveniences arising from exorbitant grants and devises made by white persons and the issue of negroes and to restrain and limit such grants and devises.”

What is in many ways most interesting, is that three members of the Assembly dissented from the act and a copy of their objections remains at the East Sussex County Record Office at Lewes as part of the Jamaica papers of Fuller family of Rosehill in Brightling – ref: ESRO SAS/RF 20/66.  A transcription of this is included at the end of the text of the 1761 Act.

The three dissenters were Norwood Witter, Edward Clarke, and William Wynter.  Witter and Clarke were both members of the assembly for Westmorland, and William Wynter served on the Assembly as a member for St Thomas in the Vale, St Thomas in the East, and St Catherine at various times.  In 1757 he became a member of the Jamaican Council. He has already been mentioned here as the father of Thomas Wynter, mixed race son of Mary Johnson Rose.

In a clearly set out document they argued that the proposed act was unconstitutional because it restricted the right of a British citizen to leave his property as he wished; that it would encourage vexatious law suits based on the mere suggestion that someone’s ancestor was of mixed race; that limiting the financial transactions that could be made by mixed race Jamaicans might encourage them to take their money out of the island and even to emigrate; and that it restricted a father from providing for his children even where they had received a liberal education and looked white.  They also regarded it as unreasonable to penalise “a quiet and peaceable people who have ever shown themselves true and faithful to the White Inhabitants” and who had shown themselves highly supportive during the recent slave uprising.  In summary, they said:

We think it unreasonable.

As we apprehend it lays the Penalty on the innocent, We deem it severe

As we apprehend it tends to depopulate the Country, it is impolitic

As we apprehend it takes away the Right of Free Born Britons, it is unconstitutional

And as it lays a restraint on the parental affection it is unnatural

And on the whole we think it equally Inconsistent with Liberty, sound Policy, and pure Religion. 

Their objections however were overruled and the bill was passed into law on the 19th of December 1761.

Between 1768 and 1790 thirteen private Acts were passed giving the right to dispose of property as the person thought fit, including the example of Robert Cooper Lee above. They included Thomas Wynter, and in some cases also listed the names of the children who were at the same time being granted the rights of white people.

Perhaps the most interesting is that of 1784 granting the right to dispose of her property to a free quadroon, Sarah Morris of Kingston. She left her estate to her natural daughter Charlotte Stirling (daughter of a wealthy Scottish planter Robert Stirling) who was also granted the rights of a white person. During that period she was the only woman to obtain such a right.

The others who obtained the rights were:

1768 William Patrick Bourne of St John

1775 George Brooks of St Elizabeth

1776 Robert Cooper Lee

1777 John Williams of St Ann

1783 Thomas Wynter,  and William Wright of Portland

1784 Sarah Morris (as above), Patrick Duncan of St Ann and Thomas Roper of Portland

1787 John Angwin of St Ann

1788 John Russell of Clarendon

1789 George Lesslie of Westmorland

1790 George Bedward



[1] Source: http://www.measuringworth.com

2 thoughts on “Blocking Legacies to Negroes and Mulattoes”

  1. Niamh

    Dear Sir / Madam,

    I am doing some research about a building in Edinburgh, Scotland. Charlotte Sterling appears to have bought it in 1808. I would like to get a copy of:
    CO139/22 (58) Mary Morris of Kingston a free quadroon and Charlotte Sterling, reputed daughter of Robert Sterling esq, 30.12.1763 (see Act 591)
    and
    CO139/22 (58) Mary Morris of Kingston a free quadroon and Charlotte Sterling, reputed daughter of Robert Sterling esq, 30.12.1763 (see Act 591)
    Can you advise me how I can go about getting this information. Thank you.

  2. Anne Powers Post Author

    Dear Niamh,
    The reference you give (which appears to be duplicated) relates to Colonial Office papers held at the National Archives in Kew in the UK. If you go on their site and search for piece reference CO 139/22 you will find the reference to the documents. However to see the contents you would have to go to Kew where the colonial papers are held in large bound volumes, or alternatively employ someone to copy them for you.
    My own experience of looking at these records suggests that you are unlikely to get any more information than you have in this reference if what you are seeking is information about Charlotte Sterling’s background. There will also be copies of this private Act of the Jamaican Assembly held in Jamaica.
    I do have some information about Robert Stirling and his family which I’d be happy to share if you’d like to get in touch via the Contact page of this website.
    kind regards,
    Anne.

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