All entries for October 2020

October 21, 2020

Intimacy and Mobility in Empire: Black Experiences and the Metropole

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In the second blog accompanying the At Home In Empire: Colonial Experiences of Intimacy and Mobility conference, Hannah Dennett examines how the records of the Foundling Hospital can highlight black experiences of intimacy and mobility in eighteenth-century London.

For many white British people scattered throughout the colonial world of the eighteenth century, returning ‘home’ to the metropole was their eventual aim. People, such as East India Company officials, civil servants, plantation holders and military men, who spent periods living and working in the East Indies and West Indies, returned ‘home’ to Britain after services had been fulfilled or fortunes made. The movement of these white British individuals and families between colonial holdings and Britain also precipitated the movement of people of colour owned or employed by them. Enslaved or indentured domestic servants brought to England from the East Indies and West Indies contributed to the growing population of people of colour in Britain during this period. In this blog I highlight how records from the Foundling Hospital of eighteenth-century London offer us a window into some of the lives of these people of colour, often hidden from view because of the lack of sources relating to their experiences.

Established in 1741, the Foundling Hospital took into its care infants from mothers either unable or unwilling to provide for them. From 1763 mothers were required to submit a petition to the Foundling Hospital General Committee as part of the admission process. Most women petitioning the Foundling Hospital were young, unmarried mothers, predominately working as domestic servants. Consequently, in almost all cases, an illegitimate child left the mother economically vulnerable and socially marginalised. Amongst these petitions it is possible to find some which suggest a child was an infant of colour, and this allows us to start examining the experiences of their mothers in London during this period.

Hogarth, Children at the Foundling Hospital

William Hogarth, 1739. An etching and engraving of children at the Foundling Hospital. ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Lucy Strange submitted a petition to the Foundling Hospital Committee on 17thNovember 1773 to have her one-month old son admitted. It reveals that she was ‘born in the East Indies and was sent to England by her master with the care of a child’. During the voyage she was ‘Debauched and got with Child’ (Foundling Hospital, 1773). The suggestion here is that Lucy was acting as nanny, or ayah, to a child of a white English family living in the East Indies (Visram, 1986). Many families sent their children ‘home’ to England and into the care of extended family members to receive an English upbringing and education. They were often accompanied on the voyage by indigenous servants, and this seems to be the reason for Lucy’s presence in London. It appears that Lucy was raped during the voyage to England, demonstrating that movement between the colonies and the metropole placed Lucy in a vulnerable position, which ultimately resulted in sexual violence. Unmarried, pregnant and in a foreign city, she was further marginalised by her lack of understanding of the English language. It is not clear how Lucy found out about the Foundling Hospital but when her son, Christopher Rowland, was admitted into the institution it would appear the difficulties she faced were resolved and she could return ‘home’ to her master in the East Indies.

Zoffany, Colonel Blair with his Family and an Indian Ayah

Johan Zoffany, Colonel Blair with his Family and an Indian Ayah, 1786. Photo © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported))

The return to England of Captain Grenadire and his family from Antigua impacted the circumstances of his servant, Henrietta Dislie. Before her departure from Antigua with her master, Henriette failed to disclose that she was ‘with child by a European, a Clerk to a Store keeper in the said Island’. She was ‘delivered on her passage of a Male Mulatto Child’ (Foundling Hospital, 1780). (Subsequent records of the Foundling Hospital reveal that Henrietta had a daughter, not a son). We do not know if this is another example of sexual violence or if some sort of relationship existed between the clerk and Henrietta Relationships between white men in power and enslaved black women were common in the Caribbean at this time, but this did not necessarily mean they were wholly consensual (Livesay, 2018, pp.3-4). If Henrietta’s application to the institution was unsuccessful, her petition states she was to be discharged from her position; her only security in a country where she was without any support networks to drawn upon. From the available documents it is unclear what Henrietta’s status was, as enslaved black individuals brought to England from the Caribbean were often referred to as servants. However the threat of losing her position suggests that Henrietta was a free black woman. Henrietta’s daughter, Jane Eyre, was admitted to the Foundling Hospital on 6th December 1780, aged ten weeks, and this allowed Henrietta to retain her position in the service of the Captain’s family.

Other examples within the petitions reveal consensual relationships between white women and black men living in Britain during this period. The black population is estimated to have reached approximately 10,000 in the eighteenth century, including free black men (and some women) who had made Britain their home (Shyllon, 1977). These individuals were sometimes enslaved domestic servants who had been granted manumission, sailors who worked the ships travelling between the metropole and the colonies, or runaway slaves who had evaded recapture. Susannah Wright petitioned the Foundling Hospital to have her daughter admitted in June 1804. She states that ‘your petitioner was seduced under a promise of Marriage by a Person who on finding your petitioner pregnant deserted her’. That person was George Clark, a fellow servant of Susannah’s and a ‘Man of Colour’ (Foundling Hospital, 1804). Sexual encounters or courtships between servants in the same house appear frequently in testimonies of women with illegitimate infants who petitioned the Hospital and Susannah’s story highlights this. Simultaneously, it again reveals an unmarried mother removed from her everyday surroundings and left isolated in an unfamiliar city. Desertion by the father is also a common theme within the petitions of the period and speaks to the relative ease with which even men of the lower ranks could move throughout the country and beyond. Many such petitions mention that the fathers, on discovering an unwanted pregnancy, left for the East Indies, West Indies or America. Such movement disrupted relationships which the young women frequently expected to result in marriage.

The Foundling Hospital provided a resolution to the desperate circumstances in which these women found themselves, as unmarried mothers with new-born infants in an unfamiliar city. But their stories also reveal insights into interracial relationships and sexual violence and the ways in which mobility across the empire perpetuated trauma and dislocations from the familiar which impacted the lives of some people of colour present in London during the eighteenth century.

Hannah Dennett is a PhD student at the Department of History, University of Warwick. Her project Forgotten Foundlings: Black Lives and the Eighteenth-Century Foundling Hospital is in collaboration with the Foundling Museum, London, and is funded through the AHRC’s Midlands4Cities consortium.

For more information about the history of the Foundling Hospital and the work of the Foundling Museum:


Foundling Hospital, A/FH/A/08/001/001/004, Petitions, 1773 (London Metropolitan Archives).

Foundling Hospital, A/FH/A/08/001/011, Petitions, 1780 (London Metropolitan Archives).

Foundling Hospital, A/FH/A/08/001/002/001/013/010, Petitions, 1804 (London Metropolitan Archives).

Livesay, Daniel, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

Folarian Shyllon, Black People in Britain 1555-1833 (London: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations, 1977).

Visram, Rozina, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indian in Britain 1700-1947 (Oxon: Routledge Revivals, 2015).

October 09, 2020

At Home in Empire? Whiteness and Jamaica in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

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To accompany the At Home in Empire: Colonial Experiences of Intimacy and Mobility conference, HRC doctoral fellows Hannah Dennett and Liz Egan will be writing a blog reflecting on their own research, the themes of the conference, and the practicalities of putting together an interdisciplinary event. In the first part of this series, Liz explores how the themes of home and mobility interact with her PhD research ‘Constructing and Challenging Creole Whiteness in Jamaica, 1865-1938’.

The theme of home generates multiple interpretations, particularly in colonial and post-colonial contexts. In this blog, I reflect on the home as a thread that runs through my own PhD project, knitting together the ways in which being ‘white’ was performed, discussed, and challenged in Jamaica in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How did whiteness function as social and cultural capital that coincided with political and economic power? How did a dominant white minority understand themselves and how were they understood by others? What can this tell us about the legacies of slavery and Jamaica’s relationship with Britain? Across these questions, the home looms as both a material place and imagined space.

Mary Gaunt

Mary Gaunt, from the frontispiece of Mary Gaunt, Alone in West Africa (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912).

The space of the home offers insight into the exclusive cultures of white society. Since the pre-emancipation period, white Jamaicans were associated with a culture of hospitality. Small numbers and relative isolation meant white travellers across the island often enjoyed a warm welcome in elite homes (Burnard, 2004; Petley, 2012). This culture of hospitality appears to have persisted into the twentieth century as white travel writers often commented on the comfortable homes they were invited to stay in as they toured the island. The home emerges as something of a social hub, with Australian writer Mary Gaunt enjoying games of bridge with her hostess and other guests either on the veranda or out on the tennis courts. Opportunities for gossip, these late afternoon games could turn ‘sometimes very wild’ (Gaunt, 1932, p. 239).

“Livingstone Family,” National Library of Jamaica Digital Collection, accessed June 25, 2020,

In the background of these elite homes, we cannot forget the role of domestic service and the racial inequalities manifested in the division of labour – exemplified, perhaps, by the Livingstone family photograph. Colour also dictated who received invitations. American traveller Harry Franck described a conversation with a light-skinned schoolteacher who confidently explained to him that he would never invite one of his dark-skinned colleagues to his house for fear the man might romantically pursue his daughter; ‘for the coloured girl forever loses caste by marrying a black man’. Similarly, the schoolteacher explained a white man would have the same concerns, ‘so I do not go to his house, even if I am asked, for he would be patronizing; and I do not invite a white man to my house because I know he would feel he was doing me a favour and an honour’ (Franck, 1920, pp 412-3).

Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger

In his memoir, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who was born in Jamaica in 1932, also discussed how the family was one of the key arenas in which these complex, often euphemistic codes of race and colour were taught. While his school friends were ‘clever scholarship youths of all colours, shades and backgrounds’, Hall recalled how ‘only those considered by my family equals in social status and of the “right” colour’ could be invited home (Hall and Schwarz, 2018, p. 54). Historically, the colonial construction of racial hierarchies in Jamaica was interwoven with questions of colour and class. Embedded in the violent history of slavery, Henrice Altink has argued that lighter-skin was valorised into the twentieth century and could bring access, for example, to higher-paid jobs or social mobility. Unpicking further this relationship between colourism and the structures of whiteness is central to my research and, as Hall and Altink have suggested, the home and family are key lenses though which to interrogate this (Altink, 2019).

The themes of home and mobility also evoke important questions about the relationship between Jamaica and Britain. Focusing on the immediate post-emancipation decades, Phillip Curtin proposed that the white Jamaican elite envisaged themselves as exiles hoping to one day return permanently to the “mother country” (Curtin, 1955, pp 55-57). Many elite families sent their children to Britain for their education, and I’m interested to explore further how white Jamaicans identified with both Britain and Jamaica into the twentieth century. Mobility was not a white preserve of course. The experiences of black Jamaicans at the metropole and elsewhere were often transformative to their thinking about the ways in which race operated in the British Empire. It was in London that Una Marson wrote poetry that longed for the beauty of Jamaica, but which also evoked the pain of her feelings of rejection on the capital's streets. The mobility of the Caribbean diaspora afforded new networks and new tools which reverberated back to Jamaica and contributed to increasing challenges to systems of colonialism and whiteness.

The home, as a domestic setting, a social space, and as a site of contested belonging, can thus offer multiple means of exploring the structures and experiences of empire and race. It is a fertile space for discussion, and as submissions to the conference arrive, Hannah and I are looking forward to the rich conversations we hope these different conceptualisations will produce next year.

Liz Egan, PhD student, Department of History, University of Warwick


Altink, Henrice, Public Secrets: Race and Colour in Colonial and Independent Jamaica (Oxford: Liverpool University Press, 2019).

Burnard, Trevor, Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Curtin, Philip D., Two Jamaicas: the Role of Ideas in a Tropical Colony, 1830-1865 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955).

Franck, Harry A., Roaming Through the West Indies (New York: The Century Co., 1920).

Gaunt, Mary, Reflection – In Jamaica (London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1932).

Hall, Stuart with Bill Schwarz, Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands (UK: Penguin Books, 2018).

Petley, Christer, ‘Gluttony, Excess, and the Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean’, Atlantic Studies, 9:1 (2012) 85-106.

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