The Planter’s Fictions: Identity, Intimacy, and the Negotiations of Power in Colonial Jamaica

The Planter’s Fictions: Identity, Intimacy, and the Negotiations of Power in Colonial Jamaica

University of Victoria, Canada
127 pages

Meleisa Ono-George

A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Masters of Art In the Department of History

By the latter quarter of the eighteenth century, as the movement against the slave trade increased in Britain, Creoles, those of British ancestry born in the West Indies, were increasingly criticized for their involvement in slavery. Simon Taylor, a Jamaican-born planter of Scottish ancestry who lived most of his life in the colony, attempted to negotiate competing and often contradictory sensibilities and subject positions as both British and Creole.

One of the central challenges to Taylor’s negotiation of identity was his long-term relationship with Grace Donne, a free mixed-race woman of colour. An examination of their relationship highlights the ways binary discourses and exclusionary practices devised to create and reinforce rigid racial boundaries were regularly crossed and blurred, even by an individual like Simon Taylor, a person well placed to benefit from the policing and maintenance of those boundaries.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Identity, Intimacy and Performance

Here lie the remains of the Honorable Simon Taylor, a loyal subject, a firm friend, and an honest man. Who after an active live, during which he faithfully and ably filled the highest offices of civil and military duty in this island, died.
—Inscription on Simon Taylor’s gravestone, Lyssons, Jamaica.

Shortly after his death in the summer of 1813, the body of Simon Taylor was exhumed from its burial place at his Prospect Pen estate near Kingston, Jamaica, and moved sixty kilometers away to another family estate in St. Thomas-in-the-East. The means by which his body was carried to St. Thomas created a stir in the sugar colony. The body of Simon Taylor, one of Jamaica’s wealthiest settler at the time of his death, was moved to its final resting place on the back of a mule-drawn cart. The Lieutenant-governor of Jamaica, Edward Morrison, wrote in a local newspaper that the whole process “was done in not a very decent manner.” It was an insult to the memory of Simon Taylor, a leading figure and planter in the colony, for his body to be carried to its final burial on a “common mule cart.” During his life, Taylor had worked to embody the very definition of respectability in the colony. The son of a Scottish merchant and Jamaica-born mother of British ancestry, Taylor was born in St. Andrews parish, Jamaica on December 23, 1738. Besides a short period when he attended Eton College in England as a child and studied business in Holland, Taylor spent most of his life in Jamaica where he worked his way up the ladder of colonial society from an estate attorney to the owner of several plantations and over two thousand slaves. From custos and head of the militia to his involvement in the Jamaican House of Assembly, his administrative roles in Jamaica established him firmly within the plantocracy, a small group of large plantation owners who controlled most of the wealth and political life in Jamaica. To many of the colonial elite Taylor was, as his gravestone reads, “a loyal subject, a firm friend, and an honest man.” The focus of this study however is not Taylor’s embodiment of colonial respectability, but rather the ways in which his life reflected the conflicts and complexities of eighteenth century Jamaican slave society. Using the letters of Simon Taylor written to his family, friends, and business associates from 1779 until his death in 1813 as my principal primary source, this thesis will explore colonial identities and the place of interracial intimacy in slave society. I begin this project by setting out the main theoretical arguments that frame and inspire my work. These arguments revolve around three main ideas—the precarious nature of racial and national identity formation in the colony; the colonial anxieties that developed in Jamaica; and the importance of examining social performance and intimacy in order to understand representations of identity and claims of power and cohesion. These are the themes woven throughout this chapter and the focus of this project…

…The multiple and conflicting understandings of difference that proliferated in the late eighteenth century suggest the need to move away from a binary model of analysis of race to one that engages with the spaces in-between—the “uncertain crossing and invasion of identities” that occurred in Jamaica, and the contradictions and anxieties that emerged from this crossing. Boundaries established in racial discourse that separated the “races,” although at times firm, were incomplete and routinely crossed in day-to-day interactions between individuals. The large number of mixed-race people in Jamaica by the end of the eighteenth century and the substantial amount of property bequeathed to them by their white fathers attests to how frequently racial divisions were blurred. As Catherine Hall argues, “it is not possible to make sense of empire either theoretically or empirically through a binary lens: we need the dislocation of that binary and more elaborate, cross-cutting ways of thinking. Although the language of self/other and master/slave is very useful in understanding national and racial identity formation and power, such dichotomies cannot fully capture the complex and nuanced interactions of people, especially in colonial “contact zones” like Jamaica. “Cross-cutting ways of thinking” are needed in the examination of Jamaican slave society in order to understand the detailed hierarchies of race and difference and the complicated movements and exchanges between individuals in the colony…

…Chapter three examines Simon Taylor’s relationship with his housekeeper, Grace Donne. The framework of intimacy will allow me to explore and illuminate the contradictions between the ideals of British respectability that Simon Taylor attempted to maintain, especially under a metropolitan gaze, and his feelings of affection towards Grace Donne and his mixed-race family. In addition, I will attempt to situate Grace Donne, a free woman of colour who lived with Simon Taylor for thirty-six years, as a central actor in his life, despite her conspicuous absence from his letters. I use the story of Simon Taylor and Grace Donne as a case study to show the ambiguities inherent in Jamaican slave society and to highlight the ways in which intimate interracial relationships threatened to undermine the hierarchies needed to maintain slave society. On occasion, sentiment as much as skin colour or class was the basis on which alliances were fashioned, boundaries crossed, and power negotiated…

Read the entire thesis here.

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