Thursday, 7 March 2013

Interracial Romance Before the 1900s

In Jessamine, there are a couple of interracial romances - the main one between governess Arabella Adams and the wealthy black businessman and activist, Leando Joseph, and a secondary one that mostly takes place off-stage between the powerful planter, William Threlfall, and the beautiful mulatto, Katy Lindsey.

Before the 20th century, interracial romances weren't actually all that uncommon in the Caribbean and several accounts suggest that race was not a barrier to love.  During the research for my book, From the Field to the Legislature, about the history of women in the Virgin Islands, I came across a few of those stories and thought I’d share a couple of them.

In 1824, a slave by the name of Kitty, who had been freed by her former owner was said to be living with Benjamin Penn, a white cotton planter.  The couple lived on the small island of Great Camanoes.  They had four children of their own but Penn also supported Kitty’s three other children, presumably by an earlier relationship.  Another account gives the brief story of William Johnston, a white seaman, who purchased a slave by the name of Mary and also his two children with her and freed them.  The family then lived in Johnston's house in Road Town.  Though he never married Mary as far as we know, the union sounds as stable as any common-law marriage could be.

But, throughout the Caribbean, there are many stories of interracial love.

Black sisters, Elizabeth (1772-1833) and Anne Hart, (1173 - 1834) were born to mixed race parents in Antigua and grew up to become educators who did most of their work among the enslaved population.  They converted to Methodism in 1786 and were baptized by the famous, Thomas Coke, himself.   Twelve years later, in 1798, despite opposition from whites, Anne married John Gilbert, a white Methodist lay preacher.  In 1805, Elizabeth married Charles Thwaites, a white schoolteacher who was very supportive of her work as an educator.  Both Anne and Elizabeth continued to advocate for better conditions for slaves and both were deeply involved in their church. 

The character of Leando Joseph in Jessamine was partially inspired by the real-life George William Gordon (1820 - 1865), a Jamaican who was the son of a quadroon slave and a white attorney, Joseph Gordon.  As the son of a slave, George was also born a slave but he was later manumitted or freed by his father.  Gordon taught himself to read and write and was later sent to live with his godfather, a businessman, who taught him about running a business.  At age 16, Gordon opened a produce dealer’s store in Kingston.  He prospered and became the elected representative for the parish of St. Thomas.  He was an outspoken advocate for the poor and for blacks.  Born and Anglican, he converted to the Baptist faith.  There is very little online information about his wife, Lucy Shannon, a white woman.  His letters to her after his wrongful arrest by Governor Edward Eyre are tender declarations of care and concern.
Leando was also partially based on George Stiebel (1820 - 1896), a mixed- race Jamaican, who is said to have been the island's first millionaire.  He started out in shipping but made his fortune in Venezuela's gold mines.  He, too, was married to a white woman, Magdalen Baker, the daughter of a Moravian missionary.  Stiebel's residence, Devon House, is a must-see on any tour of Kingston.

Then, as now, some male and female blacks no doubt sought relationships or marriage with whites out of some dimly perceived desire for the status and prestige they felt it would confer.  Some may have felt that marrying white gave them an entree into white society or that life for their mixed race children would have been easier than for a black child.  Certainly, the slave women who entered into long-term relationships with white men had a lot to gain, including protection from other white men. 

While none of these people wrote the stories of their lives or gave us an insight into their own feelings about race and about interracial relationships, there is also, no doubt, that many of these relationships were deeply felt and brought great happiness to all involved.


Young Englishwoman Arabella Adams was full of hope and optimism when she arrived on the Caribbean island of St. Crescens to take up her first post as governess. But it was 1878, less than fifty years after the British abolished slavery. Dangerous secrets and desires lurked beneath the surface of St. Crescian society. Arabella surrendered to a forbidden love even as the dark clouds of old hatreds and new injustices boiled on the horizon. When those clouds burst over the island, Arabella's hopes and dreams ended and the island was changed forever.

More than a hundred years later, another woman, Grace Hylton, arrives on St. Crescens and takes up residence at Jessamine, the old Great House where Arabella once lived. Ruled by a corrupt political dynasty, St. Crescens is again on the brink of violence and chaos. It falls to Grace to discover the secrets of the past and right an old wrong before the island is plunged into years of turmoil. To succeed, however, she needs Arabella's help.

This is the gripping story of two women from two very different eras who must work together to save the island and the man they both love.  Click here to buy.


  1. What a lovely read this is, thanks for sharing it.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Karen! It's appreciated.

  3. Nice idea, i will try the same for my web site. thanks.
    biracial romance