SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: A Shackled Inheritance by Madeleine McDonald


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Spinster Abigail Carrick faces a frugal existence in dour Scotland—until her father’s will reveals she has two unknown half-sisters. Free women of color, they will share her inheritance of a sugar plantation in the Caribbean. Against all advice, Abigail crosses the ocean to meet them.

Fellow passenger Euan Sinclair offers her welcome encouragement. As their friendship deepens, the young lawyer is torn between attraction to Abigail and his loathing of slavery. His principles also clash with his duty, for his legal mission is delicate and he dare not fail.

Fate throws the slave owner and the abolitionist together, on an island gripped by rumors of a slave revolt. When Euan meets Abigail’s family, will her alluring sister Desiree steal him from her?


My inspiration for writing A Shackled Inheritance came from a true story I heard about a Scotsman who made provision in his will for the two disabled daughters he had with his West Indian companion, believing their disability was God’s punishment for sin.

Two hundred years ago, in the suffocating heat of Britain’s sugar-growing Caribbean colonies, it was almost unheard of for a white man to marry his black mistress.

In my ignorance, when reading American fiction, I always assumed that the free blacks of New Orleans were a relict of the French ownership of Louisiana. In the name of liberté, égalité, fraternité, the French government freed the slaves in its colonies in 1794, although it later rescinded the edict under pressure from slave owners.

However, research revealed a different picture. My starting point was the rich online archives of Jamaica, a former British colony. Skipping from one page to another, I found numerous references to free persons of colour. This mixed-race community emerged over the centuries from relations between white men and black slaves. Over time, their numbers grew. In 1816, seventeen years before Britain abolished slavery, the free coloured community of Jamaica was large enough and had sufficient economic clout to threaten a taxpayers’ revolt unless they were granted full political and civil rights. Under pressure, the British government gradually complied with their demands.

Children were born as a natural consequence of white men desiring comfort and companionship while far from home. The men sometimes signed papers to release the mother of their children from slavery, and a free woman then bore free children. Natural bonds of affection meant that mixed-race children were often acknowledged and brought up in their father’s house. Yet field and house slaves on the same plantations, who might well be cousins to the master’s children, were treated as property, to be bought and sold at will.

As my hero, lawyer Euan Sinclair, tells heroine Abigail Carrick, “Children are brought into the world but theirs is a half-world of hypocrisy and pretence.” If wives made the long, dangerous journey to the islands, they chose to look the other way. In 1861, the American author Mary Chesnut wrote in her diary: “The mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—and every lady tells you who is the father of the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.” It seems logical that wilful blindness would also apply on the Caribbean islands, where far fewer white women joined their husbands.

Many fathers made decent provision for their mixed-race children. Sons were sometimes sent to school in England, even attending university there. Children were apprenticed to a trade, or given funds to set up in business. They became artisans, dressmakers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, or even lawyers. Some worked as overseers on the family plantation and some inherited land from their fathers. Nathaniel Wells, for example, the son of a Welsh sugar planter and a house slave, inherited his father’s plantations, moved back to Wales, took part in local life as a country gentleman, and in 1818 became the first black high sheriff of Monmouthshire county.

Daughters also inherited. For example, in 1790, one John Brownrigg left Jane Brownrigg “daughter of Elizabeth Christian a free negroe woman” the sum of £200 “for the purchase of negroes when she reaches eighteen years.” That sum would have purchased four adult slaves.

However, for mixed-race women without a trade or inheritance, the future was bleak. In practice, the only profession open to them was prostitution. This was sometimes euphemistically described as an accommodation with a white man. In my book, Abigail’s sister Desiree is determined to avoid this fate. She tells her sister, “I will be no man’s mistress. To smile, and simper, and submit, and always fear for my future. I will not.” Like Jane Austen’s characters, she seeks security through marriage. Desiree is my favourite person in the book, and as an author I faced the dilemma of whether to let her steal her sister’s man.

Despite the longevity of unofficial unions, despite manumission papers signed, despite the existence of children, a concubine had no legal rights. The man could up sticks and sail home at any time.

Nevertheless, mixed-race women preferred white protectors. Black and brown men were excluded from the dance halls where women sought to attract a white man’s eye. As Monk Lewis wrote in the journal he kept of a tour of his plantations in 1816, “To gain the situation of housekeeper to a white man directs her aim; this makes her happiness, and this her fame.” A racial hierarchy developed of mulattos, quadroons, mustees and mustaphinos. The lighter a woman’s skin, the higher her price.

As I try to show in A Shackled Inheritance, free persons of colour in the West Indies denied their African heritage and identified with white society. Who can blame them? Raised in a European household, perhaps by an indulgent father, why would they put their comfortable way of life at risk by championing better treatment for the luckless slaves their father owned? Even my hero Euan, a committed abolitionist, acknowledges that Abigail’s sisters were born into a world they have no power to change.


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Madeleine McDonald left school with the intention of working her way round the world. Life had some surprises in store and she no further than France, settling in the Dreyeckland, a fascinating corner of Europe where three-cornered land where France borders Switzerland and Germany. Life on the border, with its rich history of overlapping languages and loyalties, inspired much of her writing. Find out more at

Jenny Q

10 Responses

  1. This post is incredibly interesting. I imagine the research could give you hundreds of story ideas. I’m looking forward to reading this one.

  2. How fascinating, Madeline! This is an area I had little knowledge of. Your book sounds wonderful. I look forward to reading it. Best wishes for success.

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