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Michigan Researchers Study Letters of Slave-Trading Family

Michigan Researchers Study Letters of Slave-Trading Family
Papers revisit long-standing taboo of mixed-race affairs


A collection of 10,000 letters written by a family of slave traders and studied by University of Michigan researchers touches on one of the most controversial topics of the time: mixed-race affairs and the families that resulted.

The papers of John Tailyour focus on the Scottish slave trader’s career in the 1700s and his love affair with a Black Jamaican woman, with whom he fathered several children, the Detroit Free Press reported last month.

“For years, this subject was taboo,” says Dr. John C. Dann, director of the university’s Clements Library and curator of the 200-year-old letters. “It’s still an extremely sensitive subject.”

The library’s policy is not to reveal the source of such acquisitions, but Dann said they were found in the New England attic of a Tailyour descendant. They were obtained through a tip from associate professor of history Dr. David Hancock, who said he heard about the cache from a friend in Connecticut.

Private donors bought the papers for Clements for $200,000.

The Tailyour papers are fascinating because it was taboo to talk about the coexistence of multiple families of different races and even less common to record their existence on paper, Dann said.

It is unclear whether Tailyour, who operated from Virginia and Jamaica about the time of the American Revolution, owned the woman with whom he had an affair, “but no one has read all the letters yet,” Dann says.

“We’ll learn more,” he says. “What is obvious from what we’ve read is that he loved their children.”

Tailyour wrote to a brother in England, seeking help in finding a school that would turn his sons with the Jamaican woman into gentlemen.

“It is surely incumbent on us to provide for our offspring, whether Black or White,” the brother wrote back. “Your sentiment on that subject does you great honor.”

Tailyour’s first son, known as James Taylor, was placed in an English school. Tailyour later bought him a commission as a British army officer in India.

“These lives were so complicated,” Dann says. “Here was Tailyour, a cold-blooded merchant who sold people as commodities, now trying to break racial barriers for his son.”

But in writing to his father in 1805 about his first adult encounter with African slaves in Europe, Tailyour said they disgusted him.

“These were all Black, having their bodies bare and painted in different places with white spots,” he wrote. “In my opinion, this has (been) a grotesque experience.”

Dann cites Tailyour’s seemingly conflicting sentiments as evidence of the complex racial relationships fostered by slavery.

“What we’re looking at here are moral dilemmas that have stayed with us until today.”

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