Saturday, 18 August 2007

‘My Scottish ancestors were heroes’

This weekend I have a "First person" article in the FT magazine. It is about a fascinating woman called Pearl Duncan, who has a great story to tell about her family history.
You can read it online here,
Or here....

‘My Scottish ancestors were heroes’
‘Many black Americans are afraid, as I was initially, of finding a slave trader in their family tree,’ says Pearl Duncan

First Person: Pearl Duncan
As told to Sarah Ebner

Published: August 18 2007 00:36

When I started to look into my family tree, I couldn’t have imagined the conflict it would cause. I spent 10 years researching my ancestors, and a lot of people didn’t like what I had to say at the end of it. I’d tracked the cultural history that shaped my DNA in America, Europe and Africa, and discovered that not all white men in the British colonies who fathered children with black women in the 18th century were evil slavers. I found at least one ancestor who was an abolitionist and who did not abandon his children.

My family emigrated from Jamaica to New York when I was young, and I was always fascinated by where I had come from. My parents told me we were descended from the Maroons, or runaway slaves. Years later, when I went to our old family graves just outside Kingston, Jamaica, I couldn’t believe it when I found our birth and baptismal records dating back to the 1700s.

I now know that my roots are incredibly diverse: I am descended from slaves; from free people who worked and bought their freedom; from Maroon warriors who waged military rebellions in Jamaica against slavery; also from British merchants, and European and African nobility.

My Jamaican grandmother’s name was Rebecca Smellie and her ancestor was John Smellie, a Scottish merchant. In 1726 in Jamaica he had a child, George, with a “free negro” whose name was Ann Roberts. Even though there were penalties at that time – huge fines, deportation, imprisonment – for keeping records of black children, John Smellie left birth and baptism records with George’s name on them.

Three of John Smellie’s Scottish descendants settled in Jamaica on land he left them. One of them was called William Smellie and he died in 1800. He was an abolitionist, and when I found his will it showed that he left the maximum amount allowed under the slavery laws to his mixed-race children and their mother. Finding out about both these men changed everything for me. I had thought I was learning about the awful people who owned slaves, but instead I was discovering heroism, and people who stood up for what they thought was right.

I followed up these discoveries with research in Scotland, hiring Scottish genealogists and local historians. It turned out that John Smellie was of noble birth. I sent the records to the Court of The Lord Lyon, the heraldic authority for Scotland, which said I qualified for a coat of arms. I now have one that reflects the diversity of my ancestry.

My research also took me to Ghana. I tracked down dozens of ancestors and collected DNA from Ghanaian families whose names matched nicknames still used in my family. I spent a lot of time on the linguistic research, and DNA confirmed the connection. As far as I know, I was one of the first people in the world to use DNA in this way.

I’ve written a book about my research but publishers seem to think it’s too contentious to publish. Talking about black ancestors who rebelled apparently goes against how Americans see these people – slaves were victims, not rebels. Editors are happy to accept stories about slaves who escaped one at a time, but they don’t like the idea that they grouped together and stood up for themselves. That’s too threatening.

I’ve also learned that many black Americans are afraid, as I was initially, of finding a slave trader in their family tree, so they don’t really want to talk about their European ancestors. I got into trouble with my black friends for saying that John Smellie was a more caring man than many other colonials because he left a record of his child.

When you start looking into your genealogy, you have to come to terms with admirable and despicable behaviour, and that’s what I’ve done.

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