I stepped up from the street, scuttled across the sidewalk and slipped through the front door of the small building. The sign hanging over the door had caught my eye from across the other side of the street and magnetized me. It read: Trace Your Ancestry Through Your Surname. I should have known better immediately and not allowed it to pull me in. But sometimes we act on impulse and end up doing things that make no sense at all. As in this instance. This time around, though, I did catch myself before it was too late. My senses slapped me, spun me around and pulled me back through the door. How could I possibly trace my ancestry through Smith?
My dash-in-dash-out happened a few years ago. Well, quite a few. In Dublin. I had gone there for a summer residency program at Trinity College for an MBA I had embarked on through the Open University. It was shortly after moving to Brussels from Jamaica. Attending classes at the historic college in Dublin, chartered in 1592, was a dream. Venturing out into the streets on a break between classes would give me an opportunity to sample some Guinness in Guinnessdom. Perhaps I would happen on Sweet Molly Malone, statued just outside one of the campus entrances. But discovering my ancestry? That would have been a good treat; but naa, too good to be true.
Generations of my forebears are from the great continent of Africa, and Smith has nothing at all to do with their bloodline. It has likely been passed down to me from a European slaveowner whose surname was Smith, and whose property had included both my uprooted African progenitor and the sugar plantation in eastern Jamaica on which he had been transplanted. Under servitude on the plantation, he had been stripped of everything, including his real name, and given a new one. Smith. The name of his master and lord, his owner. Further, Smith was – and still is — the commonest surname in the English language. Or the most popular, depending on whether your glass is half-empty or half-full. And so, even if this alien name could help me find linkage with my pre-slavery ancestors, its popularity would make pinpointing the right plantation owner exponentially more difficult. A genealogical double whammy!
Over the years I have often reflected on that Dublin experience and how it magnified something I had already found missing in my life. Missing is a clear connection with my African ancestors. It is a broken link. Although I learned in West Indian History in high school, and Anthropology of the Peoples of the Caribbean at university that my origins lie in West Africa, the Middle Passage put a chink in the connection. To a certain extent, it is like my ancestral history snapped at the Door of No Return, albeit remaining whole. Quite dichotomous. Snapped because I cannot point to a direct relative in West Africa; nevertheless whole, because the life of my direct, uprooted and transplanted ancestor continued on the sugar plantation in Jamaica, leading up to my entrance into life.
I know many among us on this side of the world who have African ancestral roots feel the same way I do. Emotionally, our ancestral connection is somewhat enigmatic. In my case, I do not know if I should be jealous of my African friends whose foreparents were never whisked away into servitude on this side of the Atlantic. Their ancestral connection is strong, having never been broken. They have not lost what we, the descendants of transplanted Africans, have. We feel somewhat cheated out of being able to trace our lineage conclusively, going back generations.
There is another side of the enigma of feeling cheated. I feel strong. Powerful even. As a member of the Afro-Jamaican Diaspora, history has told me that I am the progeny of survivors. A descendant of survivors of capture and incarceration in dark, damp holding castles and dungeons while waiting for their turn to be forced onto the slave ships; of survivors of the arduous, grueling transatlantic journey. Descended from survivors of those survivors, who outlasted the harsh conditions of labor and torturous punishment on sugar plantations.
My wife and I visited Elmina Castle in Ghana a few years ago and walking on a floor of what our guide described as a packed, solid combination of earth, sweat, tears, blood and excrement was overwhelming. When I saw the tiny opening in a wall towards the sea, I thought it was a window, but wondered why it was so low. Or, it could have been a door that had been partially plugged for the safety of modern-day visitors. To prevent them from falling through. Upon seeking confirmation from the guide that either was the case, I learned it was neither. It was the actual size from back in the day. An outlet deliberately made tiny so that slaves could only squeeze through, one by one, and end up directly on the ship. The size made it impossible to make a last-ditch effort to escape… It was the Door of No Return and, it would appear, of No Escape.
Perhaps the emotions created by my broken African link are signs of an ethnic identity development rough patch. Sure, I am certain I am African in origin. Sure, I know we have many African retentions in Jamaica, which have been part of my life and have helped shape me. Some of the words we use, and dishes we prepare in Jamaica, are the same in parts of the Niger-Congo region of West Africa. Made the journey across the Atlantic and remained intact, albeit with some variations, across the years. But, how would my life be if I knew what African ethnic group or tribe I come from? Would it make my ethnic awareness, self-identification and commitment more acute, and therefore of more relevance in my life today? I guess I will never quite know the answers to these questions as the fundamentals are not in place. It is almost like the response I got from a friend who is an only child about how she felt not having a brother or sister: “I don’t know, as I have never had one.” While she might have been able to guess how it felt, she would truly never ever be able to really know for sure.
Thanks to the development of DNA tests, I am a bit closer to being able to mend the chink in my African ancestral connection. I have done one of them. Not that I had expected the results would have led me to my real surname. But they have at least helped me narrow down where in Africa I most probably originated from. So, what have I learned? According to the results, my ethnicity estimate is that I am 49% Benin/Togo and 23% Ivory Coast/Ghana. Not really surprised, for my history lessons had already led me to believe my roots were in West Africa. Plus, I have spent time in Togo, Ivory Coast and Ghana, and felt so much like I was in Jamaica. For various reasons I can elaborate on at another time. Interesting that within the rest of the makeup I am 3% England/Wales/Northwestern Europe. Could it be then that that touch of Europe came about from a forced liaison in one of the slave-holding castles in West Africa? Or, could it have happened on a sugar plantation in Jamaica? Perhaps one in St. Thomas?
The likelihood of St. Thomas is not strange. Sitting at my computer, I have been researching my genealogy and have traced my paternal lineage back to a slave christened at the age of 2 on Morant Estates in St. Thomas. Date – March 14, 1824. His name was Henry Smith, just like my dad, and some others in the family. An uncle told me that the same first names have been repeated down the line. Edward, Henry, Timothy. And that is what I have discovered from the birth certificates, marriage certificates and death certificates I have dug up, all leading back to that slave. I guess I have been fortunate that all these life events were officially recorded. Almost all of them taking place in John’s Town, St. Thomas. I remember my dad taking me there when I was about 5 or 6 years old.
But, while I can make a good guess about how Smith joined my bloodline, I guess I will never know the real name of any of my pre-slavery ancestors (I have the post-slavery ones down pat). In any case, were surnames even part of the naming convention back in Africa in the days?