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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

If I could, I'd be looking back

Oh, the things I would be if I weren’t a writer…in my dreams. You know the list—singer (despite being unable to carry a tune in a paper bag); supermodel (I’m 5’ 2”); pilot (although I’m afraid to fly)—that kind of thing. Those dreams will remain simply dreams, when they don’t become plot points in my books. But if I weren’t an author, and I had the time to pursue another career, I’d be a genealogical researcher. But I’d specialize in a very specific area—one very important to me personally.

Thing is, I’m of mixed heritage and grew up hearing stories about some of my ancestors and how they ended up in the Caribbean. There were the French brothers, the Scottish land manager and his gorgon of a wife, the English gent running away from scandal. All very exciting (if ultimately more fantasy than reality) but it was only as I got older it struck me no one spoke about a large part of the family tree. The slaves and indentured servants, who played a vital role in the survival of my family, were invisible and ignored.

It’s not surprising. History is written by those on the top of the heap. In a place like Jamaica during the 17th through 19th centuries (and, to be honest, beyond) the rich chose what and who to celebrate. Plantations kept records but many of those have been lost, and it wasn’t until Emancipation owners were forced to baptize the slaves and, as a corollary, give them last names. In many cases, those are some of the first traceable records of the slaves.

My mother was interested in genealogy and began doing research into her family when I was a teen. After she died I became the official keeper of the family records and chief researcher. Unfortunately it isn’t something I’ve been able to devote a lot of time to, but last year I had a breakthrough—and it was one of the most touching and humbling moments of my life.
I had found a list of names among my paternal grandfather’s possessions a number of years ago, labelled as being his grandmother and her siblings. Using that list I was able to go back another generation and found a woman by the name of Mary Gittoes, my great-great-great-grandmother. It might not sound like a great find but to me it was gold, as it also connected two arms of the family. I found a number of records of her children’s births or baptisms and a marriage record for her and her husband, but then I hit a dead-end, not able to find anything more. Who was she? Where had she come from?

Fast-forward to last year, when I found a christening record from 1811, from the time when the plantation owners were first being forced to register their slaves, and there she was—my Mary, listed as “a child of colour”. Then I found another record, one from 1821, from a mass baptism. The ages didn’t seem to indicate the same person, but vernacular from that time frame is specific and “child of colour” seems to be indicative of a child born to a slave woman and a white or mulatto man, rather than being indicative of age.

Irrespective of whether I was looking at the records of one woman or two, one thing was certain. Mary was a slave. She survived the brutality of life on a plantation and the paternalistic and inhuman post-emancipation conditions. Because of her strength, I’m here. I want to know more, discover the truth, rather than the revisionist history we’ve been fed. So, if I weren’t a writer, that’s what I’d be doing…and hopefully, even with my writing career, I’ll one day have the chance to do it. That’s the part of my heritage I’m proudest of, and I hate to think the story won’t be told.
My Great-grandfather and grandmother and their children. My grandfather is the one on the left. Can you imagine how they must have been sweltering in those clothes??


  1. That's awesome, Anya! My mom is an amateur geneologist. She's traced her family back to Germany in the 1600s, my dad's family back to Franch in the 1700s and even another branch of family all the way to England (who knew I was related to a monk...who decided to populate the New World all by himself?)as well as our Native American roots.

    If you ever get the chance to do it, keep digging because even though it isn't always pretty, but it's rewarding to learn where you come from.

  2. I think in a way it's the unpretty bits I like the best! My grandmother's generation were all about hiding stuff if it somehow impacted their "respectability", so it's when I can ferret out those skeletons I get really excited, because if they'd had their way no one would ever know where certain members of family came from! I'd love to be able to take the family tree back farther, but the reality is many people came to the Caribbean to hide, get away from trouble or as chattels, none of which is terribly conducive to leaving a paper trail.

    Love the story of your monk ancestor, who obviously wasn't very angelic!!

  3. What a fantastic accounting, Anya. And Danica too! Keep going, Anya, slip through time and shake those skeletons until they finally spill their secrets.
    This is book and movie material!
    A friend of mine used Ancestry.com for my family. Sadly we can't go too far back as many records were burned in WWII and it seemed no one wanted to talk about anything. In the 1990's we finally found out my Uncle was really mom's half brother. Gran never, ever told who his father was except the possibility he was a police officer.
    Keep digging for that golden nugget.

  4. Wow, Anya that's wonderful that you found a key piece of the puzzle of your ancestors. It's so much fun to find something no one else has. My dad has traced one branch of the family back to 1100's. Barons and Earls abound. So do concubines. The papers list her name and their children, plus his wife. Talk about interesting. Having a Cherokee ancestor has been near to impossible to trace. All we know is she was born in 1699, a wedding date, husband and children.
    You may not be able to devote a lot of time to searching, but you can get your children interested when they are older and then they can continue with the search. Thanks for sharing!