If you don’t want to know…

October 6, 20207:08 amLeave a Comment

As you may know if you read this blog regularly, I work with a fantastic bunch of people who have a depth and breadth of knowledge and passion for their work which never fails to impress me.

Photograph of Di Stiff: Collections Development Archivist, Surrey History Centre

Di Stiff: Collections Development Archivist

My colleague Di Stiff is our Collections Development Archivist and has worked at Surrey History Centre for nearly 22 years. She particularly focuses on raising awareness of Surrey’s diverse communities and developing under-represented areas of the collections.  Di has, like many of us, been somewhat ‘confined to barracks’ over the last few months.  Of course, that has not stopped her taking daily exercise and again, like a lot of us, discovering things in our neighbourhoods that we had perhaps overlooked before.  Here are her experiences of researching a cause dear to her heart and finding a wonderful story on her own doorstep!

A couple of weeks ago while strolling through Dorking Cemetery, I stumbled across the grave of John Henry Lance, a Dorking abolitionist, who died at Holmwood 12 Jan 1878. The grave stone states that he was ‘Commissary judge for the suppression of the slave trade in Surinam’.  After the exclamations of ‘who knew?!’ and ‘where is Surinam?’, I ploughed through the usual online genealogy sites and found enough for me to be able to compile a feature for our Exploring Surrey’s Past ‘Abolitionists in Surrey’ page (coming soon).

Photograph of John Henry Lance's Grave, Dorking Cemetery

John Henry Lance’s Grave, Dorking Cemetery

However, I did a more rigorous search online and more interestingly, I happened upon a somewhat unusual website called ‘Slaves and Highlanders’ – unusual in that being descended from a slave owner may not be something one might readily know, admit, or want to pursue.  However, it is exactly the type of ‘skeleton in the closet’ that many family historians may have been confronted by and perhaps have been conflicted about.

 That aside, this website is a fantastic resource for anyone with Scottish ancestry, especially the Clans, as it includes indexes of families and individuals who owned, or were involved in the slave trade, and more incredibly, features information about the enslaved themselves https://www.spanglefish.com/slavesandhighlanders/index.asp?pageid=606699.  Lance features on the website because in 1823 he had cause to report on one Adam Cameron, of the clan Cameron of Lochaber, a planter in Surinam, who had two children with a free woman of colour but also married a Dutch widow (Surinam being a Dutch colony).  

 Lance is just one Abolitionist with Surrey connections. October’s Marvel of the Month features others, including Dr Stephen Lushington, whose name appears on the 1866 memorial to emancipation in Westminster, alongside those of William Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton.

 It made me ponder whether some family historians might want to steer clear of this unpleasant area of their family history but that actually, family history should be ‘warts and all’, so it is just as valid as any other area of our ancestors’ lives to research.  

 Asking the question ‘why did they own slaves?’ is an important one and can both lead to useful research sources to pursue and a greater understanding of the context and the plight of the enslaved.  And this is exactly the area of research which is opening up now with the growing awareness around making British Black History accessible and highlighting the treatment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in the past and present.  

Image of The Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840 feat. Lushington, Buxton, Byron

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840 feat. Lushington, Buxton, Byron. NPG permission

 Another website that is key for this area of research is the ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ project at University College London, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/.  The project has created a database collating information about slave owners, their estates and the compensation they were allocated from the Office of Registry of Colonial Slaves and Slave Compensation Commission, following abolition in 1833.  It is a phenomenal family history resource and has identified thousands of estates, owners and employees, and has initiated a wealth of research, with accompanying maps, sources list, research guidance, blogs and newsletters.  We used the resource for a deeper interrogation of events, sources and legacy behind some of Surrey’s slave owners, see https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/subjects/black_history/surrey/legacies/).

 So, how would you feel if you discovered your ancestors were enslaved?  How would you feel if your ancestor owned enslaved people?  One response, which many may remember, is that of TV chef and personality, Ainsley Harriott, who through the BBC’s WDYTYA programme in 2008 discovered not only that his ancestors were enslaved Africans but also that he was descended from a white sugar plantation owner who had recognised a child of an enslaved woman as his own and handed on the family name of Harriott.  Ainsley’s reaction was a genuine moment of horror but since that programme he has become the patron of the Thomas Fowell Buxton Society, established to commemorate Buxton’s achievements in abolishing the slave trade.  On the excellent website, Ainsley writes “Thank you for bringing important history to people’s attention…we still all need to know”.

Image of a Slave Register 1832

Slave Register 1832. Reproduced by kind permission of Ancestry.com

I agree with Di – we can’t really pick and choose among our ancestors and I suspect that there are few family trees which don’t contain something which either shocked appalled the compiler.  It has certainly been the case with me.

So how do we deal with these things?  I think the most important thing to remember is that we are the product of many different strands of DNA from a huge gene pool.  Therefore we are NOT our ancestors.  We do not share their thoughts, their values or their manners, good or bad, and despite what the adverts for family history sites might say, they do not always shape who we are.  Many of our ancestors were the product of their times and the customs of their environments and while in hindsight we might see the hypocrisies in their beliefs, we have to remember that they often could not.

So my advice is that if you find something nasty in the woodshed of your family tree, take it on the chin, record it and perhaps record your thoughts on the matter (this will be valuable to future generations) and move on.  That is a family tree ‘warts and all’.

Keep safe and well and let’s hope for ‘happy’ researching!

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Written by Jane Lewis - Modified by Di

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