October is Black History Month in the UK, and for several years the Record Office has taken part in the annual event hosted by the Council’s BME Employee Network. Today I was fortunate to be able to attend on behalf of DRO, and take the opportunity to promote to local organisations our collections and deposit services, to learn more about how we can support BME historical discovery, and also to indulge in some amazing Caribbean food.
With so many of our visitors and enquirers researching their family history, I was really looking forward to hearing Paul Crooks speak about his own experiences of researching his African and Caribbean Ancestry, and perhaps even learn some tips to help us support others along the same journey. In fact, Paul’s talk was much more wide ranging and after an introduction to the Maroon Wars of Jamaica between 1720 and 1739, he talked about two women he has discovered through his own historical and family history investigations.
The first, Nanny of the Maroons, was the matriarchal leader of “freedom fighters” who had escaped slavery in Jamaica and fought to liberate others from the island’s plantations. A running theme throughout the day was the significance and value of individuals and individual actions on the wider world, and Nanny’s story highlighted this perfectly – the efforts of the Maroons of Jamaica may have delayed the coming of the Industrial Revolution, but they were certainly an early incarnation of the abolitionist movement of the later 18th century. (Until today, I hadn’t heard of the Maroons – have you ever noticed how the heroes of the abolitionist movement who feature in our collective national memory are white men? They were certainly the only people taught in my history lessons).
The second woman was somebody whose story may have remained untold had Paul not discovered her during the search for his own ancestors. Ami Djaba was Paul’s great-great-great-great grandmother. Born in 1777, from Krobo in Ghana, Ami was sold into slavery as a child, transported across the Atlantic and died aged 47 on a Jamaican sugar plantation. Of all the slaves on that plantation, Ami was the only one to retain her African name. Unfortunately, there was no time today to learn more about Ami and her life, but I shall certainly be looking up Paul’s books to find out more:
Ancestors: a novel inspired by Paul’s own forebears.
A tree without roots: the guide to tracing British, African and Asian-Caribbean ancestry
Without Paul’s fascination and determination (having been told in the 1980s that no records survive that would help him discover his ancestors), Ami’s story and her legacy could have lain hidden in the archives forever. Archives – including at Derbyshire Record Office – are full of stories waiting to be told. History still happened even if no-one has written it down yet and shared it with others. The role of the archivist is to preserve the rich and wonderful evidence of people from the past who created, developed and inspired the communities we live in today so that their stories can be told. Anybody (Everybody!) can be a historian, can discover a story, can uncover a hidden legacy, can share with the world the lives of individuals who have changed our world but are yet to be recognised.
We have been raised on a British history full of empire yet almost exclusively white (and for that matter mostly male too). BAME individuals, families and communities at worst have been written out of our national and local histories, and at best have been merely overlooked. Black History Month is just one way of starting to put this right, but it is through the efforts of people like Paul telling the stories of their own ancestors that as a nation we can start to put the black (and Asian, and Chinese, and all minorities) back into our shared history.
Putting the black back was very much the inspiration of the day’s next speaker Dr Gabriella Beckles-Raymond (Senior Lecturer in Womanist Theology, Philosophy, and Culture at Canterbury Christ Church University), but more on this soon. For now, I want to end in the same way Paul ended his presentation as it genuinely brought tears to my eyes, thinking not only of the powerful story he shared of Ami’s stolen childhood and freedom, but of the power of or rather in history…
Having spent 13 years researching his ancestors (mostly before the availability on online research tools), in 2004 Paul visited Cape Coast Castle in Ghana where Ami had been imprisoned before walking through the ‘Door of No Return’ and onto the slave ship that transported her to the other side of the world in 1785. From the 16th-19th centuries, over 3 million human beings were sold into slavery, walking through similar doors knowing that there would never be coming home. When Paul visited, he too walked through the door of no return, but in the opposite direction.