Naomie Harris confronts the complexity of her Grenadian and Jamaican roots in her emotional episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Ancestry ProGenealogist, Joanna Cicely Fennell, revisits Naomie’s story and offers her tips for exploring Caribbean ancestry.
This latest episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featured British actress Naomie Harris, best known to audiences as Eve Moneypenny in the latest three incarnations of the Bond film series. Daughter of a Jamaican mother and Trinidadian-born father, Naomie was born and raised in North London. She openly admitted her general lack of interest in her family history, until her mother Carmen Harris presented her with a DNA kit, which indicated she was 48% Nigerian. As a Caribbean genealogist, I was very excited to see where Naomie’s journey would lead, although it would have been interesting to know her full DNA ethnicity estimate in light of her diverse Caribbean heritage.
“All these questions were triggered simply by doing this DNA test”
As Naomie’s family history journey progressed, she learned for the first time about her father’s paternal ancestry, which took her to the Caribbean ‘Spice Island’ of Grenada. There she learned of her family’s links to the cocoa trade, and ultimately to a British overseer named James Langdon. Before her trip, Naomie was understandably apprehensive about her roots, but she was keen to find out whether the family rumours of an Irish ancestor were true. Her first stop was Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad & Tobago, where she met her uncle Saba for the first time. In fact, according to Naomie, it was the first time she had met anyone from her estranged father Brian Clarke’s family. Her father made a brief appearance at the beginning of the episode, when he told Naomie that his mother had been born in Guyana and his father in Grenada; both had migrated to Trinidad prior to their marriage. Like Naomie’s mother Carmen, Brian arrived in the United Kingdom as a child. Naomie was understandably disappointed to learn that her paternal grandparents George and Barbara lived in nearby Muswell Hill while she was growing up, yet they never met.
“If you come from the Caribbean the likelihood of you being involved with the slave trade in some form is very high”
After meeting her uncle, Naomie travelled to Grenada where she was surprised to learn of the mixed- race marriage between her white Grenadian 2x great-grandfather Charles William Wallace Clarke and his wife Anne Sophia, who was of African descent. Charles’ father William Clarke was the son-in-law of Somerset-born James Langdon, although we never learn if he was indeed the mysterious Irish-born ancestor of family lore. Faced with the uncomfortable reality of descent from Langdon, the exploitative overseer of La Sagesse sugar plantation, which benefited from use of so-called ‘liberated Africans’ as indentured labourers after the abolition of slavery in 1834, Naomie acknowledged that she had fully expected her family tree to contain ancestors who both suffered and benefited from the slave trade. This segment of the episode came to a close with the revelation that there are a number of Langdons of African descent living in Grenada to this day, who probably took their name as a result of working under her English ancestor.
“I’m not really a Harris … Has my whole life been a lie, basically?”
The episode then tackled Naomie’s Jamaican heritage. While the first half of the show was arguably more informative from a historical point of view, it was the second half that really demonstrated the power of ancestral research to affect us many generations later. From the outset, Naomie’s feeling of pride in her Jamaican roots was evident. Having been raised, in part, by her grandfather Joscelyn Maxwell Harris, Naomie’s interest was piqued by the discovery that he was born to a single mother named Syreta Tulloch. His father’s name did not appear on his birth certificate; this was not at all uncommon in Jamaica, where law forbade the registration of a father’s name on the birth certificate of an illegitimate child. What was unusual, however, was the revelation that more than ten years later, Syreta married Ralph Harris, who effectively adopted her son Joscelyn. Learning that her own surname came from her grandfather’s step-father came as somewhat of a shock to Naomie.
“It means the world to me”
One of my favourite moments in this episode came when Naomie met her great-grandmother Syreta’s sprightly friend Dorothy Davis in Kingston. Their visit had a great effect on Naomie, who was visibly moved when Dorothy produced some photographs, including one of Naomie herself with her grandfather Joscelyn and her cousin Shanelle during a childhood visit to Jamaica. Despite Naomie’s persistence, Dorothy was hesitant to confirm that Ralph was not Joscelyn’s biological father, saying that she and Syreta had never discussed it, preferring to focus on ‘girl business,’’ a charming euphemism for local gossip. This was by far the most touching and personal part of the episode and it genuinely endeared both Naomie and her late grandfather to the viewer.
“We are all a product of this ancestral line”
Naomie’s understanding of her grandfather’s heritage deepened when she discovered the tragic life of Syreta’s parents, Henry Tulloch and Jemima Pottinger, who lost all but two children to illnesses such as tuberculosis and gastroenteritis. Along with Naomie, we learned that as many as 1 in 6 children born in Kingston at the turn of the 20th century died before they reached the age of 1, a statistic undoubtedly exacerbated by the poverty endured by many in the city’s slums. Syreta’s only surviving sibling, Henry George Tulloch, spent his teenage years in an industrial school, whose benefactor regarded him as ungrateful when he chose to return to his family in 1929. His mother Jemima, already a widow, died in the local poorhouse the following year.
“It makes me feel really complete”
Throughout the episode Naomie met various historians and researchers, who taught her about her ancestry through a series of fascinating documents, but it was the final segment of the episode which held the most significant genealogical discovery. A family history that included several generations of married ancestors ultimately created a trail that allowed Naomie to learn the name of her 4x great- grandfather Henry Tracey Goulbourn, who was born enslaved on the small Belle Vue estate in Saint Ann’s Parish, Jamaica. Even more astonishingly, Naomie identified her 5x great-grandfather William Tracey Goulbourn, a ‘free man of colour’, and her African-born 5x great-grandmother who was given the name of Elizabeth Leevers. The level of detail available for Naomie’s family is truly amazing, but unfortunately it is not always possible to trace Caribbean ancestors prior to abolition due to the lack of surnames for the vast majority of enslaved people recorded in British slave registers. Naomie’s quest to understand her heritage, however, was initially sparked not by documentary evidence but by the results of a DNA test. Consumer DNA tests can prove incredibly useful for learning more about Caribbean ancestry, beyond merely the ethnicity estimate they provide. They are an excellent means of building a robust genetic family tree, where documentary evidence may fail on some lines due to illegitimacy or unknown parentage.
I thoroughly enjoyed Naomie’s episode, both as a result of its historical and genealogical context, as well as the voyage the audience took with her as she learned about the trauma and hardship endured by so many of her forebears. Unsurprisingly, Naomie failed to connect with her paternal ancestors to the same extent as her maternal line; her visceral reaction to seeing photographs of her ancestors for example, differed greatly depending on whether they were relatives of her mother or father. The stories told in this episode were, of course, merely a few of the many stories that make up Naomie’s family story. I hope she has been inspired by her experience to continue her ancestral journey, as I expect many others were by watching.I thoroughly enjoyed Naomie’s episode, both as a result of its historical and genealogical context, as well as the voyage the audience took with her as she learned about the trauma and hardship endured by so many of her forebears. Unsurprisingly, Naomie failed to connect with her paternal ancestors to the same extent as her maternal line; her visceral reaction to seeing photographs of her ancestors for example, differed greatly depending on whether they were relatives of her mother or father. The stories told in this episode were, of course, merely a few of the many stories that make up Naomie’s family story. I hope she has been inspired by her experience to continue her ancestral journey, as I expect many others were by watching.
Joanna’s top tips for Caribbean research:
• Oral history is key. Before you begin your research gather as much information as possible from family members, no detail is too small. Ask the designated family historian (every family has one) about your grandparents, their siblings or cousins (beware of nicknames!)
• As far as possible, ascertain whether your grandparents and great-grandparents were married. If not make sure to record the names of the parents of each relative as many people had numerous half-siblings who may have used a different surname. This may help you analyse multiple records in order to identify your ancestors (particularly where a common surname crops up).
• Remember that a large number of Caribbean children were registered under their mother’s surname at birth, but may have adopted their biological father’s surname when they reached school-going age; as such a person may have been born or baptised under one surname, but married under another.
• The challenges and complexities of Caribbean research are many, but DNA analysis can help overcome numerous obstacles and help you discover cousins across the Caribbean and beyond. To find out more about AncestryDNA click here: https://www.ancestry.com/dna.
• Some Caribbean civil and parish registers included racial classifications. If you come across these designations, it may help to understand the main categories used in the 19th century, the most common being mulatto (1/2 black), quadroon (1/4 black) and octoroon (1/8 black).
• When searching online databases watch out for transcription errors like the one Naomie encountered for her great-grandmother Syreta (transcribed as ‘Lerela’). Using a wildcard search (replacing one or more vowels with an asterisk) may help if you cannot find a particular record; also remember that spellings may vary from time to time, even on official documentation.
Useful sources for Jamaican and Grenadian family history:
• Ancestry’s collection of slave registers for former British colonial dependencies
• FamilySearch’s free Jamaican civil register collection
• FamilySearch’s free Jamaican parish register collection
• University College London’s excellent free ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ database can help you learn more about estates throughout the Caribbean
• Jamaican Family Search has free transcriptions of myriad records, including Jamaican almanacs from the 18th and 19th centuries
• Index to selected late 19th century Grenadian births and baptisms