A Slave In The Family Tree

September 10, 2006
Jackson haunted by slave in family tree
John Elliott and Maurice Chittenden

IT was a leap into the unknown for Colin Jackson, the former world, Commonwealth and European hurdles’ champion, when he agreed to go in search of his roots.

He says he is now saddened by the discovery that his great-great-great grandfather was a slave. But due to a strange twist in the melting pot of mankind, he is lighter skinned than some of the descendants of the white plantation owner who once held power of life and death over his forefather.

Once freed, his ancestor became upwardly mobile, bought land and eventually owned some of the estate where he had been held captive.
Jackson, 39, began his search by taking a DNA test for the BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are?, which showed that his genetic make-up is 55% African, 38% European and 7% native American Indian.

The athlete, a Welshman by birth, is a descendant on his father’s side of Adam Wilson, who was one of 19 slaves working on the 400-acre Green Mount estate in Jamaica owned by Valentine Dwyer in the early 19th century.

Dwyer was of Irish descent and, according to island legend, his father raided Africa to bring slaves to the Caribbean.

It is likely that a young Adam was captured in one of these attacks and forced to work on the plantation, which grew coffee and pimentos.

The yellowing slave registers suggest that Dwyer frequently had children with his female slaves.

While Jackson owes much of his European ancestry to his great-great grandfather on his mother’s side, a Scottish settler named Duncan Campbell, some of Dwyer’s descendants today are poor black farmers in Jamaica.

Jackson, now as much known for his footwork on Strictly Come Dancing as on the track, visited the former plantation for the programme, to be aired next week.

“When you read that your forefather actually belonged to somebody it is something that is factual,” he said. “I can’t hide from that fact. We all know what happened during slavery.

“I can’t comment too negatively on that because it spoils the emotion of the pleasurable side of finding my forefathers. I hate the fact that they were slaves but it’s great to know where they existed and where everything truly began.”

His native American strain comes from the Taino Indians, who inhabited Jamaica before it was colonised by the Spanish.

They mixed with escaped slaves to create Maroons, a free-spirited people who rebelled against the British, the new rulers of the island.

However, it is Jackson’s slave ancestor who intrigues him the most.

Last week The Sunday Times found reference to “Adam, aged 25” working on the Green Mount plantation in a slave register dated 1817 in the National Archives in Kew, southwest London.

The same entry records that there were five creole children in the slave quarters at Green Mount suggesting that Dwyer was already in the habit of fathering children with his slaves.

Two slaves, named Mary Ann Dwyer and Bessy Dwyer, were freed under the terms of Dwyer’s will when he died in 1824, according to records in the Jamaican Family Search Genealogy Research Library in Kingston. Adam Wilson had to wait another 14 years until the emancipation of slaves in Jamaica in 1838.

Plantation owners were given £19 for each worker who was freed, but the slaves got nothing.

To redress the balance, churches bought up estates, divided them into much smaller plots and sold them to the freed men and women.

Adam Wilson bought a five-acre plot for £22 10 shillings on Christmas Day, 1840. Later he was given three acres of Green Mount land, possibly as a compensatory gift from Dwyer’s family. He died in 1849 aged 55.

Hugh Nash, a cultural heritage historian in Manchester, the nearest Jamaican town to Green Mount, said: “We believe he acquired the land because he was industrious and disciplined.”

The Dwyer descendants, by contrast, were downwardly mobile.

Cynthia Rosers, a genealogist at the Jamaican register general’s department, said: “Of course Valentine Dwyer was having sex with the slaves. The Dwyers have become more black today.

“Colin Jackson, by contrast, is very light skinned. In Jamaica we would call him brown, but in American they would call him ‘redbone’.”

One descendant of Dwyer, Alphonso Robinson, 29, a banana and plantain farmer nicknamed “Jah Bunny”, told researchers: “I am not proud of being the descendant of a slave owner. It comes as a bit of a surprise.”

Another descendant, Jacqueline Carroll, 41, who now works as a nurse in Brooklyn, New York, said: “Jamaica is a very complex society and the issue of slavery and emancipation is touchy even for the descendants of landowners. I know my grandmother’s forebears were enslaved on a plantation and she married into the Dwyers.

“The church where the family once worshipped is now in ruins because of the snobbery of the congregation. There was a hint at skin colour preference toward light-skinned people.”