Why locating an enslaved ancestor is the start of an important journey and not the end of a genealogical investigation

When I first began researching my family history back in 2011, I naively believed that once I had evidenced my ancestors to at least seven generations, which I knew would involve slavery, that this would be the end of my genealogical investigation.

I had undertaken historical research in the past involving slavery and Jamaica for my first book: Layers of Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora, published in 2007. In this study, I examined the origins of colourism and its evolution across the African Diaspora.

I vividly recall researching slavery and colonialism in Jamaica from 1655 for the chapter entitled: ‘Skin Tone Hierarchies in Jamaica’. It was a meaningful project and I found it rewarding undertaking the research, knowing my ancestors could be traced to Jamaica. However, I did not necessarily feel connected to that history.

This feeling of being remotely connected to Jamaican ancestors changed profoundly when I started researching my own family history. Each time I retrieved a birth, marriage or death record to evidence an ancestor’s existence I felt a deep, emotional and spiritual connection.

When I resumed my genealogical research in 2023, I was eagerly anticipating ‘finding’ my ancestors in the slave registers in the belief that this would bring closure, but that was not to be the case. Locating my great, great, great grandfather in the colonial slave registry in 1832 at just one month old, and only his mother’s name listed, filled me with both sadness and rage.

I was angered to see my ancestors listed as someone else’s property, but I did not want rage to be the emotion I felt when I thought about them, as that would do them a disservice. Instead, I resolved to transform my sadness and anger into gratitude, joy, and pride and to celebrate their lives. What better way to remember Jenny Harriott and the generations who came after her than with a lasting legacy…and so Jenny Harriott Foundation was born.

I firmly believe that as an historic matriarch, Jenny Harriott is the true architect of this family legacy. Funds will be raised in her name to support education as the posthumous benefactor of Zion Hill Primary School, which has longstanding links to her great, great grandson, Rufus (Hubert) Benjamin Harriott, and several great, great, great, grandchildren, including Jenny Harriott Foundation’s Patron, Mariann Harriott.

I am so glad that finding Jenny Harriott is the beginning of this important journey, which I feel will be a lifelong mission.

Dr Deborah Gabriel

Image Reference

Photograph of the Colonial Slave Registry 1832 taken at the National Archives, Kew, London on 25 Nov 2023 by Dr Deborah Gabriel. © Dr Deborah Gabriel