How I tried to trace my roots back to Africa


A Hackney councillor with an interest in film-making and black history, Patrick Vernon tells of a quest that took him from his east London home to Africa, to find out where he ‘came from’.

AS I stood on the rocky ledge looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, I could almost see the large abominable slave ships that had taken my ancestors away from their homeland. The ‘door’ or ‘point of no return’ is where enslaved Africans left slave forts through a narrow door entrance before boarding the ships as part of the middle passage journey, with the prospect of never returning back to their families, friends and loved ones.

If you travel today along the West Coast of Africa and visit these forts as part of a heritage or tourist trip, there are constant signs above doors and entrances which remind of this holocaust, or Maafa.

Retracing this journey through maps, documentary records, oral history and DNA as part of an African Diaspora approach to family history and genealogy provides a useful way of black people reclaiming and defining our identity, building our resilience, and a platform to understand and develop our own solutions in tackling inequality, racism and the negative impact of globalisation.

I started researching my family history 10 years ago after ‘interviewing’ my parents, who came to England from Jamaica in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation who contributed to rebuilding Britain after World War II.

four generations

I was able to go back four generations on my mother’s side of the family to the mid-19th century, locating the family name Shirley (they resided in the area of Sutherland in the parish of St James, Jamaica). With further information from an African-American family who shares the Shirley name, I was able to find details of the maternal mother of the entire enslaved black Shirleys of Jamaica, Sally Skiers, who bore a son called Edmund for a plantation owner named Henry Shirley.

Sally lived on a plantation called Peterfields, which is in the parish of Westmoreland. I was able to look at maps to see how plantations were clustered, and details of plantation owners and the terrain of the countryside, and determine the distance of travel with the neighbouring parishes of Hanover and St James, which had a high concentration of plantations.

With limited documents, I decided to undertake a Mitochondrial DNA test, which provides invaluable data of one’s genetic footprint that can be matched with similar results around the world.

This DNA is passed down almost unchanged from generation to generation on the maternal line. Scientists believe that the DNA can be ultimately traced back to one woman who lived around 150,000 years ago, who is commonly referred to as Mitochondrial Eve in Africa.

My DNA result traced the lineage of my mother’s ancestors, giving a time line 2,000 to 5,000 years, to the Mandinka tribe of a village called Kedougou, in Senegal.

In July 2004, I decided to travel to Senegal to find out more about my family history. Prior to this journey, I looked at the Royal Geographical Society’s collections of maps to find out the history of different African kingdoms and the slave routes and geographical borders of the Senegambia region, which are now today the countries of Gambia and Senegal.

The DNA results and the maps made reference to the Mandinka tribe. I, however, did further research on the history of migration and intermixing of different tribes over the centuries in West Africa. This fuelled my interest to travel and identify the particular cultural and ethnic group that my ancestors came from even more.

I travelled first to Gambia to the Roots Homecoming Festival, to experience the cultural dialogue and pilgrimage of Diaspora people from the UK, Caribbean and Africa, making an emotional and social connection to the motherland.

rite of passage

I went to St James Island, a slave fort built in 1651 on the river Gambia. I then travelled to the village Jufureh, the home of Kunta Kinte, a descendant of Alex Haley who was documented in the seminal book and television series Roots.

I had the privilege of meeting the late Bina Kinte, who is the ninth generation of this family, and I took part in a rite of passage ceremony, performing a ritual dance in front of the President of Gambia His Excellency Yahya Jammeh.

I then went to Senegal by ferry and car to Dakar and spent the night at Goree Island, where the French built a slave fort in 1780, called ‘The House of Slaves’. This was the final destination point of enslaved Africans being transported to the Americas and the Caribbean.

Later, I travelled 15 hours diagonally across Senegal to the village of Kedougou, which is approximately 30 kilometres from the border of Guinea (the same route which was used during the slave trade).

The village known as ‘Land of the Man’ is more like a small town, which was founded by the Diahank people. I was lucky to meet descendants of the founding fathers of the village, who described the migration of tribes from Guinea. They explained how people were captured and enslaved, slave markets, and the routes from the village.

Fulani tribe

The week that I stayed in the village every one commented on my features and physique. I would ask, “Which tribe do you think I came from?” And it did not matter if it was a young person or elder, they would give the same answer, “Fulani.” I would respond, “How can you be so certain, as my descendants are from Jamaica – we are mixed up with Europeans, Chinese, Indian and other people from Africa.” However, they would still say, “Fulani!”

I thus accepted this tribe and have done research on the Fulani as one of the main nomadic tribes in North and West Africa. Many of the Fulani travelled from Guinea to settle in surrounding areas of Kedougou.

I went to the Dindefelo Falls, which borders both Senegal and Guinea, to reflect on my journey and the emotions of coming to terms with the past of my ancestors and the lives they may have led. And what it would be like to be captured and enslaved.

Although I, unfortunately, could not find the ancestors of Sally Skiers in Kedougou, I did see a strong resemblance to this area where my family comes from in St James, Jamaica – with lush foliage, flowing rivers and hills everywhere.

I guess this was my homecoming. It was a journey of a lifetime which I still reflect on every day as part of reclaiming and sharing my family history. It was an incredible journey and made me realise more than ever that, as a people, we really do need to know something about our past before we can really look at our future.


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