Ainsley Harriott’s father, a pianist and entertainer, was a big personality – but beyond his upbringing in Jamaica, Ainsley knows little about Chester Harriott’s history. “It’s like reading a new book – as you turn the pages you don’t know what you’re going to discover,” he reflects.
The chef first flies to Jamaica, where an aunt tells him that his grandmother’s family came to the island as indentured labourers from India. But with a surname like ‘Hibbert’, this seems unlikely, and documents at the local record office offer a conclusive denial.
In fact, Ainsley manages to trace his family’s connection to the island back five generations – to Hamilton Forbes and Catherine Smith, who married in Jamaica in 1846. “Suddenly, something that was originally quite colourful and exotic is just…stories,” says Ainsley, clearly disappointed.
But there are more surprises in store. Documents at the Jamaican National Archives show Catherine Smith, born a slave in 1831, was a ‘mulatto’: the illegitimate daughter of a black woman, Joan Davy, and a white man, Jonathan Briggs.
At “Wear Penn” where Catherine worked the fields, a local historian tells Ainsley she was one of many mixed race children born to overseer Briggs. With the government offering extra cash to plantation owners who kept their slave stock high, sexual exploitation was positively encouraged.
Next Ainsley turns to a new family line – that of his grandfather Oscar. Aware that his great-grandfather was a marksman in the colonial West India Regiment, he crosses the Caribbean to Barbados to investigate his career. At the local museum he learns Ebenezer Harriott was a distinguished serviceman who earned swift promotion after fighting for the British Empire in the Sierra Leone “Hut Tax War” of 1898-9. “He was an ambitious man,” says Ainsley. “That makes me feel terribly proud.”
The ancestry of Ebenezer’s wife, Constance Walrond, is also a rich source of stories. At the Barbados Archives Ainsley finds out about her forebear James Hunte, who in 1845 became one of Barbados’ first policemen. At a time when many of his countrymen were in chains, James even managed to accumulate a small property empire in the port of Bridgetown.
But Ainsley is forced to accept that the nine properties may have been the result of ill-gotten gains. Ironically, it seems the houses were bought with money James’ mother Rachael made as a prostitute – then one of the few options for “free black” women such as she. “If you put it in to context you realise that they had to survive,” says Ainsley. “However ugly it might appear on the surface, the truth is there’s something to be proud of there.”
Hoping to trace the origins of the Harriott family name further back, Ainsley returns to Jamaica. Parish registers take him to 1803 and the baptism of his great-great grandfather, James Gordon Harriott, a white man who – Ainsley is astonished to discover – traded in slaves. “One moment you’re feeling this hatred for people who dominated and controlled and at times abused… and yet, my own grandfather, only twice removed, was a slave owner himself.”
Finally Ainsley visits the estate where his ancestors were both the victims and the perpetrators of slavery, and the now-derelict house where the Harriotts once lived. “Good or bad, it’s part of my make-up, and I’ve got to live with that,” he says. “The history of the Harriott family really encapsulates the history of the West Indies. It’s no good talking about white people and black people – there are all sorts of different shades, slaves and slave owners. Nothing is as straightforward as you would expect.”