The Shakespearian actor goes in search of African and Dutch roots…
Hugh Quarshie looks at a school picture. “Yes, I’m the one with the homage-to-Hendrix Afro,” he says of an image that’s largely filled with white faces. His life, he says, has often turned out like this ever since, as the three-year-old son of a Ghanaian diplomat, Hugh first moved to the UK.
Now, though, the Holby City star would like to know more about his ancestry. He knows it encompasses Ghana, Holland and England, but he wants to know “whether it makes any sense to talk of a single place as home”.
Sadly, both Hugh’s parents have died, so his first stop is a visit to his Uncle Jimmy Phillips in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Formerly known as the Gold Coast, Ghana was the first West African country to achieve independence from the UK, in 1957. Visiting on Jimmy’s 88th birthday, Hugh is full of questions. In particular, he wants to know more about his maternal grandfather, William Reginald Phillips.
Hugh has a family picture taken on William’s wedding day. It shows a group dressed in Edwardian-era European clothes and it seems that William was a well-to-do man. Jimmy’s memories support this idea, as does a will held at Ghana’s national archives. As a partner in a trading company, William left substantial bequests, especially of property. Hugh also learns that William was the son of a woman of part-Dutch heritage, Anna Kamerling.
To investigate further, Hugh heads along the coast to Elmina, where William was born, once an important trading post and the site of a huge fort built in the 17th century. He meets historian Dr Anthony Annan Prah, who explains that William was part of an elite group who, because they were descended from Europeans and Africans, could move between two worlds.
► The house of his ancestors
He also tells Hugh about a house that he should visit, the Kamerling house, where Hugh meets a cousin, Gertrude Ephson, and a whole branch of his family that he never knew existed. Hugh has connected with his African ancestry. This idea is strengthened further when he heads to the village of Abee, where it turns out he may have a claim to be chief. Hugh’s mother, Emma, always joked she was the Duchess of Abee. It seems she may not have been exaggerating.
In Ghana, Hugh also begins to learn more about his Dutch ancestry. Anna, Hugh’s great-grandmother, was the son of Pieter Kamerling, a Dutchman who bought land in Abee for his relatives. Having basked in African heat, Hugh’s next stop is chilly Den Haag, home to the Dutch national archives where he sees records relating to Pieter’s service overseas. It seems he was an adventurer, a restless civil servant who volunteered to go abroad, returning home to Europe only when he became ill. Later, he asked to be sent back to an area then known as Dutch Guinea, but his request was refused.
Having feared that Pieter was an “exploitative, ugly European” who took a local wife, only to abandon her, it now seems that Pieter wanted to be reunited with his African family. This is confirmed by the final leg of Hugh’s journey. In the town of Vorden, he meets Eric Kamerling, whose grandfather was Pieter’s nephew. Pieter’s will reveals that he provided for his African family. Hugh even sees birth certificates for Pieter’s children, probably ordered up to ensure his will wouldn’t be contested.
There’s another surprise: Eric has some of the same family photographs that Hugh saw when he visited his uncle, Jimmy. He also sees a picture that’s probably of his great-great grandmother. After visiting Eric, Hugh is delighted by what he’s found. “It’s been a privilege,” he says of tracing his family history, “but it has also been a delight, it’s been an adventure with, actually, a happy ending.”