Born in France, raised in Ireland and the daughter of Caribbean parents, science and wildlife TV presenter Liz Bonnin’s roots encompass a cross-section of cultures. “When people ask me what I am ethnically, I just say, ‘I’m a mongrel,’” she jokes at the start of her episode of Who Do You Think You Are? “You know those forms you have to fill out for a visa or whatever? There actually isn’t a box for me.”
But while her family story is one of diverse influences, these are stories that coalesce in the Caribbean and Liz heads first to Trinidad to learn more about her maternal grandfather’s family. Here, she meets her cousin, Andrew, who has old photographs, including a picture of her great grandparents, George and May Agnes Rawle.
While they were of Indian heritage, they were Presbyterians. How can this be explained? Liz begins to unravel the family’s story. Although May’s father, Timothy Sirju, was a successful businessman, a man who owned a store and 400 acres of land, and a church elder, his roots were humble.
Along with his parents and siblings, Timothy first came to Trinidad as an eight-year-old at a time when, following the abolition of slavery, thousands of Indians travelled to the island to work as indentured labourers who had to work to pay off the cost of passage.
At home, Timothy’s family were members of a low-ranking, agricultural caste with little hope of advancement. In the Caribbean, they were assigned to the comparatively enlightened Palmiste Estate where Timothy would likely have been encouraged to attend school. (At other plantations, children worked.) By the age of 18, a prelude to later success, he was a teacher.
Liz is slightly saddened that he converted to Christianity, necessary to advance economically and socially in a colonial world. Nevertheless, she’s tremendously proud of how a “petrified little fella” became “such a success in the face of many obstacles, so many challenges”.
Next, Liz turns her attention to her father’s side of the family, who hail from Martinique, an overseas region of France. Here, Liz is worried she will find evidence her family were slave owners.
Seeing an inventory from 1838, her worst fears are confirmed. Her 3x grandfather, plantation owner François Alexandre Gros Désormeaux, was indeed a slaveowner. While she thought she was prepared for such a revelation, she breaks down: “It’s when I saw people’s names and the price.”
But the story is more complicated than it first appears. Records reveal that François Alexandre freed a slave, Marie Joseph, in 1831. Four years later, in 1835, he married her and legitimised the six children they’d had together. This isn’t a story of exploitation, it seems, but love.
Going back a generation, François Alexandre’s father, also called François, also freed a slave, Pauline Zoé. In François Alexandre Senior’s will, he acknowledged his children by Pauline Zoé. In a final twist, Pauline Zoé, who was of mixed race herself, inherited François’ estate, including his slaves, and was compensated by the French government following abolition.
Seeing where her family once lived, Lisa learns that François Alexandre Senior ran his estate as a kind of “fiefdom”, apparently unconcerned by what others thought. “Your ancestor was the village rooster,” jokes a local.
She loves the way François Alexandre flouted convention: “I hope some of that character has trickled down through the generations.”