Immigration to the United Kingdom from the Caribbean is often mistakenly thought of as beginning in the 1950s. However, as the family history of newsreader Moira Stewart proves, the phenomenon goes back much further.
“We have been invading this joint for a long time,” Moira jokes saying that she thinks of herself as coming from “a long line of outsiders”.
So how were her forebears received when they came to these shores? With hostility? Or were they welcomed as exotic strangers?
Moira’s first step to discovering more is to visit her mother, Marjorie, in Canada. In 1935, Marjorie, who was born in Dominica, was sent to boarding school in England. “[People] looked on us as curiosities,” remembers Marjorie, “because we spoke differently and we from another part of the world that they didn’t know about, but they were quite friendly.”
When the Second World War broke out, Marjorie was training as a nurse, and was amongst 10,000 black Britons living and working in London during the conflict. In many respects, Marjorie’s journey mirrored that of her own mother, Clara Christian (1893-1964), who was also from Dominica. Having first trained as a singer, Clara came to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine in 1915. A picture from the period shows she was by no means the only Afro-Caribbean student.
In the Scottish capital, Moira sees the student records of both Clara and her grandfather, Edgar Gordon (1895-1955). While Edgar finished his medical degree, Clara never graduated. By 1917, she had become a mother and wife, supporting Edgar in his career.
The first step in that career was certainly unusual, as Edgar took his family to Kingussie in the Highlands. In the Grampian town, Moira sees the rather grand house where they once lived. “I can see them,” she says, clearly delighted, “I can imagine them.” During this period, the ‘fresh air cure’ for TB was in vogue and Edgar most likely worked in a local sanatorium where, despite the cold, patients would sleep outside.
Slavery and division
Skipping back another generation, Moira finds an even more remarkable story. Clara’s father, George James Christian (1869-1940), came to London to study law in 1899. A larger-than-life figure who would eventually make a name for himself in both law and politics on the Gold Coast, George became a barrister.
He was also heavily involved in the first Pan African Conference, held in London in 1900. It was a meeting that explored the destructive effects of colonialism and George told the assembled delegates: “As the black man was stolen from his country, so now is his country being stolen from him.”
To learn more about George’s ancestry, Moira visits the Caribbean. She’s particularly curious about George’s father and namesake: why did he leave Antigua for rocky Dominica? Even after slavery was ended, Moira learns, white settlers owned the best land. George Snr, who was most likely educated by Moravian missionaries, probably moved to Dominica in search of land and freedom from Antigua’s divided, unjust society.
Moira looks at the slave registers in Antigua’s national museum, but they’re little help in discovering more about George Snr’s relatives because there are no surnames listed. So how did George get his surname? His family toiled for the Christians, who once ‘owned’ several hundred slaves. It’s probable that Moira is related to the slave-owners through illegitimate birth. Perhaps her slave forebears lived near to the Christians’ mansion because of this.
“There is a rage in me and a guilt that my family were closer to the big house,” says Moira. “It seems the ultimate indignity that one should find hierarchies in something so disgusting as slavery.” Moira’s understandably troubled by what she’s found but she refuses to be “confined” or “defined” by the fact of slavery and its place in her personal heritage.