Actor and filmmaker Noel Clarke was raised by his mother, a nurse and immigrant from Trinidad, in a “rough area” of west London.
“How did we end up stranded on this cold island?” he jokes, visiting his mother, Gemma.
She was, Noel learns, raised by her grandmother, Elizabeth Adina Clarke, for the first 11 years of her life. To learn more about his family on the island, Noel heads for Trinidad.
Here, he meets local historian Judy Raymond on the road where his great grandparents, Elizabeth Adina and William Woods Clarke, lived.
Noel is surprised to learn the couple came to Trinidad together from another Caribbean island, St Vincent, in 1917.
They worked, respectively, as a seamstress and mason. This wasn’t an uncommon story. Trinidad was then booming, in great part because cocoa and sugar, ingredients in the chocolate provided for First World War troops, were in high demand.
The good times didn’t last. In 1923, Elizabeth left for New York. A mother of four, she was newly widowed.
At a time of crop failures and economic problems on Trinidad, she was part of an “exodus” of women, and went to live with her sister in Brooklyn.
Noel traces his great grandmother’s life through travel and immigration records
Here, she entered domestic service in order to send money home to raise her four daughters, including Gemma’s mother, Edna. She stayed in the USA until 1937.
“On the surface it seems like she left them but, actually, she had so much love for them that she had to leave,” reflects Noel.
Next, Noel wants to trace his father’s side of the family, but he knows next to nothing about them as he heads for Fyzabad in the oil-producing south of Trinidad.
The first figure from the past he meets, his paternal grandmother Menelvia, is a remarkable woman. Heavily involved in local politics as a member of the People’s National Movement (PNM) and in the local Spiritual Baptist church, she’s still remembered in the area.
Noel meets the locals in Fyzabad, where his grandmother lived
Noel also learns that she was born on Grenada, where he goes to meet her son, his uncle Telfour, for the first time.
Telfour tells Noel that Menelvia’s maiden name was Bedeau, a family associated with the small island of Carriacou.
On Carriacou, Noel is able to trace his family story back to his 4x great grandfather, Glasgow Bedeau. Records show that Glasgow was born into slavery.
“Being black I thought this might end up here at some point,” says Noel, sadly. “But it’s still crazy to see it.”
Worse, Glasgow and his mother Genevieve would have been under the control of the notoriously brutal John Dallas, a local agent who would beat even pregnant women.
Noel reflects on his family’s experience of slavery
Yet there’s a more positive story here too. In 1844, Glasgow and his in-laws bought land adjacent to the Harvey Vale Estate where he had once been enslaved.
Noel visits his grave at the site, where he also learns that he has a huge extended family on Carriacou. He’s welcomed to both island and family with a performance of the Big Drum, a traditional musical and dance ritual.
This is music that can be directly traced back to Ghana. It’s a deep connection to the past, “the complete opposite” of everything Noel has ever known.
It’s as if, he reflects, the universe has said: “There’s everything you missed for all your life.”