Naomie Harris OBE

Naomie Harris OBE

"When I started this whole journey I would never have thought I would get back to the 18th Century. Back to Africa. I am so over the moon about that."

Nick Thorne, Writer at TheGenealogist

Nick Thorne

Writer at TheGenealogist

Actor Naomie Harris OBE was born 6 September 1976 in Islington, London. Her mother, born as Carmen Harris (who now uses the pseudonym Lissel Kayla and is a TV script writer) was born in Jamaica and emigrated to England with her parents. In her teens Carmen became pregnant with Naomie while studying for her A levels, and subsequently brought Naomie up as a single parent.

Naomie recently became interested in her family’s history after her mum gave her a DNA kit to do. The results revealed that Naomie was 48% Nigerian and so the story of her ancestors is almost certain to involve the slave trade.

I’m expecting to find, obviously, slavery because that’s how we ended up in the West Indies.

There is a possibility that there’s some Irish in her makeup, but what Naomie does know is that her mum and her maternal grandfather, whom Naomie was very close to, came from Jamaica. On her father’s side of the family, she knows that her dad Brian is from Trinidad, but nothing more, as he wasn’t in her life as she grew up.

If you ask me about my dad’s family, I know zilch.

Brian Clarke, (Naomie Harris' father) - circa 1970s. Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Brian Clarke
Brian Clarke, (Naomie Harris' father) - circa 1970s. Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Brian Clarke

Searching for paternal ancestors

To see if she can discover more about her dad Brian’s side of the family, Naomie goes to see him at his home in London. They’ve only been in contact with each other a very few times. Brian shows Naomie photos of his parents, Barbara and George, and tells Naomie that his mother Barbara had been born in Guyana, her family having moved to Trinidad. His father, on the other hand, was born in Grenada and came to Trinidad when he was a teenager. Brian then shows Naomie the letter that her grandfather George had written asking his future wife’s family for permission to marry her.

As Naomie reads it a question is raised in her mind:

‘Having studied her character and whereabouts…’ Her whereabouts?! What’s that about?

Brian: “I bet that means her bum!”

Barbara Kippins (Naomie's paternal grandmother) - circa 1940s. Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Brian Clarke
Barbara Kippins (Naomie's paternal grandmother) - circa 1940s. Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Brian Clarke
George Clarke (Naomie's paternal grandfather) - circa 1940s. Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Brian Clarke
George Clarke (Naomie's paternal grandfather) - circa 1940s. Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Brian Clarke

Brian was the last of the 8 children that his parents had together. The family had moved to London when Brian was 7 years old. In order to research her paternal branch further back up the line, the TV episode sees Naomie travel to Trinidad. In Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad, Naomie visits Main Street. This is where the actor’s grandmother, Barbara, had been living at the time that George, Naomie’s grandfather was courting his wife to be. Here Naomie meets her father’s brother for the first time. Her Uncle Saba shows Naomie her grandfather George’s birth certificate from 1922, this document reveals to Naomie the names of his parents her great grandparents Wilfred Clarke, a chauffeur and Etta St Louis. Saba explains to Naomie that Wilfred’s father had been called Charles William Wallace Clarke This is Naomie’s great-great grandfather. Saba reveals to Naomie that the family story that he had heard was that Charles W W Clarke was a white Irishman, who married a black Grenadian woman. So this is the basis of the Irish ancestry that she had been told about!

To trace her grandfather George’s side of the family further Naomie then sets off to travel 100 miles north of Trinidad, to visit the small island of Grenada.

Such a hodgepodge of different islands make me up. I’m a true island girl – I love that.

In Grenada, the Who Do You Think You Are? celebrity meets with a historian who can tell her more about George’s family background. Naomie also asks whether her great-great grandfather Charles William Wallace Clark was Irish, as she had been told. The historian is able to reveal that Charles was indeed a white man but that he had actually been born on Grenada, and that it wasn’t unusual for him to have married a black Grenadian woman. The historian tells Naomie that Charles’s wife was called Anne-Sophia. Next he is able to reveal that Charles had an important role in society. From a search of an 1897 directory for the island, Naomie sees that Charles was listed as “overseer at Mount Horne estate.” This meant that he would have basically run the plantation for the owner; he would have been in charge of the workers and the production. In the time of slavery many overseers gained a reputation for cruelty and brutality; but at the time that Charles was an overseer in 1897, 60 years had passed since the abolition of slavery.

Naomie then sets off to travel to Mount Horne to see where it was that her great-great grandfather Charles had worked. Up until the middle of the 19th century Grenada’s main crop was sugar. In the 1840’s, however, sugar prices plummeted and so this estate, like most on those on the island, faced financial ruin.

Naomie’s great-great grandfather would have had the supervision of all of this 360-acre estate’s production and Naomie discovers that Charles was part of the cocoa boom that took place in Grenada fueled by a growing Victorian taste for chocolate. The “golden bean”, as it was known, rescued the island’s economy and by the early 20th century Grenada had become one of the world’s largest cocoa producers. The TV programme sees the expert showing Naomie the 1921 Grenada handbook where she finds Charles listed as Secretary, Town Warden and Collector of Jetty Duties in St. Andrew’s. As town warden, Charles would have been the highest ranking official in the town.

Naomie is not too concerned by the fact that her ancestor Charles had been an overseer at this time, saying: “because obviously he was an overseer at a time when people were being paid.” But going further back into the island’s history, Naomie expresses a worry that she “would not be excited to discover that I’m related to some slave owner…who had done some not very nice things to lots of, you know, slaves.”

To find out about earlier generations of her paternal line, Naomie is able to meet with a historian who has done some further research on her dad’s ancestors. On a family tree Naomie sees that Charles W W Clarke was the son of William Clarke and Agnes Emily Langdon her 3-times great grandparents. Tracing back another generation discovers that Agnes’s parents Naomie’s 4-times great grandparents were James and Elizabeth Langdon and James Langdon was from Somerset. Many of the people who emigrated from England for the Caribbean tended to be from humble beginnings and were seeking their fortunes overseas. Naomie then finds out from a newspaper article written in 1829, that her ancestor James Langdon had been an overseer on the Requin estate and naturally this was at the time when the estates relied on slaves to make them operate. James’s position on the Requin estate meant that, among other things, he would have been responsible for the punishment of slaves.

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Naomie’s 4-times great grandfather, James Langdon, stayed in Grenada even after the abolition of slavery came into effect in 1834. The local historian is able to shed some light about what James Langdon did after this by 1849, it turns out, he had become the manager of a sugar plantation called La Sagesse. There is a report that Naomie is shown that notes that “African immigrants” were being introduced into the Island of Grenada at the time 19 of these individuals were recorded as being on the La Sagesse estate where James Langdon was in charge. A further government report on the arrival of these people in Grenada refers to them as being “liberated Africans”. The expert is able to shed some light on what this all meant. The explaination was that after the British slave trade had come to its end, a number of other countries including Spain and Portugal still carried on with the shipping of enslaved people to their own colonies. The Royal Navy, however, would try to intercept slave ships off the shores of West Africa and “liberate” the wretched human cargo from slavery. While this sounds noble, the actual facts were that over forty thousand of these so-called “liberated Africans” ended up being taken across the ocean to the Caribbean to work on British plantations. While not slaves, they were indentured labourers and their contracts tied them to estates like La Sagesse for a fixed period a term during which they could not leave.

Naomie points out the truth about this situation: “If you were truly liberated you’d say ‘I want to go home’, right? ‘You ripped me from my homeland and I want to go back to Africa.’" Although not technically enslaved, Naomie sees this as “basically a fancy way of…the British continuing with slavery when it was not legal.”

Naomie is seen to reflect on what she has learnt:

James Langdon was involved in the slave trade and that is repugnant and deeply upsetting and regrettable. I also have to accept that that is the reality…that if you come from the Caribbean the likelihood of your being involved in the slave trade in some form is very high.

Naomie’s Maternal line

The episode of Who Do You Think You Are? then moves on to look at Naomie’s mother’s line with the actor wondering whether she will feel a deeper connection to that side of the family. Travelling to Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, she is heading to the place where her mum’s family lived before they moved over to the UK. Naomie had visited Jamaica as a child and so she feels quite at home when she arrives there. Not knowing anything about the Harris surname she is keen to find out about her maternal grandfather, because although she spent a lot of her childhood with him as he helped with her childcare, he was a very private man. She recalls that he was dapper, and well turned-out leading to her believing that he may have come from a quite well-to-do Jamaican family.

Joscelyn Harris (Naomie's maternal grandfather) and Naomie Harris (aged 4) - taken in Jamaica, 1980 - Image credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Newton Maxwell Harris
Joscelyn Harris (Naomie's maternal grandfather) and Naomie Harris (aged 4) - taken in Jamaica, 1980 - Image credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Newton Maxwell Harris
(L-R) Chenelle (Naomie's cousin), Joscelyn Harris (Naomie's maternal grandfather) and Naomie Harris (aged 4) - taken in Jamaica, 1980 - Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Jasmine Harris
(L-R) Chenelle (Naomie's cousin), Joscelyn Harris (Naomie's maternal grandfather) and Naomie Harris (aged 4) - taken in Jamaica, 1980 - Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall/Jasmine Harris

To begin this leg of her research Naomie has obtained a copy of her grandfather Josceyln Harris’s birth certificate. This tells her that he was born in 1921 and that his mother was Syreta Tulloch, a dressmaker. The surprise for Naomie is that there is no father listed on the document. In 1933 twelve years after Joscelyn’s birth Naomie’s great grandmother Syreta had got married to a Ralph Harris. From the evidence Naomie comes to the conclusion that Ralph Harris was not Joscelyn’s father; the Harris name thus comes down to her from her grandfather’s stepfather!

I’m not really a Harris! I’m actually a Tulloch! Has my whole life been a lie, basically!?

Syreta Tulloch, (Naomie's maternal great-grandmother) Image: BBC/Wall to Wall/ Dorothy Davis
Syreta Tulloch, (Naomie's maternal great-grandmother) Image: BBC/Wall to Wall/ Dorothy Davis

Naomie turns to an old friend of Syreta’s called Dorothy Davies in the hope that Dorothy could reveal more about Naomie’s great-grandmother as well explaining more about Joscelyn, the son Syreta had given birth to. This was not the first time that Naomie had met Dorothy Davies as she had done once before when she was a baby.

Dorothy is able to show Naomie a photograph of Syreta – the first time Naomie has seen a picture of her great grandmother. Naomie decides to ask Dorothy for confirmation that Ralph Harris was not her grandfather Joscelyn’s father, but Dorothy declines to give an answer except to say that she and Syreta didn’t discuss it ever. What Dorothy can show the celebrity actor is a photograph of her as a toddler along with her toddler cousin and her grandfather Joscelyn. This reminds Naomie that she had visited Jamaica with her grandfather at that time. Naomie is brought to tears thinking about her granddad. “Still waters you know, run very deep, so…I know he felt a lot, he just didn’t express it.”She’s surprised by how much it means to her to hear about her grandfather and great grandmother.

To now discover a bit more about the family her great grandmother Syreta and her grandfather Joscelyn had come from, Naomie then sets out to visit the Trench Town area of Kingston where she is able to meet a social historian. From a birth certificate that she is shown Naomie learns that Syreta’s mother Naomie’s great-great-grandmother had been called Jemima Pottinger, and was a housekeeper by occupation. Similar to her grandfather’s document the box for the father of the child is also left blank, but a Henry Tulloch does appear on the certificate as the informant. More civil registration certificates are produced that reveal that at least four of Henry and Jemima’s children had died in infancy. From their addresses in the records the historian can reveal that the family were almost certainly living in a tenement at the time. In early 20th century Kingston infectious diseases like T.B. were rife and families like Naomie’s great-great grandparents’, who had been living in overcrowded slum housing, were some of the most at risk. The figures tell us that in 1900 Jamaica’s infant mortality rate was shockingly high 1 in 6 children had died before they were one year old.

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One of Jemima and Henry’s surviving children (Syreta’s brother Henry) achieved a mention in a newspaper report.

‘Government industrial school, Stony Hill, 3rd January, 1929. Dear Sir. . . I have to inform you that Henry George Tulloch has on the termination of his term here been apprenticed to the carpentry trade at this institution. . . . He has no desire to return to parents that habitually left him without means of support when a child.’

The Stony Hill Industrial School turns out to have been an institution that existed to reform children in conflict with the law, in need of care and support, found abandoned or orphaned. Its dual functions were to be like a prison and a school in one. At the time Henry George Tulloch was there, the man in charge, Scottish superintendent James Mair, took the view that black families were unstable and believed that the school was “rescuing” the children sent to it. Naomie is saddened to think of Jemima not only losing four children to disease but to then also have Henry George taken into this institution at age 13. A later article in 1929, however, reveals that when he was able to make decisions for himself, Henry George refused to stay on at Stony Hill and opted to return home. Tragically further evidence unearthed in the research for the programme shows that in 1930 Syreta’s and Henry George’s mother Jemima now aged 51 and by this time a widow died from tuberculosis in a poor house.

I’m so sad to see how they lived. And I’m so grateful for all their sacrifices because if they didn’t make them I wouldn’t be here.

Naomie also appreciates that her grandfather Joscelyn had acted like a father for her when she was a child in London.

Now Naomie wants to trace her family back even further. With the aid of the historian Naomie is shown the details of the baptism of her great-great grandfather Henry George Tulloch. This reveals that he had been the son of Andrew Tulloch and his wife Rebecca Goulborn who had lived in Eastern Davis Town, St Ann. Naomie has now traced back to her 3-times great grandparents.

Travelling to Eastern Davis Town in St Ann’s parish, where she is aware that Andrew and Rebecca had lived 150 years ago, she is able to discover Rebecca’s baptism record. This reveals that Rebecca was born on 1st April 1843 and that her parents had been Henry Goulbourn and Letitia. This couple are her 4-times great grandparents! To help Naomie trace this family line yet further back, the TV show sees her meeting another historian. Searching for a baptism record for Henry Goulbourn from May 1816, Naomie reads at the top of the page “baptised the following slaves.” So now she knows that her 4-times great grandfather Henry was an enslaved man. Naomie also sees that on the same list, and above Henry’s name was another Goulbourn, Forbes. This is the name of Henry’s brother. At this time, child slaves were set to work at as young an age as possible and so Naomie’s 4-times great grandfather Henry and his brother Forbes are likely to have worked the fields from the age of just six. They would have been forced to work, raising crops like coffee, ginger and pimento for their owners.

Naomie is shown a “Return of Slaves” from 1817 which coldly accounts for the enslaved people on a particular property in the possession of one William Leevers. Her ancestor, Henry Tracey Goulbourn, is there along with is his brother Forbes and 3 other boys. Looking at it through modern eyes it is shocking to see the categorisation that they have been given. The boys are classed as “sambo” meaning that they were “three-quarters black” and “one-quarter white”. Naomie now realises that the boys are listed as having the same mother an enslaved woman called Elizabeth Leevers. With this revelation Naomie has now discovered her 5-times great grandmother. Furthermore Elizabeth’s children are listed as Creole meaning they were born in Jamaica Elizabeth, on the otherhand is listed as “negro” which in the terminology of the period, that today would be considered racist and unacceptable, meant that she was “fully” black and so was an African.

So she would have been brought from Africa to Jamaica as a slave…

In the period when Elizabeth was enslaved, in all probability she may have been taken from what is now Nigeria in Africa to be shipped to Jamaica to be sold. This revelation that Elizabeth most likely came from Nigeria ties up with Naomie’s DNA test results.

When I started this whole journey I would never have thought I would get back to the 18th Century. Back to Africa. I am so over the moon about that.

But who may have been the father of the boys? A good contender to be Naomie’s 5-times great grandfather is one William Tracey Goulbourn from the same area. He is described as a “free person of colour”, meaning that he was a freeman and not a slave, and likely to be of mixed parentage. If he had children with Elizabeth they would have been categorised as “sambo” and they would have been born into slavery. Naomie enjoys the idea that Elizabeth may have lived through the abolition of slavery and so was eventually able to live as a free woman.

It makes me feel really complete. It’s just given me a greater understanding of the sacrifices of so many generations…So I’m in this incredibly privileged position and…it really fills me with the desire to make the very most of that.

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