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Who Do You Think You Are? review: Naomie Harris’s moving journey to an emotional connection with distant forbears

The actress makes some surprising discoveries as she jets off to the Caribbean to learn about her family’s past, including an ancestor who was involved in exploiting the so-called liberated Africans on plantations

Sean O'Grady
Monday 29 July 2019 19:53 BST
Naomie Harris learns her family history on Who Do You Think You Are?

Naomie Harris, best known for playing Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movies, is an ideal candidate for Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1).

First, we find out that she has shown an impressive indifference even to her own close family – and so participating on this genealogy show was always going to come as a bit of a surprise to her. She saw little of her father when she was growing up – “we were not particularly connected”. She meets him now, amicably enough, and you form the impression that the time she spends with him for the cameras is the most exposure she has had with this rather cool-looking gent, for many decades. She is, for example, startled to discover that he was one of eight siblings and that she, therefore, has a whole bevy of aunts, uncles, and cousins living within easy reach of her home in north London. She did not, in other words, have to trawl through dusty record books or get on a jet to meet those who might have been close to her. At 43 years of age, and still on the upward trajectory of her highly successful film career, she seems not to have missed them much anyway.

However, she has boarded the obligatory Who Do You Think You Are? airlines flight to the past and for the rest of the show hops around the Caribbean, where she finds out more about her mixed heritage. Mixed, that is, in more ways than one. Not only does Harris confirm that, as she suspects from her own looks, she has a mixed heritage; but that some of her ancestors were slave masters and others slaves. “Has my whole life been a lie?” she asks.

Her black ancestors, particularly the ones on her mum’s side who came from Jamaica, lived in the most crushing poverty, even when formally liberated and “full free” ex-slaves. She and we discover the variety of ugly euphemisms invented by the British imperialists during their occupation and exploitation of the West Indies.

One of Harris’s ancestors, for example, was a “liberated African”, who were given their liberty only in the sense that they were taken out of Spanish/Portuguese formal slavery and instead set to work on British plantations in the West Indies as “indentured servants”. This meant they were paid a pitiful wage and effectively held captive for three years – slaves in all but name. A “controversial system” as one of Harris’s local historian/guides calls it. Multiple deaths in childbirth; forced incarceration in “reformatory schools” (juvenile prisons); working from the age of six gathering the banana or cocoa crop; these distant legends are made real.

That’s her mum’s side. Her father’s side came from Grenada, and it is among these that she discovers her white ancestors, the very people who worked as “overseers”, those who managed slaves, or, less politely, would beat and maim them for minor transgressions. This, naturally, Harris found incredibly “upsetting and regrettable”.

It was fascinating to watch Harris journey from geological-sceptic who took no interest in dead strangers, or even living aunties, through to her being moved by a surprisingly emotional connection with her distant forbears. She was fortunate that the records of her families were fairly complete, unusually for the black people of the West Indies in the nineteenth century and earlier. The links to her ancestors from Somerset and Ireland were more easily researched, with some expert help. Apparently her interest in her own past, as a child of the Windrush generation, was sparked when receiving one of those ancestral DNA-testing kits for a birthday present. (And, presumably, the arrival of the Who Do You Think You Are? team). She manages to trace a direct line of her black ancestry back to about 1800, to a ship arriving from Nigeria, but before that, nothing. Harris will learn no more about who she is because there are no records of her more distant African relatives. That part of her heritage has been effectively stolen from her, a small but still painful and enduring crime committed in the age of slavery.

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