How family tree search revealed slavery roots in 18th-century Ayrshire

Jonathan Sharp
Jonathan Sharp
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IT’S 2am. Five minutes ago I had been ready for bed and a long sleep. But now I’m jarringly awake, captivated by one simple sentence. A sentence that will lead me to question all the assumptions I had ever formed about who I was.

The name was anachronistic, strange; perhaps plausible in early 18th century Ayrshire? Yet there was something about the juxtaposition of two separate worlds within it, those of Lowland Scotland and ancient Rome, that made me want to investigate further. One simple mouse-click later, I was hooked.

Contract between Sir John Kennedy of Cullean and Scipio Kennedy, 6 Feb 1725

Contract between Sir John Kennedy of Cullean and Scipio Kennedy, 6 Feb 1725

“Scipio Kennedy… black African slave… given his freedom in 1725 in Ayrshire.”

Rewind two months. Munich, Germany: me, an expat from Glasgow, aided by the online records of the General Register Office for Scotland, venturing through the murky foliage of my family tree. My progress was predictable at first, within the realms of the post-1855 statutory records in which all births, deaths and marriages are dutifully and, mostly legibly, recorded.

I discovered the occupations of my more recent ancestors; found out when my great-grandfather, a Borders Maxwell, moved to Govan to find work; read exactly what my great-great-grandmother had died of. When faith had to be placed in the pre-1855 Old Parish Records, things started to get tricky. Dates had to be more approximate, surname spellings searched for more imaginatively, given names scrutinised for any trace of familial patterns. By this point, I had become a genealogical junkie.

This led me to Elizabeth Kennedy in Kirkoswald, Ayrshire, my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. This yielded only one result: the first daughter of a family of six girls and two boys, of one “Kennedy, Sipio”. No mother listed. At first I assumed that the two names were surnames, Mr and Ms. When I started searching for “Scipio Kennedy”, however, the dramatic journey which followed was to redefine my identity and disclose an obscure aspect of Scotland’s past.

The boy who would become Scipio Kennedy was captured in his native Guinea around 1700. He would have been around six years old. Forced on to one of the notorious slave ships gathered in the Gulf of Guinea off western Africa, he was transported to the West Indies then bought by a Scottish sea captain, Andrew Douglas, who would take him back to Mains, Dunbartonshire, as his personal servant. It was Douglas, in the tradition of naming slaves after military commanders and European monarchs to further accentuate their degradation, who named the boy Scipio after Scipio Africanus, a general in the Second Punic War who defeated Hannibal. Scipio served Captain Andrew Douglas for around three years, when another stroke of fate provided him with his Lowland Scottish surname.

In 1705, Douglas’s daughter Jean married John Kennedy, heir to his father’s knighthood and tenancy of Culzean Castle on the west coast of Ayrshire. Scipio was given to the couple as a wedding gift by Captain Douglas, and was once again uprooted, this time to one of the most imposing and celebrated stately homes in Scotland.

A document held in the National Archives of Scotland dated from 1725 attests to Scipio having “received clothing, maintenance and education with more than ordinary kindness” during his years with the Kennedy family. A National Trust excavation of the site of Scipio’s cottage in the castle grounds in 2007, as part of the This Is Our Story project on the bicentenary of the abolition of slave trade, supports this. A lead seal supposedly from a bottle containing bolts of cloth was found, pointing to training as a weaver. Scipio was clearly held in high enough esteem to be worth investing an education in. In 1767, when Jean died, having outlived her husband by 25 years, and bearing him 20 children, she left in her will ten Scots pounds to “Scipio Kennedy [her] old servant”. Not only is her official and open conferment of the Kennedy surname striking, but also the sum bequeathed: ten pounds may seem paltry today, but it was scarcely less than the sum Lady Jean left each of her own grandchildren. Scipio was seen as part of the family.

So, how did this transformation from purchased commodity to honorary member of the clan take place? The key to the puzzle is contained in the 1725 document itself. Having worked for the Kennedy family for 19 years, Sir John Kennedy signed Scipio’s document of manumission. From this point, at the age of “twenty-eight or thirty years”, Scipio was a free man. But, as in all the best thrillers, there was another twist. Scipio decided to stay.

The document, signed by both John and Scipio Kennedy, is much more than a merciful release from servitude. It is an employment contract. In it, the African becomes an equal partner in a professional relationship that would last for the duration of both men’s lives. The contract was agreed initially for a further 19 years, the contemporary standard for Ayrshire land leasing contracts. Scipio bags a shrewd package for himself, complete with “performance bonus”: “twelve pounds Scots money yearly besides my share of the drink money”.

The contract, of course, is far from equal. Where else, after all, could he have gone and what could he have done? And yet the fact remains, not only was Scipio free by law, but he had a contract guaranteeing him a far better standard of life than the vast majority of working people in Ayrshire at that time. He belonged to the servant class, to be sure, but he had reached the very pinnacle of it.

It was this newfound freedom, and perhaps some imprudent investment of his “drink money”, that led to the next piece of drama. My initial search had shown Elizabeth Kennedy as the first of Scipio’s children. But there had been no mention of a mother. I paid some more credits for a close inspection of Elizabeth’s birth record in the parish register. In it, there was a mother mentioned, Margaret Gray, and, crucially, a phrase whose gravity in 18th-century Scotland cannot be underestimated: “in fornication”. By this time Scipio was a baptised Presbyterian Christian so having a child out of wedlock would have earned the pair some serious reprimands from the parish minister, and no doubt the disapproval of much of the congregation.

But Scipio and Margaret made good. They married and had a further seven children. At least one of their sons, Duglass, married and had six of his own kids. Mary Denning, in a 1997 article for the Ayrshire History website titled Culzean’s Child Of The Sun, speculates that “perhaps there are Kennedys in Ayrshire even now who are not from the noble family of Kennedy, descended from Robert the Bruce, but instead are a living testament of one small child who was stolen from his home in Africa 300 years ago”. That Scipio has living descendents, whether in Ayrshire or elsewhere, seems certain.

Having researched the story this far, I was burning with excitement. But the paper trail, unreliable at best when stretching so far back, had run its course. The only slight glimmer of hope came from the latest genealogical wonder-tool, DNA testing.

A genetic DNA test can now identify an individual’s “haplogroup” (ancestry), which can then be broken down into further sub-groups. In some cases, these can predict with incredible detail a person’s lineage from thousands of years ago. There is a snag, however. DNA testing is divided into the female, also known as mitochondrial DNA, and the male, or Y-chromosome, DNA.

The Y-chromosome is amazingly stable, changing very little from father to son through the generations. Which means that a direct male descendent of Scipio’s son Duglass, presumably still bearing the Kennedy name, would not have one of the expected “Scottish” Y-chromosome types, but one found most frequently in West Africa. In my case, it’s not that easy. Scipio’s first daughter, Elizabeth, had a son who had a daughter who would marry into my paternal line five generations back from me. No clean-cut Y-DNA, but a rollercoaster ride going back over a total of eight generations, twisting to and fro between males and females. I had to test for one single African ancestor among tens of thousands of Scottish, English, Irish, Welsh and French. The normal limit for identifying such detail is seven generations, I was told. I scraped the inside of my cheek with a swab stick, sent it off to be tested, and waited.

In September 1745, the same month as Margaret Gray and Scipio Kennedy were having their last child Grace, the Jacobite army under Charles Edward Stewart entered Edinburgh. Simultaneously the British government was ordering the upholding of penal laws against Catholics, the already established sectarianism bolstered by the very real threat of the Stewart cause. This was a society at war with itself, unsure of who to trust, afraid of voicing opinions. Scotland then, as now, had its issues. It is an irony that the Presbyterian parishioners of Kirkoswald, where Scipio’s family went to church, would have had far less trouble accepting into their community a baptised African ex-slave than an Irish Roman Catholic a short boat ride away from their very own shores.

In Kirkoswald churchyard lies a gravestone. It was erected by Duglass Kennedy in memory of his father Scipio, who had died on 24 June, 1774, aged 80. The number of his living descendents will never be known for sure. My own DNA test came back inconclusive. After so many generations diluting chromosomes, this was no surprise.

I have my line traced to Scipio’s daughter, and Kirkoswald churchyard has his and her gravestones to mark the triumph of one small, bleak Scottish community in welcoming, freeing and integrating a lost wee boy from Guinea. A survivor of unthinkable trauma. A memorial and a reminder. «