Last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was perhaps my favourite yet. Rich in controversy and discovery, Sebastian Coe’s ancestral voyage took him from London to sunny Jamaica, and finally New York.
The programme started with the chair of the London 2012 organising committee and former Olympic champion finding out that his 4x great grandfather was born in Jamaica, after which he jetted off to the Caribbean island only to discover an ever bigger treasure trove of grandiose and contentious stories.
What struck me upon watching the events of Sebastian’s story unfold was that it was the stuff that novels and tales are made of! Whilst his ancestors were entrenched within historical events that might have made others bow their heads in shame, Seb took the fact that his 5x great grandfather George Hyde Clarke’s involvement within the slave trade on board with what I felt was admirable resilience. Not only was George caught up in what still remains one of the most controversial periods in history, but he was a plantation-owning slave owner – sitting in the engine room of this brutal trade.
George ended up in Jamaica because his father had been a soldier in a British regiment which was stationed in Jamaica from North America.
The discovery of his George’s involvement within the slave trade do seem to throw Seb into something of a moral dilemma, as he says how uncomfortable he would have felt had he discovered he were living on inherited wealth of the sugar industry. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case.
Seb’s journey takes from Kingston to New York after discovering that his 7x great granfather was born in New York. Lieutenant-governor of New York in 1741, he was embroiled with the Conspiracy of 1741 – an attempt by slaves and poor whites in the British colony of New York to revolt and allegedly burn down the city of New York in a bid to reclaim their freedom.
When in Manhattan, the historian talks Seb through the course of events his ancestor was part of and paints a bleak picture of what is now one of the most powerful cities in the world. Rife with smallpox epidemics, tough winters and fetid summers, the city of New was a million miles away from the thriving urban hub we know today.
Seb’s journey ends at a family memorial that he had no prior knowledge of – Hyde Hall in upstate NY. This 19th century mansion housed his ancestors right up until the 1940s and still today contains many of their possessions. He can be seen walking pensively through the beautiful property and his final words are spoken with pride, acknowledging that his “family was sitting at the epicentre of history”.
The Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1812-1834, are on our site and free for all to search.