It’s hard to believe that just less than three years ago, I knew virtually nothing of my roots, except of course occasional family hearsay. I was a high-school graduate with little more on my mind than a desire to enter the workforce, gain independence and travel the world.
I’ll be honest, though – for the longest time, I was positively fascinated by said hearsay. Having received a mini-family tree as a child (compiled by my mother’s first cousin), I learned the full names of my great-grandparents and their parents for the very first time; I found myself staring at this document often. The spike of my interest in genealogy also happened to coincide with a dramatic increase in the popularity of home DNA testing. And so, whilst vacationing in the United States during mid-2015, I jumped at the chance and ordered myself an AncestryDNA test. For the most part, the results weren’t very surprising (a strong German/French/Dutch presence, with a hint of British and Irish).
However, the 5% non-European DNA (Benin/Togo, Asia Central, Asia South and Melanesia) absolutely blew my mind. I grew up naively identifying as a ‘white South African’ – though I’ve since realised how loose that term really is. I knew that there was no point investigating my father’s family for this non-European lineage, given his own father was of pure German stock and his mother of pure British (with a hint of London-born French Huguenot for good measure). This left only my mother’s side to investigate. Just two weeks after receiving my DNA results, my research led to the discovery of my maternal great-great-grandparents’ marriage certificate.
My 2nd great-grandparents, born just a hundred years before me, were classified as ‘coloured’ at the time of their marriage. This felt exceptionally close to home. My mother had met her great-grandfather, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Sam’. I had met their daughter, my great-grandmother, Bess. How on earth was there not so much as an utterance of this lineage passed down to me? Being the first born-free (post-1994) of my family, I grew up colour blind. Had I known about this part of my history, I would have shouted it from the rooftops, gleefully proclaiming my heritage to family and friends. However, I soon learned that this way of thinking was forbidden for nearly five decades; the vile ideals which apartheid instilled left many ‘white’ South Africans with known non-European heritage undoubtedly terrified at the prospect of being ‘caught out’. And so, I accepted there was a reason this knowledge wasn’t passed down to me, but I certainly wasn’t leaving it there.
I had to dig further, deeper, and uncover my true lineage. I now knew that my family had lived in Africa since the dawn of humanity, but I needed more – I needed a name to honour, to cling onto, and to pass on to further generations. And the only way to do this, was to once again take a trip down the genealogical rabbit hole. The next document I found, was my 2nd great-grandfather Samuel’s baptismal entry, listing his parents (John Alexander Coutts and Sarah Green), and discovered a rather interesting name as a sponsor: Samuel Wells Green, my 2nd great-grandfather’s namesake, who as it turns out, was his very own maternal grandfather. And by all accounts, he was no average Joe.
Samuel Wells Green was born in Ringstead, Northamptonshire on 10 June 1829, and emigrated to South Africa aboard the ship Ballengeich. He landed at Port Natal on 28 July 1850, his occupation shown as a draper, as was his father Noah. In 1867 he joined the Freemasons, listed as a merchant’s clerk, eventually founding Bloemfontein’s very first bank. He ended up settling in Beaconsfield, Kimberley in the very early days of its settlement, where in his later years he became a florist and superintendent of the Dutoitspan Cemetery, and (in the words of John Angove) transformed the cemetery from a barren and treeless waste into ‘quite a little paradise’. Samuel and his nephew John Lot Green were personal friends of Cecil John Rhodes, during his formative years in Kimberley.
Samuel married an African woman, Elsie Regina, in December of 1859, and together they had 16 children (13 of whom have been found thus far): John James, Mary, Annie, Eliza, Alfred, Sarah, Helen, Jane, Samuel Henry, Benjamin James and three daughters all called Alice who died young. Elsie was very likely the daughter of an enslaved couple, possibly of West African heritage, if the DNA analysis of her descendants is anything to go by. Following Elsie’s untimely death in 1878, he married a woman of European heritage, Isabel Laura Mercy Slatem, on 16 January 1883 at All Saints Anglican Church in Beaconsfield, and together they had eight more children: Walter Andrew, James Alexander, Samuel Wells, Edward Slatem, James Noah, George Lot, Sarah Isabel Jane and Cornelia Mercy, the last of whom passed away in 1984, twelve years before my birth.
The longest living of Samuel’s children was not the son who died in 1984. In fact, it was my 3rd great-grandmother, Sarah Green, who lived to the ripe old age of 93. She passed away at Nazareth House, Kimberley in 1958, and was rightfully described as a ‘Kimberley pioneer’.
And that concludes this piece. At long last, I have names to honour, stories to pass down, and perhaps most importantly, a legacy to uphold.
Written by Matthew Mark Bode