My mother’s grandfather, William Runnels Moss, died in 1978 in Bradford, England. But where he came from was always shrouded in mystery. Although I never met “grandad” he was talked about so often by the Yorkshire side of my family I felt I knew him. He always wore a suit and tie, he listened to Beethoven loudly on 78 RPM gramophone records, he talked in a well-to-do accent. My whole life I thought of him as a white Englishman from the Midlands. I never knew, nor did his own children, that he was actually born and raised in St Vincent.
My mother often wondered where her curly hair and her mother’s not-quite-white complexion came from. She also spoke about grandad’s features. Though my mother’s side of the family are white British, there are signs of mixed heritage. Where did their dark hair, eyes, freckles and skin tone come from? The Normans, Romans, Vikings… or somewhere further afield?
In history class at school, I was given a project to research the biography of a family member. I chose grandad. My grandmother wrote to me with some exciting but murky details about him. He worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, owned shares in Dunlop tyres, lost everything in a financial crash and had a ticket to sail on the Lusitania’s doomed final voyage in 1915 but didn’t travel. More tantalising, he had an uncle, a vicar who moved to England from the Caribbean.
Grandad’s origins began to emerge when my youngest great-aunt began to piece together the family tree. She traced and contacted relatives, including one Mercedes Moss, a young black Vincentian woman who happened to be studying nursing in Glasgow. Mercedes was invited down to Bradford to stay and meet the family, but the culture clash of white working class Bradfordians and a black Caribbean student ended disastrously, with accusations, counter-accusations and Ms Moss throwing my great-aunt’s belongings into the street!
Correspondence with the St Vincent branch of the Moss family abruptly ended and the incident has long since passed into family folklore. Any mention of it triggers some jocularity, but in it there are also echoes of something more painful.
When my white mother met my black Jamaican father in the late-1970s, the family reaction was disapproving, to put it mildly. News of their imminent offspring (my brother and I) was worse received.
Times change, generations adapt. Perhaps if the clan had known then that grandad, the family patriarch, was a Caribbean man, things might have been different. But he kept his West Indian roots to himself and took them to the grave.
Post-Mercedes, years passed with little thought of reopening the family tree. Then, just before I moved to Trinidad, I was told that grandad had gone to school in the Caribbean. This was a surprise. He had cultivated the idea that he was from Birmingham, where his uncle lived. Two years ago, I studied the family tree for the first time and saw that William Runnels Moss was born in Kingstown in 1886. His father was born there too, and his grandfather and great-grandfather, all William Mosses. His grandfather, William Francis Moss, is listed in the slave-owners database. In 1836, he was awarded £36 (equivalent to $40,000 in Trinidadian dollars today) in compensation for the loss of one domestic slave, freed by abolition.
Being half-white and half-black, the idea that I might have both slave and slaveowner ancestry is nothing new to me, but the confirmation of it is still rather immense.
Grandad’s story post-St Vincent is both fascinating and sad. He fought for Britain in WWI and was mustard gassed. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1922 and met my great-grandmother on the boat. They had a stillborn child and decided to move to Canada, where they had another child stillborn.
Finally, he moved to England where they had four children, including my grandmother. He eventually owned his own accountancy firm, a house in Bradford and retired to the seaside town of Southport, Lancashire.
Why he kept his Caribbean roots a secret is most likely explained by the times he lived in. I’m told his birth record lists him as “coloured” though I have seen no evidence of this yet in my research. He could pass for white and so he did – guarding his privacy fiercely and conducting his family life in the serious and proper Victorian manner he was raised in by his merchant class family in the colonial British West Indies.
The discovery of Caribbean heritage on both my mother’s and father’s side is tremendously exciting, as cliched as that sounds. It’s not so much an emotional revelation but it adds a new, unexpected dimension to my life and history.
It prompted me to conduct family history interviews with grandad’s children – now in their 90s – and last week I visited the place of his birth, the enchanting St Vincent & the Grenadines.
* Continues next week…