Poet and author Nii Ayikwei Parkes discovered on a trip to Guadeloupe how the threads of his family’s British, West African and Caribbean story intertwine.
Visiting Grande-Terre, the second-largest of the cluster of islands that make up Guadeloupe, I find that my Tante Armelle has arranged a family gathering comprising her siblings, their children and even her 100-year-old mother.
We are hosted by her older brother, whose beautiful home is nestled on a hill overlooking lush greenery, and he welcomes us with the island’s signature cocktail, P’tit Punch, giving us the choice of several wonderful rhums agricoles, including island favorites like Reimonenq, Longueteau and Damoiseau. When we sit to eat, the dishes are brought to the table: the rice cooked with peas as we do in Ghana and as I’ve seen in other places in the Caribbean, the sauces fragrant and accompanied by Scotch-bonnet peppers, the meat well cooked... I close my eyes and breathe in.
I could be anywhere in West Africa. I am not far from home.
When my parents lived in London, my father used to end his job application letters with a phrase that most Ghanaians, fellow Commonwealth citizens, did not have to: “for the avoidance of confusion, I am a Black man.” He had been called in for too many job interviews at which, upon calling the name Jeremiah Parkes and seeing him, interviewers’ jaws would drop and the job would disappear in the cavern of surprise their open mouths drew. In this regard, even though we grew up speaking a Ghanaian language in England, he had more in common with folks from the islands Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados and St Vincent, who did not have names like Amoako or Olugbodi that signaled their Blackness on paper. This shared trauma was not accidental: in my debut full poetry collection, The Makings of You, I write in the poem “Zion Train”:
Imagine now how /
me surprise when me come and find that me name Parkes /
is actually from a Jamaican ancestor, a returnee fe Sierra Leone /
come as a soldier…
This fact, gleaned from a close reading of Christopher Fyfe’s A History of Sierra Leone (where my great-grandfather had been active in public life) was one level of information deeper than that what I had grown up with, which was simply that we had a European name because our grandfather had settled in Ghana from Sierra Leone. A little later, in 2018, I found that my Jamaican ancestor who had migrated to Sierra Leone had stopped in Guadeloupe to pick up his son, Thomas – likely to have been the first Parkes to start a family back on the African continent after years of life as enslaved Africans.
Guadeloupe made no sense, since the British and French were not known to collaborate at the height of their imperial quests. However, given that Thomas’ mother did not migrate with her son, the Guadeloupe link introduced the possibility of Thomas having siblings in Guadeloupe, so while I was visiting a number of countries in the Caribbean as part of my research at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, I decided to take the opportunity to visit the archipelago’s archives on its largest island, Basse-Terre.
In a serendipitous twist of affairs, although visiting for the first time I am met by family in Guadeloupe. Arriving by ferry from St Lucia, where I had been observing the French-based Kreyol that persists alongside the official English language, I walk off the pier at Pointe-à-Pitre to be embraced by Tante Armelle. Although she looks very much like some of my aunts in Ghana, I’ve never met Tante Armelle before – she is the mother of my friend Hervé, whom I have known since we were students together in Dijon in 1995 and has thus known about me since then. As he has spoken about me for close to 30 years, I have become part of the family mythology, so I am part of the family. Tante Armelle and I are only together for a few hours before I rent a car and spend over an hour navigating the impressive undulations of Guadeloupe’s roads, driving past vast swathes of banana farms, to get to Basse-Terre.
I arrive at the archives at Gourbeyre the following noon with no idea what I’m looking for, just a sense that I need to understand how the archives are kept so that I can use them better. I am made to fill out a form to get a membership number, but, while talking to one of the older archivists, I discover that Basse-Terre was captured by a British expeditionary force in 1759 and was controlled by them until 1763. Further research reveals that the expeditionary force was actually largely made up of African men who would later become the first recruits to the West Indies Regiment. Suddenly, everything makes sense: this is how a man from Jamaica has a child with a woman from Guadeloupe and later is able (being free as a result of his army role) to return for his son to give him a new life in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone is where my Caribbean story becomes African again.
Azúcar, the author's newest work, is set on a fictional Caribbean island, and is now out in paperback