Ancestors, published in 2002, is the debut novel of Paul Crooks, written after his personal journey into his own African and Jamaican ancestry. It is a fictionalisation of some of the facts found in the history of his research. It depicts the pain, horror, disappointment, frustration, and the bravery Africans presented in the face of intolerable treatment on the Caribbean island of Jamaica and their fight for freedom.
What stands out to me about this story is how well Crooks has enabled us to connect with the characters. Part of the power of Ancestors stems from the use of the actual names of his forebears: making them become more than fictional characters, real people. By this decision Crooks enables us to feel, almost first-hand, the experience of those stolen into slavery in the Caribbean. In addition, the use of the dialect of the slaves - due to the banning of the use of their African tongues, as they learnt to manage to speak English sufficiently to communicate effectively with their captors - adds to the realism and believability of the characters. Ancestors gives us an idea of how this could have all worked.
August is the protagonist, the great-great-great grandfather of Paul Crooks, captured in Africa as a ten-year-old boy, stolen away from his father, his homelands: taken into slavery. Ancestors charts what Crooks imagines could have been the life and experiences of August and his adopted mother Ami, who travel to the colony on the same slave ship, and others whose names he discovered through his research, to emancipation in 1838. Anyone who has researched slavery in the Caribbean would know that his depictions are a real representation of the experiences of many slaves during those times.
Ancestors has been paired with Roots by Alex Hailey and I see why. It has given Black British people a connection and insight into the experience of their lineage back to Africa through slavery in the Caribbean, in its depiction of a real individual African whose journey mirrors that of their Black British ancestors. With the help of Ancestors, with its foundations in real-life data and research, the disconnect felt by many to Africa has been clearly erased, if it ever truly existed at all. For Black British people, Roots was brilliant but based across the pond, therefore at a distance; while Ancestors is not only closer, personal, but based on British soil and history: politically, economically and religiously.
Crooks achieves additional points that I think bring respect and value to this work. He casts female slaves of the Caribbean as much in the fight for freedom as their male counterparts, a point that is missed in other narratives. Many slave women like Ami, Sarah, Nancy, and Missy were as much a part of the resistance as the males. Secondly, he avoids the sexualisation of slaves and shows their true respect for relationship partnerships.
Crooks also endeavours to depict his history with a semblance of balance, to portray the issues faced by all involved - including those who, in the British parliament, fought for the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves in the Caribbean, the interests of the plantocrats and the slaves themselves by his inclusion of the "British Apprehension" chapter. Although this chapter feels a little out of place within the story, it works to show the role of all the players in this part of our British history so many try to ignore.
The creation of Ancestors demonstrates an outstanding feat of research, determination, obsession and passion which has given light and inspiration to many Black British people who felt that their African roots were impossible to chart. Crooks has shown us it is possible. I found Ancestors difficult to put down. Highly recommended reading.
About the Reviewer
Sandra Pollock loves fiction, fantasy and poetry, is passionate about Black British history. She is currently taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.