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Searching for my slave roots

Searching for my slave roots

By Malik Al Nasir, as told to Ed Thomas

By Malik Al Nasir, as told to Ed Thomas

The poet Malik Al Nasir has been on a journey to find his roots as a black Liverpudlian. It’s a journey that has taken him back in time and halfway around the world, before returning him right back to the city where he began.

It started with a photograph from the 19th Century of a man who could have been my double.

It was one o’clock in the morning and I was watching a TV documentary about 100 years of black footballers. 

This was 2002, and there weren’t many programmes about black people, so it was worth staying up for.

Then a face appeared that made me catch my breath.

A Victorian footballer.

He looked comfortable, he didn’t look out of place, he looked like a boss. Very much a black British gentleman.

Andrew Watson (centre, standing), 19th Century Scottish footballer

Andrew Watson (centre, standing), 19th Century Scottish footballer

His name was Andrew Watson – the same surname as my Dad. And he was from Demerara in Guyana, just like my Dad. [Malik changed his name from Mark Watson after converting to Islam].

There was another image of him in the documentary, but this time as a young boy at a grammar school in Halifax. Above my Mum’s TV set was a picture of me at about the same age – we were identical. 

Andrew Watson as a schoolboy

Andrew Watson as a schoolboy

Minutes later, the phone rang. It was my Mum. She said, “Turn on the BBC.” I said, “Mum, I’m already watching it.”

“He looks just like you,” she said.

Watson was born in 1856 in Demerara. He came from money, he was well-educated at private schools and at university in Glasgow, Liverpool and London.

He was a significant footballer in the 19th Century. In the 1880s he played for Queens Park, winning three Scottish cups. At the time they were one of the biggest clubs in the world. 

He also played three games for Scotland at international level. He was described as an inspiration, captaining the national side during their 6-1 win over England.

We looked identical. But Andrew Watson’s life was very different to mine. 

Warning: This chapter contains racial slurs

The first time I was racially abused was in school. It was 1972. I was six years old and sitting in school assembly. 

The head teacher was playing a taped story called The Story of Little Black Sambo.

I could hear every offensive line booming out at the morning assembly. Other kids were laughing, giggling and pointing at me.

It made me feel like I didn’t belong, that there was something wrong with me. But we were told not to take offence because it was the teachers who were playing it.

In England in the 70s it was normal to see books with titles like Ten Little Nigger Boys or The Proud Golliwog.

Nobody seemed to think this was a problem.

1968: Malik Al Nasir aged two

1968: Malik Al Nasir aged two

I was already living in a poor neighbourhood, but I was also dealing with racism – in the classroom, from friends, on the TV in my house.

I had to fight most days in school. I was attacked on a daily basis, in and out of school but it was always me who had to see the head teacher for punishment. I was considered the troublemaker for being bullied by the kids the teachers were egging on.

And life was about to get a lot worse. My Dad had a stroke, it was Christmas 1974. He was paralysed and stayed in hospital until he died. 

My Mum, a white woman, was now a single parent with four black kids. She couldn’t cope with living in a poor white area at a time of heightened racial tension. She was a target of a lot of hostility.

She was a very strong woman but even she was powerless against this toxic background.

I was expelled from school at the age of nine and taken into care.

Malik aged nine

Malik aged nine

I remember everything about that first night, as if it was now. It was the most traumatic event of my life. 

I was stripped, washed and placed in a locked room. I spent 14 days in isolation there, in solitary confinement. I remember the bars on the windows, nobody spoke to me, food was pushed through a hole in the door like a prison.

I still remember banging on the windows, screaming and begging to be let out.

It was called the Liverpool Children’s Admission Unit. It was on Acrefield Road in Woolton. Thank God it’s been knocked down now. 

It was a dilapidated old Victorian mansion, run by a man who looked like Gomez from The Addams Family. He had a mynah bird in the office, a big black thing that used to talk. 

The place was always musty, stinking of damp. Plaster was falling off the walls and in the communal lounge there was a huge block that had fallen off – the hole was so big, kids could fit inside. 

I was moved from one children’s home to another, suffering physical abuse and racism.

In many of the homes, staff would beat us, but nothing was done because the reports to social workers were written by the people beating us.

One home in Warrington had a farm, so we had to dig foot-deep trenches a couple of hundred metres in length, and plant potatoes. 

The social workers would sell them to the public. It was forced labour.

I missed 18 months of primary education and had less than two years in secondary school.

I also spent time in an approved school in Manchester, which was brutal – I had a tooth knocked out and I was stabbed.

I left the care system in 1984 at the age of 18, semi-literate, and was placed in a hostel for homeless black youths.

I had no qualifications to get a job, no social structures to support me, not a penny to my name. I was on my own on the streets, at a time of racial tensions. The Toxteth riots were only a recent memory.

The Toxteth riots, July 1981

The Toxteth riots, July 1981

I was totally lost – I did not know who I was, where I belonged, or what would become of me.

But that year, things started to change.

Gil Scott-Heron, singer, poet and civil rights activist, writer of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and I Think I’ll Call It Morning, was playing in Liverpool. 

I sneaked into a gig he was playing at the Royal Court Theatre. 

Gil Scott-Heron on stage at Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool (photographer: Penny Potter)

Gil Scott-Heron on stage at Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool (photographer: Penny Potter)

The atmosphere was something else – it was electric, and Gil was in perfect unison with his audience. 

Afterwards I made my way backstage, and we got talking.

We never stopped.

Gil became my mentor. It completely changed my life. 

Malik with the singer and poet Gil Scott-Heron

Malik with the singer and poet Gil Scott-Heron

Whenever he was in the UK, I’d be on tour with him. I learned to set up the drums. I did the laundry, the merchandise, anything. 

But more than that, Gil inspired me to write poetry, and this allowed me to heal and confront my past.

But what was my history?

All I knew was that I was probably descended from a slave. 

I knew about the Vikings, the Romans, World Wars One and Two, the Empire.

But the black figures were savages or else they were Uncle Ben on the rice packets or the gollywog on the marmalade jar. 

Andrew Watson, illustrated in the Scottish Athletics Journal

Andrew Watson, illustrated in the Scottish Athletics Journal

Andrew Watson was the first historical black role model I could be proud of. I wanted to know about his life. 

I dug deeper and started two family trees – one for me and one for him. 

Andrew Watson’s marriage certificate named his father as Peter Miller Watson.

Peter’s job title was “sugar planter”. He was born to a prosperous family in northern Scotland in 1805. By the 1830s he owned, and was running, sugar plantations in Demerara.

Andrew Watson’s marriage certificate names his father as “Peter Miller Watson, sugar planter (deceased)”

Andrew Watson’s marriage certificate names his father as “Peter Miller Watson, sugar planter (deceased)”

Peter Miller Watson’s mother, Christian Robertson Watson (1780-1842), was one of three sisters apparently known as the “three fair maids of Kiltearn”, a parish just north of Inverness. 

The eldest was Ann Robertson, who married Charles Stewart Parker. He was based in Glasgow, involved in insurance and shipbuilding, and he owned sugar plantations in Grenada.

The youngest sister was Elizabeth Robertson who married a man from Cheshire called Samuel Sandbach. He dominated a company called Sandbach Tinne & Co, described at the time as trading “sugar, coffee, molasses, rum and prime gold coast negros”.

A picture was emerging of families inter-marrying, with shared business interests in a slave-owning dynasty that lasted for generations, accumulating staggering amounts of money.

At this point all I knew was that I looked similar to Andrew Watson. Our ancestors were born in the same country and we shared the same surname. But if we were related, did that mean that I was also descended from slave owners?

My instinct said I was, but still it was an uncomfortable prospect.

I remembered how my Dad once said to me, “One day I’m going to take you back to the sugar cane.” It never happened because he died when I was 13.

It was time to go back to where my Dad had come from. 

In 2008 I headed for the South American country of Guyana, armed only with the name of a village – Weldaad – and the knowledge that my Dad, Reginald Wilcox Watson, had once lived there. 

I had no idea of what would unfold, but it felt like going home. 

Stepping foot on Guyanese soil at Cheddi Jagan Airport wasn’t like arriving at Heathrow. 

The airport was small and austere. Outside there were palm trees. The area had been carved out of a tropical rainforest.

Malik arriving in Guyana, 2008

Malik arriving in Guyana, 2008

The first stop was Georgetown, to scan the national archives. 

Despite this being the capital, there were no high-rise buildings, and the older buildings were made out of timber. It didn’t take long to track down the information I needed. 

I couldn’t find any marriage record, but the electoral roll confirmed there was a Peter Miller Watson in Guyana, who was eligible to vote because of his ownership of two sugar plantations –  Le’ Bonne Intention and Plantation Zeebrugge.

His date of birth matched that of the sugar planter named in Andrew Watson’s marriage certificate – proof that the father of one of the world’s first black footballers owned plantations and slaves, and that he had a relationship with a black woman. 

It was time to head to the tiny village of Weldaad, along the coast from Georgetown.

What should have been a straight 90-minute drive took three hours, as the car bounced around on bumpy roads, held up by donkeys, cows and goats – all this in oppressive humidity. 

But Weldaad was beautiful – the lushest of vegetation, 60ft high coconut palms, green undergrowth and fruit trees. 

Poking out between it all were telephone poles, the only thing that looked modern in the whole town. It was like stepping back in time.

In Liverpool I was used to seeing flocks of seagulls but this place hummed to the noise of parakeets and macaws of blue and green with big long tails. 

The road to Weldaad

The road to Weldaad

The rainforest had been cut back to make way for cane fields and rice paddies with canals everywhere. They’d been built by slaves under Dutch colonists 200 years ago, to move goods around the fields to the processing plants – a tropical version of Holland. 

Cows were wandering freely around the coconut palms and timber frame houses. 

It struck me that whatever riches were gathered from these fields, none of it trickled down to the people remaining today. 

Weldaad was such a rural area and everyone was so kind to me, more than happy to help. 

The local people talked about a man long dead called Teacher Watson, who lived in the next village. Could that have been my grandfather? Yes, it was just a surname but it was all I had to grab onto.

There was a man in the village called Mr White, who studied family history. Frustratingly he had never heard of any Watsons, but by a twist of fate, the day after talking to me, he heard two old ladies talking in a bank, one of whom mentioned that her maiden name was Watson. 

Mr White introduced himself and took her number to give to the “man from England looking for his family”.

The lady lived in a timber house raised on stilts to protect it from the floods. It was evening by the time I was outside her home. 

At the top of the steep wooden steps, the door opened and I was greeted by a smiling old lady. Her name was Withyeline, she was 82 years old, and on the wall above her was a picture that was the spitting image of my father.

“Reg Watson?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. 

Did I have a sister twice my age? My heart was racing. 

“Reginald Wilcox Watson?” I asked again.

She paused and said “No, that’s Reginald Daniel William Watson. Your father is my Uncle Reg.” 

I was confused but then it hit me – our fathers were half-brothers and both called Reg!

So Withyeline was my first cousin. She told me she’d lived with my father before he left Guyana in the 1930s.

Withyeline, Malik’s cousin in Guyana

Withyeline, Malik’s cousin in Guyana

We shared a grandfather, George Edward Watson. Withyeline confirmed that this was indeed Teacher Watson. He was an educated man, a schoolmaster who also taught my father to read and write. 

She revealed that my father was meant to inherit land, but because he’d left for England he never got his share.

I wanted to know more about the land. Was it a connection to Andrew Watson?

The next day I went back to the land registry, and looked at maps with plots carved out. The Watson family land, where Withyeline was now living, was in what was once called the Woodlands plantation, just north of the region’s main sugar refinery.

Frustratingly there was no clear connection between this plantation and Peter Miller Watson.

But why did my side of the Watson family inherit acres and acres of plantation land? 

After five days of searching, it was time to head back to Liverpool.  

I had found family members. I knew the exact land where my ancestors lived, and confirmed the name of Andrew Watson’s father but there was still so much more I needed to know.

It would be 10 years before I found the next clue. 

On eBay I spotted a collection of ephemera for sale – handwritten letters with wax seals and

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