I have always been interested in names. My father tells a funny story about how I came to be called Aidan, and though our surname is Swedish, it is now extinct in that part of the world. The year before I was born, two of my father’s uncles died, and I inherited their names – Ashley and Melville – as further middle names. Despite being saddled with eleven-syllables that seldom fit on official forms, I always thought myself lucky (perhaps, unkindly!) not to have inherited the name of another of my paternal uncles, Neblett.
Neblett A. Kiernander, an elder brother to my grandfather, was a bit of a family hero. He was an athlete of distinction, and during the Second World War captained a Gurkha regiment in Iraq, Syria and Italy. He tended to go by the name Percy, a nickname from army days, but, within the family, by the nickname “Boojoo” – of which there is another amusing tale. The name Neblett, though, remained something of an enigma; Where had it come from? As is often the way within families, only too late did we consider asking such questions.
Until I was about ten, my Calcutta born grandparents lived in Canada, and so it was very late in the day that I learnt from my grandfather that his mother was black and that her father had been born in Bridgetown, Barbados. I was told that this gentleman, Reginald Benjamin King, had married in Australia and travelled from there as a newlywed to India, where he died in the 1940s. We had assumed that there would be nothing more to discover about my great great grandfather; family lore was that his parents had been slaves, but we had no idea of their names; the slave-owners of his parents may have been named King, but we knew nothing for sure, and we guessed that the records would be inaccessible and poor. We thought we had hit a brick wall.
Recently, quite by chance, I came across an Indian marriage certificate from 1931. It would have been late in Reginald’s life, but also long after his known wife’s death. On the certificate the groom was noted as a widower, which was consistent, and his father’s name was Edwin – and here there was an error in transcription that made me start – Edwin “Nebbitt” King. Suddenly, the name Neblett lit up in my memory, and the connection was made, taking me all the way to nineteenth century Barbados. My father made a quick search and found that a Rev. James Fowler Neblett had arrived from England to Bridgetown, Barbados in 1796. Neblett was a name very much associated with Barbados, and obviously something significant – albeit forgotten – in our family.
My immediate assumption was that Edwin was somehow related to this reverend, and using online resources I began to sketch a family tree for him. As statues of slave-owners were being brought down in Brighton, and Black Lives Matter protests were being made mid-pandemic, I scrolled through the parish registers and slave registers of this profitable British possession in the West Indies; I was reconstructing a family tree of a man who may well have owned my ancestor.
I located baptismal records for Reginald and numerous younger siblings of his, as well as the marriage certificate of their parents: Edwin King, 38, Police Officer, & Elizabeth Ann Drake, 36, both of Cheapside, Bridgetown. This gave me the approximate birthdate of 1829 for Edwin, nine years before the abolition of slavery in Barbados.
The parish records and the slave returns made for uncomfortable reading: slaves being christened by the Church; priests charging slaves who wished to marry; priests owning slaves; slave-owners discouraging slaves from marrying, and actively breaking up families; some slaves living painfully long lives and some painfully short; child slaves as young as ten being classified and put to work as carpenters; black women bearing endless children to white men, the cycle of rape and birth and death echoing thoughout.
I eventually found Edwin. The enviable copperplate script of the 1834 Slave Register belies a shocking picture. Edwin is listed as a child of five, a “Coloured Barbadian” the son of Mary James, a “Black Barbadian” domestic slave. The name of his white father is unrecorded. His younger brother, Enoch, is recorded as having died aged five months. Their little family is owned by Mary Jane Neblett, “a minor” – she is in fact, a fifteen-year-old, and at this age owned five slaves: three adults and two children. The slaveholder name, Neblett, was perhaps all that was bequeathed to Edwin when he was freed, aged nine. It is a mystery where the name King came from.
Had my great uncle not been christened Neblett, I doubt we would ever have pushed back our family tree two generations. I doubt also that I would ever have spent so long engaging with an unpalatable history that is as every bit mine – and as every bit every British person’s – as it is every descendant of slaves.
(Many thanks to Geoff & Stacey Kiernander for their research concerning Dorothy M.E. King & Reginald Benjamin King on the ground in Victoria, Australia. Many thanks, too, to Damian Kiernander & family.)