Did I Have a Scottish Ancestor in Africa?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader with Sierra Leonean roots seeks the truth in family legend.

A map of Sierra Leone (Thinkstock)
A map of Sierra Leone (Thinkstock)

(The Root) —

“My family is from Sierra Leone, but we do have a legend of sorts. I think it’s true, but because of the civil war that happened there, it would be quite difficult to get information from Sierra Leone.

“My grandfather’s father was supposedly a half-Scottish, half-Greek man. It’s not clear how or why he came to Sierra Leone (my guess would be missionary work). I think this is probably true because some of the oldest members of the family said it, and because the name Pericles Macauley (his name) is one that has been passed down.

“From what I’ve found in online searches, Pericles is/was a common Greek name, and Macauley is most certainly Scottish.

“My question is what’s the best way to go about finding out more information on him?” —N. Fodiatu Yilla

What’s in a Name?

Truth is, given the West African nation’s past as a British colony and home to settlements of freed African slaves from England and America, there are a lot of ways a half-Scottish ancestor could have ended up in Sierra Leone. As you probably know, the British founded a settlement there for London’s Committee of the Black Poor; it was called the Province of Freedom in 1787 (also known as Granville Town). Then Freetown (now the capital) was founded as a settlement for freed slaves in 1792, the year when black Loyalists who had sided with the British in the Revolutionary War arrived from Nova Scotia. In 1808, Sierra Leone became a British colony.

However, as the historian Bruce Mouser told us, a Scottish surname doesn’t necessarily point to roots in Scotland. Christopher Fyfe, in his History of Sierra Leone lists 15 different Macaulays (a variant spelling) in his index, and only a couple of those were among the score of Africans who took the Macaulay name. When Africans rescued from slave ships by the British navy were taken off of boats, Mouser adds, they were given new names. Plus, “Christians in England paid money to have a child named after them. So, all your questioner can really say for certain is that her ancestor has a Scottish name,” he concludes.

A similar issue exists for the first name: The fact that it is Greek doesn’t automatically point to Greek heritage. Many people the world over have turned to Greek classical literature to name their children. Since very little is known about your great-grandfather, you must take into account the reliability of the information you have collected thus far on him. Older family members may have believed Pericles Macauley had Greek origins solely based on his name, but I urge you to go a step further to confirm or disprove that family story by checking other sources, such as military or vital records. The name could very well have been chosen to honor a family friend, or was the surname of a relative, rather than because of his heritage.

Also, keep in mind there are instances when someone is referred to by his or her middle name because a parent or other relative has the same first name. If you find that you are having difficulty locating documents for Pericles Macauley, be sure to also check records for instances where Pericles is listed as a middle name.

To get a better gauge of your ethnic heritage, Mouser suggests mining family traditions for clues: foods eaten, names for aunts and uncles, to whom do your kin go when they get in trouble or from whom do they borrow money? Are there songs or any sayings that your family uses that could provide clues?