Did I Have a Scottish Ancestor in Africa?

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?


On a Mission

Having a time frame for when Pericles Macauley might have been alive will help you further pinpoint which records are most relevant for your genealogy search. If your older ancestors can't say, at least knowing when your grandfather — his son — was alive can help narrow down when Pericles might have been alive.


You say a possible reason Pericles Macauley went to Sierra Leone was to conduct missionary work, but on what is this assumption based? Were any of your other ancestors attached to missions? What did his son — your grandfather — do? Did he in any way work with missionaries or the colonial government? Knowing this information can help you track down Pericles Macauley and his reason for being in Sierra Leone.

If all of this turns up more evidence that your great-grandfather was, indeed, a half-Scottish missionary, try contacting the National Library of Scotland's Manuscript Division, which has a collection of documents pertaining to the Scottish Missionary Society. This organization, formerly known as the Scottish Society and the Edinburgh Missionary Society, sent missionaries to a number of areas, including West Africa. Another source, recommended by Mouser, is the Church Missionary Society's "Register of Missionaries," which covers everyone between 1804 and 1904, and might list Pericles Macauley by name.


A Powerful Connection?

In addition to researching your Macauley line, look into the family of Zachary Macaulay (note the spelling variation), born in Scotland May 2, 1768. He served as governor of Sierra Leone and was an antislavery activist. Although Zachary Macaulay did not have a child named Pericles, given his ties to Scotland and Sierra Leone, it is possible that a family connection exists. Zachary Macaulay is the subject of a number of books, including Life and Letters of Zachary Macaulay, published in 1900, and Letters of Hannah More to Zachary Macaulay, Esq. Containing Notices of Lord Macaulay's Youth, published in 1860. Another book suggestion is Charles Booth's Zachary Macaulay, His Part in the Movement for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and of Slavery: An Appreciation, published in 1934, which is available at a number of libraries.


Another possible source: the Charles Booth Collection, held by the Archives division of the London School of Economics and Political Science Library (LSE Archives) and the Senate House Library. This collection contains correspondence written by the families of Zachary Macaulay and Charles Booth, who married into the Macaulay family in 1871. There are 80 letters written by Zachary Macaulay in this collection, most of them addressed to his nephew, Kenneth Macaulay. For more information on these documents, contact the LSE Archives via email at Document@lse.ac.uk.

Finally, there are a number of genealogical email lists related to particular surnames and geographical areas. One such mailing list is available through Rootsweb for those researching the Sierra Leone area. You can sign up to receive emails from this group, and also search the archived messages for possible inquiries related to the Macauley family.


Good luck!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.


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