A series of run-ins with law enforcement in the United Kingdom splits a family apart. Now the family is seeking answers.
Dear Professor Gates:
I’m trying to trace my great-grandfather, whose name was either David Sebe Agyemah Darku or David Sebe Agyeman Darku. He was sent to jail in England for a high-profile crime involving police officers and deported back to Ghana. Unfortunately, we do not know much, since my granddad was 5 years of age when his father was sent to jail, and my great-grandmother Rose Begley became very bitter toward her husband after he went to jail, so she would refuse to speak about him. My granddad is now 66 years of age and knows nothing about his father or his origins. His surname, Darku, is a common one. However, I would like to help him find his family. —Chesnie Darku
Our first lead on what happened to your great-grandfather was a description of the court records pertaining to David Sebe Agyemah Darku in the United Kingdom National Archives. It says that Darku was “a native of Gold Coast” and convicted for the attempted murder of Graham Baulch, a prison officer, in 1956. However, before we address the record further, let’s place it in the context of what was happening in the world at the time.
As you surely know, Gold Coast was a British colony on the west coast of Africa. It formed the main part of Ghana, which was established as an independent nation in 1957, the year after your great-grandfather’s conviction. Throughout the British Empire, colonies were becoming sovereign nations, with Ghana, led by Pan-African leader Kwame Nkrumah, being among the first to do so in sub-Saharan Africa (Sudan became independent in 1956).
Over the next decade, dozens of African countries that had been European colonies followed suit—17 in 1960 alone. That year, Nkrumah was elected president of the Republic of Ghana. Six years later he was overthrown in a military coup after suspending the country’s constitution.
If your great-grandfather was deported after his conviction, he would have been returning to his homeland during a time of profound change.
We searched for newspaper articles about David Sebe Agyemah Darku’s conviction and found quite a few in the British Newspaper Archive (subscription required). An article in the Aberdeen Evening Express, titled “Constable Tells of Axe Attack,” on Sept. 15, 1954, says that David Sebe Agyemen Darku was 32 years old and from Albion Street in Liverpool. He was accused of wounding Constable J.F. Slidders and Constable J.P. Cornes, with the intent to murder, on July 23, 1954.
The conflict apparently began when Slidders served a warrant for Darku’s arrest for not sending his daughter to school. If you know who that daughter could have been and she is still living, she may be a source of additional information about the circumstances that led to your great-grandfather’s arrest.
Once he was incarcerated, the situation only became worse for your great-grandfather. We must warn you that the details are disturbing. Another article, “Sequel to Attack on Warder,” in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail on April 10, 1956, relates the incident with Baulch. According to this article, David Sebe Agyeman Darku of Albion Street and a native of the Gold Coast was a seaman alleged to have attacked prison guard Grahame John Balch (sic) at Winston Green Prison, Birmingham. Darku, a prisoner at the time, allegedly attacked Balch/Baulch with a steel window winder, and the guard required 27 stitches. Darku turned down legal aid but had asked for a lineup of officers for his defense so that he could identify officers “who had beaten him.”
A follow-up article to the case, “Faces Murder Bid Charge: Coloured Seaman Alleges Warders Beat Him Up,” in the Lancashire Evening Post on April 17, 1956, sheds more light on the possible reasons for the attack on the prison guard. It says that Darku was first sent to prison in Liverpool and then transferred to Stafford Prison, where he said that a warder complained that Darku was not doing his washing properly.
Darku claimed that he was given 15 days on bread and water and lost 56 days of remission for good conduct. He was then moved to Birmingham Prison, where he was taken to a “strong” cell and beaten by the warders, with his head banged against the steel stairs. Darku then said that his attack on Balch/Baulch was in retaliation for the abuse he suffered because the guard “was the one who twisted my arm and break my nose bridge.”
These articles provide leads that may help you locate more information about your great-grandfather. From his ages given at the time of these cases, you can gather that he was born about 1923. He is identified as a seaman, which suggests his vocation. You also have the street he was living on at the time of his arrest in Liverpool, and the names of the prisons where he served time. You could try to contact the prisons to see if they have any record for him during his time there.
Going back to the prison-record description we mentioned at the top of this column: According to the archive catalog, the record opening date was March 19, 2002; however, it is now closed. You could submit a Freedom of Information request for the record, which will start a review process to see if the record can be opened and made available to you.
We must caution you that the court records may or may not contain more information about David and his family. It is possible that it will include only basic information about him as was necessary for the case, but having access to it would be a good starting point. The court records may also provide you with more details about his conviction and his deportation.
You could also reach out to the Public Records and Archives Administration Department of Ghana to see what collections it may have that could help you learn more about David Sebe Agyemah Darku and his family. The official website for the archive appears to no longer exist, but it does have an active Facebook page with contact information and some descriptions of its holdings.
You will want to get acquainted with what types of genealogical records are available in Ghana. The FamilySearch Ghana Genealogy page is a great place to get started. It also has some collections you can search online, such as the Ghana Census, 1984. We searched for David Sebe Agyeman Darku without results, but in the ballpark with regard to age and name was a David Darko, born about 1924 in Anum Eastern, recorded at Somanya, Ghana. He was recorded with a daughter, Yaa Grace Adobea, born about 1962. If this is your great-grandfather, the daughter could be from the period after his return to Ghana.
The U.K. National Archives also have earlier census records starting in 1960 that you could check for David Sebe Agyeman Darku to see if he returned to the country by 1960. The records are not digitized, but you could request a search. The locations where he was living at various years between 1960 and 1984 may help you identify other relatives.
One of the challenges you may face is how recently in the past you will be searching for information. Often, for more recent records pertaining to individuals who could still be alive, there are limitations to what information you can access. You may have some luck in obtaining the information as a direct descendant, but be prepared that you may still have to present proof of your relationship to your great-grandfather in order to gain copies of some records relating to him.
We wish you well in your continued search for answers.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the 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 1 billion 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 about researching African-American roots.