Patrick Vernon's journey home

A Jamaican Briton traces his roots

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Features Editor Sunday

Sunday, September 25, 2011

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AS fierce red and orange flames raged in the streets of London last month, gutting businesses, homes, and rekindling in one's mind the nursery rhyme London's Burning, Patrick Vernon, consumed with a different type of burning, was combing Jamaica's hills and valleys.

The second-generation Jamaican Briton was in the land of his parents' birth, eagerly seeking to trace the roots of his maternal lineage. He wanted to make contact with the Shirleys, who he found originated from the Shirley Castle and Swift River areas of Portland.

He did have some success, having met with an Alva Shirley and his son in Portland, who further schooled him about the family.

His is a genealogical mission that has spanned years and that has taken him as far as the slave ports of western Africa from where captives were shipped to the New World. He has always been fascinated with creating a detailed family tree, Vernon tells the Sunday Observer, but the quest didn't start in earnest until about 10 years ago when, while on a visit to the island, he saw a newspaper advertisement urging all Shirleys to call a certain telephone number. He called and established links with a man who had commissioned the penning of a book on the family line. It was called The Shirley Families of Jamaica and was written by Henry Scislaw.

"It comprises all the wills, birth, death, marriage certificates of all the Shirleys in Jamaica," says Vernon of the 500-page volume. He points out that a lot of Shirleys also come from Sutherland Estate, Burnt Ground and Orange in St James. "Some of them live in Orange where my family comes from, but the main roots for the Shirley family is in Portland."

"I went through my family history going as far back as 1800 looking for the Shirley name in Montego Bay and then, I was able, through information in a newspaper article calling for the Shirleys in Jamaica, to call a certain number in order to find out more about their family history about 10 years ago. I contacted the number and was able to make contact with (the person who commissioned the writing of the book). Through his connections I was able to get information that showed that the name was linked to a plantation owner called Henry Shirley who came from England and married a widow. He had estates in Portland and different parts of the island.

"The mother of all Shirleys in Jamaica was a mulatto woman called Sally Skyers who lived on a plantation called Petersfield, Westmoreland, and they had a son called Edmund Shirley," he says.

Vernon was born in the UK to Jamaican parents who emigrated there on the Windrush in the 1950s when that country recruited Caribbean people to help rebuild it after the damage of World War II. His 75-year-old mother, Avis Vernon, nee Brown, was born of Ruth Shirley and hails from Orange, St James. His dad, Norris Vernon, now 80, is from Jericho, Hanover.

"Actually, my dad's uncle served in the Second World War, so he was in Britain beforehand anyway. Then my parents came here to live... so we now have three generations of Jamaican Diaspora people living in Britain," Vernon tells the Sunday Observer.

While he has traced his mother's ancestors to Senegal, from where they were shipped via Gorée Island to the Caribbean, Vernon has not discovered much about his father's side of the family.

"I couldn't get as much information on my father's side. His father died at a very young age so he couldn't get as much information and my grandmother passed away some years ago," he says, even as he appeals to Jamaicans with the Vernon surname to contact him.

For Vernon, a second-term Labour councillor for the Queensbridge community of London's Hackney borough -- where some events of the 2011 Olympics will be staged -- tracing his roots is important, not only for him personally, but as a means by which generations of Jamaicans abroad can connect with the land from which they came and the people that spawned them.

He has become a virtual expert on matters of family history and genealogy and is a commentator on the subject for several radio and television stations. In 2002, he launched the Every Generation website, one of the main sites on family history for African and Caribbean communities in Britain and between 2003 and 2006 he staged Caribbean Family History Days encouraging people from African-Caribbean communities to access slave and plantation records. In 2008, he produced a 64-minute documentary called a Charmed Life, featuring the life of Jamaican-born Eddie Martin Noble and exploring the legacy of the Windrush generation. He has also delivered over 70 workshops on family history and genealogy.

"I've learnt a lot. I've done a lot of travelling to get information around Jamaica and I've been to Africa and I think travel broadens the mind... From the Jamaican Diaspora perspective I think it's important. There are different generations of Jamaicans living in Britain and even though we have our links with our parents, grandparents who came from Jamaica to live in England, it's important to have that historical perspective about our roots, our connections, because it's three or four generations now of Jamaicans and of diaspora people in Britain who have a strong affinity to Jamaica. Part of that affinity is that they want to know more about their family history.

"Not only have I been able to trace my family history, but also, I've been able to help Jamaican Diaspora people to trace theirs by looking at records and photographs," he says.

Vernon is a fomer director of England's National Health Service, and now runs Afiya Trust, a health charity that works to reduce inequalities in health and social care for black and ethnic minority populations, or what it describes as 'racialised' groups.

He studied law at Manchester and Warwick universities and has been interested in politics since his sixth form days at Wolverhampton Grammar School. As a politician, Vernon is one of three councillors of Jamaican parentage in the Hackney borough and represents 10,000 of London's population of roughly 10 million. It's a job he's been doing for six years now, but he has ambitions for higher office. He's eyeing one of the 650 Member of Parliament positions in the country and jokes about running in Jamaica.

"I'll probably do another term, but I'm tyring to explore different aspects of politics and different roles, like MP," he tells the Sunday Observer. "I think I'll always be involved in politics. Being a councillor is like a stepping stone. I'm exploring my options. I might come to Jamaica," he adds, laughing.

The 50 year-old has strong views on the value of the diaspora community to Jamaica, and believes it should be ascribed certain rights in law, especially those related to voting.

"There've always been strong links between Jamaica and the UK, but I think there has to be more bonding between Jamaican and diaspora people. There's been talk for many years that diaspora people should have the right to vote and to participate in politics.

"Why not? Other countries do it. Other countries offficially recognise in law their diaspora communities so why can't Jamaica do it? There are more Jamaicans outside Jamaica anyway. New York alone has more Jamaicans than here on the island. There's not that many in the UK, there are probably about a million, but we're still a sizeable number and we all contribute. We do remittances, we come here on holiday, we see family, we contribute financially, some do business here, some have property here, so why can't we be recognised politically, socially?" he posited.

"I think local people should have a key role in making and influencing the decision-making process at the local level, but if you look at Jamaica as part of a global economy, to which Jamaicans abroad are contributing financially, economically, then (the argument that the policies and decisions made here won't affect us doesn't hold).

He also doesn't take kindly to people who cynically abstain from voting, but blames his colleague politicians for alienating young people and fostering that attitude.

"Politics is important. It affects our lives in terms of resources and allocation. People will say, 'I don't vote because it doesn't make a difference', but it does make a difference. One of the reasons young people feel alienated from politicians is that they don't relate to young people, they talk down to young people. They need a degree of more respect for young people, recognising that, as young persons, you can contribute to this as well."

Patrick Vernon is a Clore Fellow (prestigious UK leadership training programme) and was honoured by the Queen in 2003 as Pioneer of the Nation for cultural history. He is also on the Mayor's Commission for African and Asian Heritage.

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