‘My Genetic Ties’ to the Bahamas: Ancestral Home of a Slave Revolt, Sydney Poitier, Beyonce and Solange Knowles
Additional features by Don ‘Ogbewii’ Scott can be found in the link — Kumbayah History Magazine
By DON ‘OGBEWII’ SCOTT
My genetic ties to enslaved Africans on an inconspicuous Bahamian island have conjured up some very interesting information concerning a revolt of enslaved Africans and superstar celebrities, including the iconic actor Sydney Poitier and the dynamic Beyonce Knowles and her beloved sister, Solange.
You see, I was utterly surprised a few months ago when investigating by way of Ancestry.com to discover that I have a DNA-cousin linked to tiny Cat Island in the Caribbean’s Bahamas where Poitier likely has ancestral roots to rebelling Africans who were enslaved by one of the island’s most significant slaveholders during the 1830s, a woman named Sarah Anne Poitier and/or her father.
Based on Poitier’s biography, “it was said that, the family of Sidney Poitier had managed to trace their lineage back to the island of Haiti, where Sidney’s father, Reginald Poitier’s ancestors had been slaves on a sugar plantation until their escape from the country to the Bahamas,” says the Haiti Observer’s March 11, 2013 article, “Sidney Poitier and his Haitian link.”
However, various accounts indicating that there were no white slave-holding Poitiers on the Bahamas are countered by Ancestry.com records and other reports, keeping in mind that enslaved Africans sometimes retained the surnames of their so-called former masters. It’s possible, too, that some of Sidney Poitier’s ancestors and/or their slaveholder(s) did live first in Haiti, then immigrated to the Bahamas.
“One of Sidney’s uncles claimed that the family forebears hailed from Haiti — an accepted assertion, since that was the nearest French colony,” according to Aram Goudsouzian’s April 25, 2004 “‘Sidney Poitier,’” a biographical account in The New York Times. “Runaway slaves from Haiti established maroon communities throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island.”
In fact, my 5th-8th DNA cousin, whom I’ll simply identify by his initials of RM, has two very intriguing Ancestry.com entries at the top of one of his family trees, “Beck,” who’s identified as a “slave Woman” from “Africa” and “Euphemia,” born in the “Bahamas.”
RM’s computer-generated narrative indicates that “Beck … had one son in 1812,” at “Knowles” on “Cat Island, Bahamas.”
And remarkably, according to www.geni.com, “It has been acknowledged in both Bahamian and American media that Beyonce and Solange Knowles are Bahamian-Americans through their father, Mathew.” Say what?!?
Putting hysteria aside, as I continue to research possible DNA ties of RM and myself to the black and/or white Poitiers or Knowles of the Bahamas, there’s no doubt that the historical and genealogical data concerning several lines of those families are quite absorbing.
“As dowager of Charles Poitier’s estate, [Sarah Anne Poitier] had access to 142 slaves in 1831,” says Eckerd College’s Allan D. Meyers’ intriguing October 2015 article in the International Journal of Bahamian Studies, “Striking for Freedom: The 1831 Uprising at Golden Grove Plantation, Cat Island.”
Indeed, “the second largest holder of Cat Island slaves in the 1830s was [Joseph] Hunter’s widowed daughter, Sarah Anne Poitier,” Meyers wrote, adding that 98 of her slaves “lived on Cat Island” with “father and daughter combined” enslaving “213 slaves” there “in the months before the uprising.”
The identities of a few of those slaves can be found via Ancestry.com’s “Schedule of Three Slaves — the property of the said Sarah A. Poitier since the thirty first day of December 1830 …” They included “Abraham,” a “Male” who “Died February 1834.” There was also “Sancho,” a “Male,” who had been “Made free by Act of Parliament from having been to Great Britain,” a law that sometimes allowed blacks to declare their freedom. Also listed was “Jenna” or “Jemma,” a “Female,” “Sold to her Husband for Emancipation.” The spelling of her name may not be exact because the handwriting was difficult to decipher. Each person in the trio was identified as “Black” and “African,” an indication that they were likely born in Africa.
Charles Leonard Poitier, or Sarah Anne Poitier’s husband, probably emigrated from Jamaica to the Bahamas during the early 1800s, sources indicate. An Ancestry.com “schedule” identifies some of the Africans that Charles Poitier enslaved, entitled, “Return of One Hundred and Fifty two Slaves — the property of the Estate of Charles Poitier on the thirty first day of July 1834,” the year of his apparent death.
Those enslaved Africans included:
- Ebo Harry, male, age 52, identified as “Black” and “African,” a “Field Slave” by way of “St. Salvador” island in the Bahamas
- Sophy, female, age 44, identified as “Black” and “African,” a “Field Slave” by way of “St. Salvador
- Darby, male, age 22, identified as “Black” and “Creole,” a “Field Slave” by way of “St. Salvador”
- Eve, female, age 12, identified as “Black” and “Creole,” a “Field Slave” by way of “St. Salvador”
- Harry, male, age 10, identified as “Black” and “Creole,” who had been “Thrashing Corn and attending Stock”
- Osmund, male, age 44, identified as “Black” and “African,” a “watchman” by way of “New Providence” in the Bahamas
- Casar [sic], male, age 48, identified as “Black” and “African,” a “Field Slave & Watchman,” by way of “St. Salvador”
- Prince, male, age 29, identified as “Black” and “Creole,” a “Field Slave & Squaring Pine Wood,” by way of “New Providence”
- Isaac, male, age 27, identified as “Black” and “Creole,” a “Field Slave & Squaring Pine Wood,” by way of “St. Salvador”
- Ben, male, age 72, identified as “Black” and “African,” a “Driver at St. Salvador”
- Scilla, female, age 67, identified as “Black” and “African,” a castor oil boiler at Killarney [sic]
- Betsy, female, age 36, identified as “Black” and “Creole,” a “Field Slave” and [indecipherable] by way of “New Providence” island in the Bahamas
- Kate, female, age 34, identified as “Black” and “Creole,” a “Field Slave” by way of “New Providence”
- Charles, male, age 11, identified as “Black” and “Creole,” “Attending Cattle” by way of “New Providence”
- Priscilla, female, age 7, identified as “Black” and “Creole,” “With her father, now at School, by way of Killarney [sic] [indecipherable]
Identifying and then cross-checking the names and ages of Sidney Poitier’s slave ancestors with the identities of those exploited by Hunter and the white Poitiers could ultimately confirm if they were among those owned by either or both of those slave-holding parties.
Likewise, Ancestry.com records indicate that James Alexander Knowles (1724 or 1733–1806) operated the Crossing Plantation during much of the 18th century at Crossing Hill, Long Island, Bahamas. And although Beyonce (who reportedly now owns a Bahamian island) and Solange Knowles’ paternal ancestors from the Bahamas ultimately ended up in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas (where at least one of my several DNA cousins have Knowles’ family-tree forbearers), the distinct possibility that their enslaved ancestors may have been exploited at that Bahamian plantation cannot be ignored.
Further, an associated Ancestry.com entry indicates that James Alexander Knowles was the son of an “African Woman,” Hetty Williams, and Samuel John Knowles. A geni.com entry seems to confirm elements of that account, indicating that “James Knowles was a mulatto plantation owner on Long Island, The Bahamas. He was born c. 1723 in an unknown location (likely Eleuthera) to John Knowles, listed as white or European, and an unknown African woman or woman of African descent.”
In fact, slaveholder Joseph Hunter, Sarah Poitier’s father, had accrued significant property on the Bahamas’ Cat Island, including hundreds of acres that would become the Golden Grove Plantation, the site where enslaved Africans exploded in 1831. He “was an attorney, judge, and politician who held appointments on His Majesty’s Council for the Bahamas from 1808 until the mid-1830s,” according to Meyers. “He even served as the Colony’s interim governor ….”
Meyers adds that “Hunter’s estate population [including 100 enslaved Africans or Creoles] was drawn, in part, from the cotton plantation of Andrew Deveaux, senior, the father of Colonel Andrew Deveaux who organized the expedition of Loyalists in 1783 that reclaimed the Bahamas from the Spanish.”
Yet, the privileged statuses of Hunter and the white Poitiers did not make them immune from the discontent of the enslaved Africans that they used for free labor and otherwise, including the “driver” “Black Dick” and his kinfolk.
“Dick was around 28 years old at the time he moved to nearby Golden Grove with his wife and six children,” according to Meyers. “He and his sons, Wally and Richard, would assume central roles in the uprising.”
What, in fact, were issues that incited the enslaved to rebel at Golden Grove?
There was a dispute concerning the timing of when the workers could celebrate Christmas in 1831.
“Superficially, the conflict was sparked by disagreement over a provision of the Consolidated Slave Act of 1797,” Meyers pointed out. “The law stipulated that slaves were entitled to Christmas day and the two following working days as holidays. The longstanding custom of slaves having Sundays to themselves (this became official in 1830) meant that slaves often had four total days without labor during Christmas week…. In 1831, however, Christmas fell on a Sunday. This meant that slaves would be deprived of one of their accustomed ‘free’ days. In such cases, masters were at their discretion in managing the circumstances.”
So, Hunter’s “slaves expressed dissatisfaction with this arrangement by proceeding to the fields on Saturday in defiance of his orders,” Meyers wrote. “Hunter wanted to distribute the annual Christmas allotment — consisting of two portions of beef, a quart of rum, and a quart of sugar per person, as well as tobacco and pipes — on Saturday, but the slaves refused. They chose, instead, to collect their allowances on Sunday, and only one person came forward to thank him for it.”
Although Hunter and authorities also expected the slaves to head back to the fields the upcoming Wednesday, Dick, then about age 44, tried to convince them to allow the enslaved to take that day off too as part of the holiday. Meyers wrote “the Hunter slaves defied their master’s orders and boycotted work on Wednesday.”
Tensions mounted between the plantation owners and the enslaved, reaching an explosive point by “Friday morning, December 30, 1831” when authorities arrived at Golden Grove with guns as requested by “Mrs. Poitier.”
As matters continued to escalate, “Dick and his sons, Wally and Richard, had armed themselves with muskets. The other field hands wielded clubs and cutlasses, and according to a fellow slave, they were in a ‘great deal of wrath.’”
Gunfire was exchanged between the two groups. “Two slaves were wounded in the crossfire. Jack, who had been accused of stealing oranges, was hit above the waist band, presumably with shot from Dick Deveaux’s musket. One of Dick’s daughters was also wounded in the arm. Neither casualty was fatal.”
However, the conflict was far from being settled.
Reinforcements were called in and subsequently Dick and his alleged accomplices were arrested. The “Court found Dick Deveaux and the other six men guilty. A death sentence was passed on each of these seven, and public hangings were scheduled to take place after a fortnight.”
However, “Governor Smyth harbored abolitionist sympathies. After reviewing the case he found cause to intervene. He issued pardons for the six who were convicted as accessories, sparing them from the gallows. He allowed the execution of Dick Deveaux, however, to proceed, and the sentence was realized before a modest crowd on the morning of February 8, 1832.”
Consequently, “Joseph Hunter exacted retribution on Richard, Dick Deveaux’s pardoned son, by selling him to a Mr. Kemp of New Providence just before Dick’s execution. The other defendants ultimately returned to Golden Grove where they remained as field laborers until emancipation. During the transitional period known as apprenticeship (1834–1838), these former slaves became nominally free but were still tied to the estate.”
Although Joseph Hunter “rose to new political heights” following the rebellion and his “daughter, Sarah Anne, continued to deal with slave resistance, posting an advertisement in summer 1832 for a runaway slave named Caesar [likely listed as “Casar” on the above manifest] who had fled her estate on New Providence,” she “succumbed” not long before “her father followed suit on July 13, 1838,” Meyers noted. “Hence, the Hunter family deaths are closely aligned with the ultimate demise of Bahamian slavery.”
As a semblance of justice, “Ex-slaves of the Hunter plantation eventually claimed the tract as “generation land” as “descendants farm portions of it to this day.”
Eerily parallel with circumstances regarding my own father’s birth, almost a century later, “in Miami, Florida, on 20 Feburary 1927,” Sidney Poitier “was born small and sickly,” according to his biography, excerpted 2004 in The New York Times.
My father, Dr. Henry Scott (who was an unrelenting Sidney Poitier fan), was born about that time in what today is North Philadelphia, and like Poitier, was baptized and expected to not survive being born prematurely.
In fact, “Reginald [Poitier],” Sidney’s father, “found an undertaker and purchased a tiny casket, no bigger than a shoebox” during their visit to Miami (where Sidney was unexpectedly born) to sell tomatoes, but his wife, “Evelyn, resisted this surrender.” Mother persisted with nursing her baby to health for several months there until they all were able to return to Cat Island with a much healthier Sidney destined to become a superstar; it was just as a Miami soothsayer that his mother consulted, had predicted.
Similarly, a hearse had been called for my premature father who had been baptized and declared dead at his North Philly residence. As the hearse prepared to pull off, according to my dad who was destined to become a pioneering black physician and hospital medical director, the shocked undertaker heard signs of life in the casket — and my father was saved.
I cannot help but wonder about genealogical parallels and miracles that happened over the centuries on places like Cat Island and elsewhere that allowed black people to survive, and in some cases thrive, despite the incredible odds.
Don ‘Ogbewii’ Scott is a Philadelphia-area writer focusing on history and genealogy stories pertaining to the African diaspora. His books and articles have been published via The Oxford University Press, Houghton Mifflin, America’s Civil War and other publishers or publications.