This piece of work was researched and written by expert genealogist, Patricia Brennan.
There was a flurry of excitement in the Irish genealogy world with the news that Kamala Harris had a great-grandmother from Jamaica named Iris Finegan. Could there be another Irish link here to match Joe Biden’s ties to Mayo and Louth? Sadly, no. A quick dive into Jamaican records ruled out the Finegan line. But that’s not the end of story. The far more likely Irish link to the American Vice-President is a 19th century slave-owner from County Antrim.
Two years ago, Donald J Harris – economist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, California – wrote a short essay entitled ‘Reflections of a Jamaican Father’. His eldest daughter had recently become a US Senator from California and – as a rising star in the Democratic Party – she was already attracting a lot of media interest. Kamala Harris was becoming a symbol of American diversity. She is the daughter of immigrants; her mother was a scientist from India, her father an academic from Jamaica. His essay offers a short family history and the intriguing possibility of an Irish connection, albeit not one that Fáilte Ireland is likely to boast about.
Donald J Harris’s parents were Beryl and Oscar Harris, known to the family as ‘Miss Beryl’ and ‘Maas Oscar’. He writes fondly of his two grandmothers, both formidable matriarchs who were an influential part of his life growing up in Jamaica. His paternal grandmother was Christiana Brown – known as ‘Miss Chrishy’. His maternal grandmother was ‘Miss Iris (nèe Iris Finegan)’. Miss Iris’s ancestry was unknown to him; Miss Chrishy was a ‘descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town.’ Brown’s Town is in St Ann’s Parish, Middlesex County; the Harris family was based in ‘Orange Hill’, Brown’s Town. ‘Miss Iris’ ran a sugar farm in Thatch Walk, near Aenon Town, on the border of St Ann’s Parish and Claredon Parish.
From the details in the Donald Harris memoir, and subsequent research, the family tree looks like this:
Not surprisingly, Irish genealogists first focussed on the Finegan line. Disappointingly, records show that Finegan was not Iris’ maiden name. More likely, she was Iris Allen who married Patrick Finegan on 1 Jan 1908 in St Ann’s Parish. They had at least four children born between 1908 and 1913: Gloria, Abraham, Noel, Bernard. In 1917 Iris Finegan ‘formerly Allen’ had a daughter Beril Magdeline. No father was mentioned, so she was probably not the daughter of Patrick Finegan. Beril Allen or Finegan was most likely Donald Harris’s mother. It is probable that Iris’ husband in later life – known to the family as ‘Mr Christie’ – was Beril’s father.
Civil registration in Jamaica began in 1878. Before that, there are limited church records, some of which are available online. The Jamaican Church of England parish registers provide a chilling insight into the world of slavery. In January 1817, for instance, a ‘John Whitaker belonging to Lydia Whitaker’ was baptised. As were ‘Richard Clark a slave belonging to Miss Luc (illegible)’ and ‘Mary Williams, a slave belonging to Miss Williams’. ‘Ann Finlayson a person of color belonging to Mrs Milne was baptised’, as was ‘Catherine Burke, a slave of color.’ In the same year, several ‘free persons of color’ were also baptised, indicating the complexities of Jamaica’s racial mix.
Slavery ended in Jamaica in 1834 but even as late as 1879 local Church of England registers included a column for the ‘complexion’ of the person being baptised – i.e., black, brown, coloured, sambo, white – and whether ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’.
Kamala Harris’ great grandmother Christiana Brown was born about 1881. According to Donald Harris she was a descendant of the slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town, Hamilton Brown. If there is an Irish link in Kamala Brown’s heritage, it is most likely through Hamilton Brown, who was from County Antrim.
On Brown’s gravestone in St Mark’s Anglican Church in Brown’s Town, is the following inscription: ‘Sacred to the memory of Hamilton Brown, Esq’re, a native of the County Antrim Ireland, who departed this life on the 18th Sept. 1843, in the 68th year of his age… His name will long be cherished by a grateful community who for nearly half a century experienced the benefits of his generous mind and warm heart.’
Hamilton Brown, an Ulster Presbyterian, settled in Jamaica when he was about 20 years old. He became a prominent plantation and slave owner. He was also a lawyer and a long-standing representative in the Jamaican Assembly; he campaigned vociferously against the abolition of slavery. Three Months in Jamaica, an anti-slavery pamphlet by Henry Whiteley, was published in London in 1833. Mr Whiteley, recounted his experience in Jamaica having arrived in September 1832, looking for employment opportunities. One of the first people he met was Hamilton Brown who told him that the planters of Jamaica would not permit ‘the interference of the home government with their slaves.’ The slaves, he said, were happy and enjoyed a more comfortable life than the working poor in England. The rest of the pamphlet documented the appalling conditions and cruel brutality witnessed by a shocked Mr Whiteley.
Henry Whiteley’s pamphlet caused much comment in English newspapers including reactions from readers. One wrote: ‘I know Mr Hamilton Brown and first saw him at a sale of negros…I then thought him an ignorant, brutish and fiend-like man well calculated to be a member of the [Jamaican] House of Assembly or any house disposed to uphold slavery.’
When the British government abolished slavery in Jamaica in 1834, slave owners received financial compensation for the humans who were assessed as no more than relinquished property. Hamiliton Brown – either as owner or lawyer – was associated with compensation claims involving more than 1000 enslaved people. Surviving slave registers – available on Ancestry – show that in most years between 1813 and 1834 Brown registered details for about 125 enslaved people. They were categorised as ‘African’ or ‘Creole’ and also by colour.
So, was Hamilton Brown Kamala Harris’ ancestor? This is what her family believes to be the case but as yet, the connection remains unproven. Records that prove familial links between the slave-owning plantation owners and the wider population are rare. The surviving registers of enslaved people give only first names and, in some cases, a maternal first name. After emancipation, freemen and women were expected to have a surname. It is often assumed that they took their ex-owners’ names. The available church registers – even in the years after emancipation – frequently record maternal names only.
Christiana Brown (c1881-1951) is, according to the Harris family, the link to Hamilton Brown. As stated, civil records in Jamaica start in 1878. The information provided is inconsistent, particularly in the early years of registration. Many babies were registered without a first name listed. Many are in their mothers’ names only, or have different surnames than their mothers but still no mention of the father’s name. The familial or other status of the birth ‘informant’ is often not defined. Images of Jamaican civil records are available on Family Search with indexes on both Family Search and Ancestry, but these are not complete nor always clear; there sometimes appears to be confusion between middle names and surnames.
Several birth records were found that could refer to Christiana Brown, but none of these is conclusive. The search centred on St Ann’s parish, the large parish in the north central part of the island where the Harris family was based. It is also the parish were Hamilton Brown lived.
If Christiana Brown died in 1951 aged 70 (as stated by Donald Harris) her birth year was about 1881. Searching 5 years +/- 1881, several Christiana Browns were found, but it was not possible to identify which, if any of them, was relevant. The most interesting were the three born in Brown’s Town, and another registered as Chrissy. (The Harris family nickname for Christiana was Chrishy.) With available records, it was not possible to push any of these births back to an earlier generation or a possible link to Hamilton Brown.
Some of the possible birth records for Christiana Brown are as follows:
Christiana, 30 September 1881, Bruxton, Brown’s Town, mother Frances Brown, labourer. No father listed.
Christiana, 14 July 1885, Bruxton, Brown’s Town, mother Mary Jane Brown, labourer, no father listed.
Charity Christiana, 11 April 1886, Brown’s Town, father John Brown, planter, mother Saliago (nee Mumby).
Chrissy Adinah, 28 April 1884, Iron Mount, Claremount, St Ann’s Parish, mother Mary Anne, Brown, domestic labourer. No father listed.
As well as the Christiana Browns listed above, there were records found of several unnamed female children born to women named Brown in the relevant years in both Brown’s Town and more widely in St Ann’s parish. Not surprisingly, Brown was a very common surname in and around Brown’s Town.
Whatever about Christiana Brown’s parentage, records were found for seven children born to her at Orange Hill, Brown’s Town from 1902 to 1916. No paternal name was given, but two of these children we re-registered as Harris some years after birth. The names of two others tally with known names of the Harris children. When and if Christiana Brown and Joseph Alexander Harris married is not certain, but they clearly had a large family together. The only death record found for a Christiana Brown around the right date was for a spinster Christiana Brown who died 11 June 1951 in Brown’s Town. She was described as a seamstress, which was the occupation given on the birth record of one of her children.
The father of Donald J Harris – Kamala’s grandfather – was born to Christiana Brown on April 5 1914 and was registered under the name Oscar Wilde Brown. Possibly this is just a coincidence and not a tribute to the Irish writer; in any case, his birth was re-registered as Oscar Joseph Harris in 1950.
Oscar Harris’s siblings were as follows:
Ethal May Brown, 6 Nov 1902;
Reginald Victor Brown, 25 May 1906, (he was Reginald Harris when he married in 1932);
Vera Eileen Brown, 16 Dec 1907, (she was Vera E Harris when she appeared as a witness on her brother’s marriage record in 1932);
Lysinda Brown, 15 June 1910, ‘baptismal name Maybel Anne Harris’ added to the register on 10 July 1930;
Newton Alexander Brown, 15 March 1916;
Eva Doreen Brown, 9 Jan 1919.
Reginald Victor Harris, Newton Alexander Harris and Oscar Joseph Harris appear in newspaper reports and were clearly involved in the family business. Donald Harris’ paternal grandfather Joseph Alexander Harris, a well-known businessman in Brown’s Town, died suddenly on 11 Aug 1939. A report in the local newspaper noted the event and funeral but did not give any family information.
An earlier newspaper report in 1934 stated that a Joseph Alexander Harris had disowned responsibility for his wife’s debts. Her name was Caroline Vereleta Harris. Clearly, this wife was not Christiana Brown. Whether it concerns the same Joseph Alexander Harris, is not certain.
Working back from Christiana Brown has not resulted in a solid link to Hamilton Brown, however working from earlier records forward does show evidence of some familial links from the slave-owning Brown family to the wider Jamaican community. In both church and later civil records, the name Hamilton Brown is not at all uncommon and is often associated with labourers, apprentices, craftsmen. It’s unlikely that all these men descended from the slave owner. Possibly many descended from those enslaved on Hamilton Brown plantations. But there is some evidence of closer ties. On 4 June 1839 there were three baptisms of interest in St Ann’s parish. A Mary Melvina Brown was born to Hamilton Brown, Jr, described as a ‘planter’. There was no mother’s name included. The residence given was Grier Park which was one of the Hamilton Brown properties. A Charles Brown, another planter, was named as the father of a Mary Ann Brown and a Hamilton Brown. Again, no mother’s name was given. The address was Penny’s Pen, another holding associated with the slave holder Hamilton Brown. These three are more firmly linked to the slave-owner than other children with similar names.
Records were found for three of Mary Melvina Brown’s children: Gilbert Charles (8 April 1875) whose ‘complexion’ was described in church records as ‘white’; Edwin (22 Jan 1877) described as ‘colored’; and Maybel (29 Jan 1879) also described as ‘colored’. Their father was Mary Melvina’s husband, also named Hamilton Brown. Whether he was the same person as the Hamilton Brown who was baptised with her in 1839 is uncertain. Available parish and civil records give no indication of a Christiana or any other child born to this couple. This family lived their lives in Pedro, a district in St Ann’s parish south east of Brown’s Town where they had a farm, a shop and ran a post office. This Hamilton Brown was the registrar of civil records in Pedro and his wife Mary Melvina sometimes appeared to deputise for him as both names can be found as registrar and witness on several local birth records. It is likely that if they had had another child it would have been registered with complete parental names.
Attempts to trace the Mary Ann Brown born to Charles Brown, planter, in 1839 have not been successful. Neither has any record been found of earlier children born to Mary Melvina, though her baptism date suggests it would have been possible for her to be the grandmother rather than mother of Christiana.
As slavery in Jamaica was ending, it became apparent that without wage-free labour many plantations would not be viable. For Hamilton Brown this was an opportunity to buy up distressed properties. Jamaican almanacs from 1832 onward show an increase in Hamilton Brown properties. In 1833, he had five plantations in St Ann’s parish and owned 573 slaves. Aware that after emancipation, he would need a steady supply of new workers, he turned to his native country. In December 1835 the ‘James Ray’, a ship owned by Hamilton Brown, set off from Belfast for Jamaica with 121 Irishmen from Ballymoney and their families. The new workers were sent to Hamilton Brown properties on the island. There was another such emigrant ship in 1836 bringing 185 Irish people to the parish of St Ann. In 1840, 130 emigrants from Kildare were recruited. The new emigrants were brought in under an apprentice scheme that assumed they would work where they were placed for a set number of years before being free to go elsewhere.
In Ireland, the issue of emigration to Jamaica was by then beginning to cause controversy with claims that desperately poor people were enticed with false promises of good wages and a better life. Newspapers across Ireland took up this cause warning that, for northern Europeans, the Jamaican climate was one of pestilence and disease and that the Irish, working on plantations, would become the ‘new slaves’. In advance of the pending departure of the ‘Robert Kerr’ emigrant ship from Limerick, an editorial in the Freeman’s Journal, on 4 December 1840, argued that Ireland was in danger of becoming a new slave market, luring ‘our wretched, deluded countrymen who are induced to go out with their wives and families to the pestilential shores of Jamaica, there to be indentured in the manner of the negro apprentices to the old slave owners for a term of years…What care those who engage in this new species of slave trade, whether our fine sturdy peasants sink into an untimely grave in three months or in six months after they have laboured under the burning sun of Jamaica.’
Not everyone felt the same. On 5 May 1841, the Limerick Chronicle published a letter from a Thomas Daly who had recently arrived in Jamaica with his family. He was happy with his new employment, his health was excellent and he found the climate delightful. But his letter was written in springtime. In the summer of 1841 some who had recently travelled from Ireland died from yellow fever. Many emigrants found the conditions in Jamaica intolerable and absconded from the estates they were sent to. There were reports of death, disease, drunkenness and despair. Some – who found the means – returned to Ireland or travelled on to the United States. 
The most common surnames in modern Jamaica are Shaw, Brown and Williams in that order. But there is a sprinkling of more distinctly Irish names through many historical records. For instance, a list of white settlers from 1749 to 1752 includes the names Brennan, Collins, Daly, Fitzgerald, Kennedy, Quinn. Hamilton Brown was one of several Irish slave-owners, including John Browne, the Earl of Sligo. No doubt, among the hundreds who travelled from Ireland from 1835-1841, there were many who settled successfully and whose descendants have become part of Jamaica’s diverse population.
Specific evidence of enslaved children fathered by slave-owners is rare. Sometimes it is found in wills, rather than baptismal or birth records, as slave-owners sought to provide for their mixed-race, usually extra-marital families. In her book Ireland: Slavery and Anti-Slavery 1612-1865, historian Nini Rodgers recounts the story of Garret Forde, from a Roscommon family, who died in debt on his sugar plantation in Jamaica in the 18th century, leaving behind a mixed-race family. His son – viewed as no more than a financial asset – was sold as part of the estate. His daughters were just left on the remote plantation in a decaying house. They were ‘discovered’ by their Irish cousins some decades later.
George Daly, the son of Athlone-man James Daly, was born to Sarah Hart, ‘a free mulatto’. Her father was a white man named James Hart who had bequeathed property to her and her three sisters. When slavery ended, George Daly received compensation from the British government for his two slaves. 
The stories of many mixed-race families in Jamaica is no doubt complicated. But, given the power slave owners exercised over the enslaved, sexual exploitation and rape are a large part of the story. No doubt many people in Jamaica have a slave-owner in their family trees. Irish slave-owners – Hamilton Brown among them – are part of this history.
Ancestry, www.ancestry.com, (Select births and baptisms; Jamaica; Slave Registers)
‘Emigrants of 1840: Irish Slaves for Jamaica’ by Carl H Senior, Jamaica Journal no 42, 1978, pp 104-116, available at http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/limerick%20slaves%20for%20jmaica.pdf
Family Search, www.familysearch.org, (Jamaican Civil Registration; Jamaican Church of England Parish Registers)
Find a Grave, www.findagrave.com.
Find My Past, www.findmypast.com, newspaper collection, including The Gleaner, Jamaica.
Harris, Donald J, ‘Reflections of a Jamaican Father’, available on www.jamaicaglobalonline.com
Jamaican Family Search Genealogy Research, www.jamaicanfamilysearch.com.
Irish Newspaper Archive, www.irishnewsarchive.ie
Legacies of British Slave ownership, University College London,https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/
Rodgers, Nini, Ireland: Slavery and Anti-Slavery 1612-1865, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.