The shame of slavery left unasked questions about my family’s history

Ending a silence that lasted for generations, Wilmot-Tavistock Gazette reporter Nigel Gordijk says it’s time to start telling his ancestors’ story

At left is the author’s father, Sylvion Gordijk, in his RAF uniform during national service, which was optional in the former British colony of Guyana. Also shown are Sylvion’s mother and seven brothers.

Many families’ histories are passed down through word of mouth, but mine wasn’t. The most challenging story I’ve ever tried to tell is my father’s, because his side of our family never talked about the past. Even though his generation is no longer here, DNA testing and research have helped me find the missing chapters.

I was born in London, England, in 1965, a year after my father, Sylvion Gordijk, and mother, Edmay (Keturah) Chan, emigrated from their native Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America. The former colony is close – physically and culturally – to the Caribbean islands that were once part of the British empire.

Keturah’s ancestors were from China and arrived in Guyana in the 1860s, along with hundreds of thousands of indentured workers from distant countries, in a post-emancipation wave of immigration.

One of my cousins produced a comprehensive family tree with names and dates along our Chinese lineage, going back to the mid-19th century. Another wrote detailed accounts of their lives, adding context and flesh.

Sylvion’s parents moved to Guyana from the neighbouring Dutch colony of Suriname. Other than that, all I knew were their names, James Gordijk and Antoinette Sanches, their dates of birth, and, having seen photos of them, that they were Black.

With no knowledge about their past, I was left with an unbalanced sense of identity because I knew only half my story. I began to correct that a few years ago.

In 2016, I took an Ancestry DNA test that confirmed Keturah was, unsurprisingly, 100 per cent Chinese. It also revealed that 40 per cent of Sylvion’s ancestors originated from several west African countries, while the remaining 60 per cent were European. This hinted at why he and his family were varying shades of Black.

A year ago, an acquaintance, Teneile Warren, put me in touch with Peggy Plet, a Kitchener-based researcher from Suriname. Peggy offered to help me trace my father’s family, so I shared what little information I had.

After a lifetime of ignorance, I anticipated slow, incremental progress, if any at all.

One week later, on the eve of Family Day, Peggy sent me information that swept me back four generations to meet the last enslaved person in my family, my great-great-grandmother, Betje.

Betje was owned by multiple people and sold several times. Illustrating the complex history of slavery, her final owner, Anna Pieternella Groenhout, was a Black woman who had been enslaved herself until 1839. Two years later, she bought my ancestor.

As well as being Groenhout’s housemaid, Betje also worked paying jobs on the side. From 1853, she began buying her four young children out of captivity through a practice called manumission. By 1862, she’d earned enough to free herself, too.

Her liberated children were the first to use the last name Gordijk, which was assigned to them either by their former owner or, more likely, a Dutch government clerk. Enslaved people were sometimes given muddled versions of Dutch names, so it’s possible that Gordijk is derived from Gorredijk, a town in the Netherlands. I’m only the fourth generation of my family to carry this surname.

Betje died in 1898 at the age of 76, having lived the last 36 years of her life as a free person. That was long enough for her to know and hold my grandfather, James Gordijk.

Notice of sale in an 1853 Suriname newspaper of three “slavenkinderen” (slave children) by A.P. Groenhout to their mother, Betje, who was also owned by Groenhout. A fourth child, the author’s great-grandfather Frederik, was sold to Betje in 1861.

Notice of sale in an 1853 Suriname newspaper of three “slavenkinderen” (slave children) by A.P. Groenhout to their mother, Betje, who was also owned by Groenhout. A fourth child, the author’s great-grandfather Frederik, was sold to Betje in 1861.

It seems negligent now, but it never even occurred to me until a few years ago that my Black ancestors in colonial Suriname would have been enslaved. No one in my family ever talked about slavery, let alone its connection to us. Why were they silent, and was I complicit in that silence by not asking questions?

Peggy told me this isn’t unusual. “I think that goes for a lot of families, not just yours. Shame is a lot of what’s contributing to these feelings.”

I’ve made a conscious effort to learn more since these initial discoveries. For instance, I knew that my father’s skin tone was light because he had white forebears, and the brutal truth of what that means hit me after I read a New York Times article by Black American poet Caroline Randall Williams, titled, “My Body is a Confederate Monument.”

Williams’ ancestors were enslaved in Tennessee, and she described herself as possessing “light-brown-Blackness.” Through research and DNA testing, she came to a conclusion that’s common for many families that have a history with slavery.

She wrote, “I am the descendant of Black women who were domestic servants and white men who raped their help. I am more than half white, and none of it was consensual. The Black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from.”

Given the Caribbean’s parallel colonial history, it’s reasonable to infer that that must also apply to my father’s family.

Long before I had DNA validation, I’d always defined myself as half-Chinese and, almost apologetically, only part-Black. I’ve never been comfortable describing the colour of my skin, perhaps because a significant part of my racial identity was ambiguous.

When I showed Teneile Warren my DNA results, they said, “This tells me that there was a fair bit of mixing on the way (and it’s) also so indicative of settler colonialism in Suriname. I think that while this DNA profile isn’t predominantly Black, one has to consider the cultural identity within which you were raised.”

Because of my mother’s Chinese ancestry and my predominantly Caribbean upbringing, I’ve settled on Sino-African or Afro-Chinese as labels that comfortably describe me.

There’s still so much for me to discover, but I’m finally making progress in writing my family’s story. My ancestors don’t have to remain silent any longer.