The BBC documentary series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ is a fascinating insight into a guest celebrity’s journey to trace their family tree. Every so often it covers a person of African descent which presents unique sets of challenges with regards to accessing information that would normally span several countries and indeed continents. Last night, it was the story of British Ghanaian, actor, television presenter and radio DJ, Reggie Yates who has been a prominent face on the UK media over the last few years. Reggie most recently presented ‘The Voice UK’ and the documentary ‘Extreme South Africa’
Reggie’s parents were born in Ghana. Yates is not a typically Ghanaian name, and he was keen to know where his surname came from. His parent’s divorced when he was four years old, and although he was pretty much in touch with his mother’s side of the family, he had never known his grandparents on his father’s side.
The trail takes him to Ghana where the real fascination was not so much Reggie’s mix of African and European heritage across the years, or even the fact that estrangement from fathers was a recurring theme across the generations, but more so how the production team at Wall to Wall were able to piece together his story using a combination of colonial sources and oral tradition.
The British Empire was an institution that recorded detailed information about every aspect of life in the colony and Reggie’s initial journey to find his grandfather, Harry Philip Yates led him to unravel a complex trail with key information about the European side of his family carefully recorded in newspaper archives and colonial registers of the time, such as passenger lists indicating exact dates of entry and exit into the Gold Coast as the country was known at the time. An American, Karena Ray, an expert on the Gold Coast colony in the film, pieces together this information to create a profile of the movements of George Yates, Reggie’s great grandfather who was the index European figure in his family tree across Africa.
The vast amount of documents portrayed in this episode, largely in hand-written files, with the insight and information contained within them, needs to be preserved and digitised for future generations. The trigger points for the hard written facts of Reggie’s family tree were clearly where Reggie’s European ancestry collided with his African one, but the oral tradition provided the context and insight.
History, as we continue to find out on a day to day basis is important to understand the present and just a glimpse of the Ghanaian archives – a picture which is likely to be repeated across British colonial Africa and for that matter French and Portuguese – is a treasure trove for modern African historians keen to make the investment in time energy and resources to open them up to tell new stories, some personal like Reggies and some more general.
Although the documents, if taken care of will remain available for years to come (after all they have survived decades to date), the generation now in their 70s and 80s that can provide the next level of context will not be around for ever. Time is clearly of the essence.
The Reggie Yates episode of the documentary is available on BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks.