Who is lurking in my family tree?

Last month I figured out that I'm a 4th generation artist. I came across a photograph of my great-grandmother at her painting easel, and the legacy hit me. I decided to start a 12 month research and writing project about my family.

I thought I would begin with my great-grandmother.

My great-grandmother Dé's picture was what spurred me into this process.

Florence Dé Williams at her painting easel
And since she's from that first generation of artists, it seemed like a good place to start.

I asked my aunt Dilys to email me some photos of Dé, since I only had the one from the book. (Dilys is younger than me, and grew up and lives in Mexico. How did I end up with a younger aunt and family in Mexico? We'll get to that in a later post.)

Dilys sent me pictures of Dé and her family, a faded picture of a house, and an interior shot of a grand-looking living room.

Jackson family siblings in Barbados 1891
Historic photo of Jackson family siblings at estate in Barbadosantique photo of Barbados estate house
Old photo of interior of Barbados sugar plantation estate house

Trying to get my head around who was who in these pictures, and where they were taken, I went back to the book about my grandfather, illustrator Garth Williams, which sparked this project.

Here's what I read about Dé:

"Florence Stewart Williams—known as Dé (pronounced "Day")—was born in Australia on May 7, 1877 and grew up among a group of elite Anglican Church officials in Barbados. Her grandfather [aka my great-great-great-grandfather], William Walrond Jackson (1810-1895) had married Mary Shepherd Pile, a young woman from a prominent Barbados family whose wealth is believed to have come from a sugar plantation, in 1834."

A sugar plantation.

Hmmmm, wait a second. I was just trying to figure out Dé's early life and who was who in those pictures, but now these wealthy plantation owners have shown up in my history. I might have to start this research further back.

William Walrond Jackson & Mary Shepherd Pile

My great-great-great-grandparents were married in 1834.

And at that time my great-great-great-great-grandfather owned a sugar plantation in Barbados. How exactly would you staff a sugar plantation in 1834? I quickly google, "When was slavery abolished in Barbados?"

It turns out that slavery was abolished in Barbados and in the rest of the British Empire that same year, 1834.

Technically the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, but if you already owned slaves you got to keep them until the legislature figured out how to compensate the owners for the loss when they gave up their "property". The twenty million pounds paid to former slaveholders was paid by British taxpayers. No compensation was given to the slaves.

By this point I'm certain there are slaveholders in my family tree.

But I'm clinging to a delusional thread of hope, and I want details.

When my aunt sent me the photos, she included the back of one of them:

Back of old Barbados family photo 1891

I search for Bay Mansion and variations on "Bay Estate Barbados" but am directed to endless real estate listings.

I back up and search my great-great-great-grandmother's name, Mary Shepherd Pile, since she's the "young woman from a prominent Barbados family". I immediately find a bunch of genealogical websites and a wikipedia page about her husband, William Walrond Jackson. And there's her father's name, Conrade Pile, "of the Brighton Estate".

Searching for the Brighton Estate leads me to information about the house, and the weekly farmers market located there, as well as the fact that the house is still owned by the Pile family. Are they my distant cousins?

I search for Conrade Pile and in just a few clicks I find a website called Legacies of British Slave-ownership. Starting with the records of financial compensation given to slave-owners and working backwards, they have built a database "containing, first, the identity of all slave-owners in the British colonies at the time slavery ended and, second, all the estates in the British Caribbean colonies."

Conrade Pile is listed as owner of 3, possibly 5 estates in Barbados. And he was awarded two financial claims, the first for "128 enslaved" and the second for "106 enslaved".

There it is. Evidence that my great-great-great-great-grandfather owned (at least) 234 slaves.

There's probably no way to dig into the history of a family without finding some really ugly things. I didn't grow up in the United States. If I had, I imagine there would have been the lurking concern that I might find slaveholders in my family tree. Instead I feel shocked.

I'm an immigrant who just became an American citizen this year. And yet look at that, my family's roots are buried deep in this shameful history of people owning people. But of course they are! What did I think the British Empire was up to?

In the last few years there's been some acknowledgement of Britain's, and even Scotland's slave-trading past. But it's a small step, very late in the day.

I feel like I'm also coming to this information and awareness late. Surely it's been there, waiting for me to notice. But maybe it's also right on time, in the midst of all the current political turmoil around race, and in the year that I joined this country. It's clearly time to educate myself properly on the history of slavery.

Maybe next month I'll get to write about my great-grandmother Dé and my pride in my artist heritage. Unless there are more surprises — I can't imagine this is the last.

If you'd like to get the next installment emailed to you, sign up here.

You'll find all the installments in this series here.


  • Wow! I can’t believe that I’m writing to a descendant of Conrade Pile! My 4x Great Grandfathers John Nilson Gadsby and Grandison McConney were both enslaved by Conrade Pile. John was a Superintendent and Grandison was a House Servant. John was born in 1803 & Grandison was born in 1810 on the Brighton Plantation in St. George Parish, Barbados. Grandison married his wife Margaret in 1834, and Conrade Pile signed their marriage document as one of the witnesses. John’s son, John Thomas Gadsby, and Grandison’s daughter, Philly Patience married in 1856 at the Chapel of St. Luke (St. George Parish). Our ancestors were connected to each other under unfavorable circumstances, but it still puts a smile on my face that we’ve both been able to learn their stories. What a wonderful article! Thanks for sharing!

    Alison Clarke on

  • Very moving account… so sad to find these things out… But happy it was long ago. Keep writing – your history is fascinating.

    Peggy Jo Donahue on


    cal on

  • You have a wonderful way of introducing your family surprises- Your writing is so clear ! And Yes, growing up in Scotland, we were taught to think of the empire as benevolent, bringing education, Christianity etc…No mention of slavery that I can remember. I’m always amazed at how old photos can speak to us.

    Puja Thomson on

  • Always wondered why De left Barbados to go to France and Britain, where she is seen
    painting at art college. Barbados is a small community – a friend who grew up there tells me, so more
    mysteries will no doubt be uncovered. Good to discover more.

    Fiona Williams Hulbert on

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