Did U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ Ancestor Own Slaves in Jamaica?

Based on an article written by the 2020 presidential Democratic primary candidate's father, right-leaning opponents dove head-first into an ill-judged attack on her.

  • Published 2 July 2019
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Claim

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris is descended from the 19th-century slave owner Hamilton Brown.

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Origin

In June and July 2019, social media users shared reports that claimed one of the ancestors of 2020 presidential Democratic primary candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was a slave owner on the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

Such claims were shared widely in the aftermath of the first round of Democratic primary debates, during which Harris brought racial issues to the fore by criticizing primary rival and former Vice President Joe Biden’s legislative record on busing, which she called “hurtful” to her as a black woman.  

The focus on racial issues and Harris’ racial identity intensified after Donald Trump, Jr., son of President Donald Trump, briefly shared a tweet that averred: “Kamala Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican.” The source of that tweet, the @ali account, has consistently promulgated the claim that Harris is descended from “Jamaican Slave Owners.”

Amid the renewed scrutiny of Harris’ family history, the right-leaning website “Big League Politics” posted what it said were the names of the “slaves Kamala Harris’ ancestor owned,” adding:

“Democrat presidential candidate Kamala Harris is descended from Irish slave owner Hamilton Brown, the namesake of Brown’s Town in Jamaica, who recruited massive numbers of Irish migrants to Jamaica to work on his sugar plantations after the British empire abolished slavery.”

The “Red State” website published a similar post, whose headline asked, “When Will Race-Baiting Kamala Harris Acknowledge She is a Descendant of a Slave Owner?”

Similar reports appeared on right-leaning blogs and websites in January and February 2019. All of them were based on an account written by Donald Harris, a retired Stanford University economics professor and the father of Sen. Harris. 

On Jan. 13, Jamaica Global, a website for the global Jamaican diaspora, published an article that Prof. Harris had written in September 2018 about his family’s roots in Jamaica. He was born on the island, before immigrating to the United States in the 1960s, to pursue a career as an economist and university lecturer.

While studying for his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, he met Shyamala Gopalan, an Indian cancer researcher. The couple were married, and their daughter, the future California Attorney General and U.S. Senator, was born in Berkeley in 1964. Harris and her sister, Maya, are therefore first-generation American citizens, born in the U.S. to a Jamaican father and Indian mother. 

In his Jamaica Global article, Harris claimed to be descended from the 19th-century planter and slave owner Hamilton Brown. He wrote:

“My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town) and to my maternal grandmother Miss Iris (née Iris Finegan, farmer and educator, from Aenon Town and Inverness, ancestry unknown to me). The Harris name comes from my paternal grandfather Joseph Alexander Harris, land-owner and agricultural ‘produce’ exporter (mostly pimento or all-spice), who died in 1939 one year after I was born and is buried in the church yard of the magnificent Anglican Church which Hamilton Brown built in Brown’s Town (and where, as a child, I learned the catechism, was baptized and confirmed, and served as an acolyte).” [Emphasis is added].

There is no doubt that Hamilton Brown was a prominent plantation owner in Jamaica during the first half of the 19th century, owned slaves, and also advocated against the abolition of slavery and sought to downplay the difficult working and living conditions of slaves in Jamaica.

However, we have been unable to verify that a line of descent exists between the modern-day Harris family and the 19th-century slave owner. As such, the claim that an ancestor of Sen. Harris owned slaves in Jamaica remains unproven. If evidence emerges that verifies that line of descent, we will update this fact check accordingly. 

Hamilton Brown

The slave owner at the heart of this controversy died in Jamaica on Sept. 18, 1843, “in the sixty-eighth year of his age.” His headstone is located in St. Mark’s Anglican (Church of England) cemetery in Brown’s Town and establishes that he was born, likely in 1776, in County Antrim, in what is now Northern Ireland.

According to one contemporary news article, he died after he was “thrown from his gig” in a horse-and-carriage accident. Another contemporary news report indicated he first immigrated to Jamaica in or around 1795. According to a National Library of Jamaica entry, Brown “started out humbly as an estate book-keeper and rose to become a large landowner.” He was the founder of Brown’s Town in St. Ann’s parish, which he represented in the colonial House of Assembly for 22 years.

He also owned many slaves. According to one document, held by the U.K. National Archives, Brown owned at least 121 slaves in 1826, comprising 74 females and 47 males. In 1817, he owned at least 124 slaves, made up of 74 females and 50 males. According to records held by the “Legacies of British Slave-Ownership” project at University College London (UCL), Brown was at various times the owner, manager, or executor of several dozen plantations and estates on the island of Jamaica. 

Brown was also a steadfast slavery apologist. In contributions to the colonial House of Assembly, he opposed efforts, emanating from mainland Britain (where slavery was by then widely opposed), to “interfere” in the slave trade in Jamaica. In one 1823 speech, he lashed out at the “hypocrisy” and “cloven foot” of William Wilberforce, a British M.P. widely regarded as the hero of the anti-slavery abolitionist movement. 

In 1832, a Methodist missionary named Henry Whiteley spent three months in Jamaica, touring the island and inspecting the conditions of life for slaves, and the practices of colonial settlers and slave owners, including Brown. In a pamphlet published the following year, Whiteley recalled that he and Brown discussed the concept of “amelioration” — a gradualist approach to slavery in the 1820s and 1830s which, as distinct from the outright prohibition and extinction of slavery that characterized abolitionism, instead proposed making slavery more humane and tolerable. Brown was opposed even to this, according to Whiteley:

… I was rather startled to hear that Gentleman [Brown] swear by his Maker that [amelioration] should never be adopted in Jamaica; nor would the planters of Jamaica, he said, permit the interference of the Home [London] Government with their slaves in any shape. A great deal was said by him and others present about the happiness and comfort enjoyed by the slaves, and of the many advantages possessed by them of which the poor in England were destitute. 

Among other circumstances mentioned in proof of this, Mr. Robinson, a wharfinger [wharf owner], stated that a slave in that town had sent out printed cards to invite a party of his negro acquaintance to a supper party. One of these cards was handed to Mr. Hamilton Brown, who said he would present it to the Governor [imperial viceroy of Jamaica] as proof of the comfortable condition of the slave population.

Notwithstanding that dinner party, the conditions suffered by slaves in Jamaica were far from “comfortable,” and Whiteley’s pamphlet went on to document, in disturbing detail, the punishments meted out to slaves by their owners, which he personally witnessed and described in some cases as “inhumanly severe.”

Whiteley saw slaves, some girls as young as 12 years old, flogged between 40 and 50 times with a horse whip, for supposed misconduct as trivial as over-sleeping or not meeting their assigned work targets. In one case, a man was whipped 39 times despite not having committed any discernible “offense” — rather, one planter had him flogged as a method of petty revenge against the slave’s owner, for some unspecified sleight. Whiteley’s findings about the conditions of life for slaves in Jamaica could not have been further from the outlandish claims made by Brown and his fellow colonial settlers.

Uncertain links

We discovered ample evidence of Brown’s slave ownership and his political and business career on the island of Jamaica. However, details about his immediate family are lacking, by comparison. With the generous and expert assistance of Rachel Lang, a researcher at University College London’s “Legacies of British Slave-Ownership” project, we have managed to piece together the following facts:

  • A “Hamilton Brown Jnr.” (likely the Antrim slave owner) had a daughter named Mary Melvina Brown, born to an unnamed woman, and baptised on June 4, 1839. The father’s residence was listed as Grier Park (an estate Brown once owned), and the father’s occupation was listed as “Planter.” 
  • Mary Melvina later married a different Hamilton Brown. By him, she gave birth to several children, including Mabel Melvina (born 1879, died 1935); Edwin Hamilton (born 1877, died 1932); and Gilbert Charles Clement (born 1875, died 1948). (In these baptism records, Mary Melvina’s last name and maiden name are both listed as Brown, which makes it highly likely she is the Mary Melvina born to Hamilton Brown in 1839). 

We have not yet found a record of a Christiana Brown being born to Mary Melvina Brown. Such a record would establish a link between Donald Harris’ paternal grandmother Christiana and the Antrim slave owner Hamilton Brown. As a result of this absence, we are issuing a rating of “unproven,” until such evidence emerges.

We did discover other notable details. Donald Harris wrote in his “Jamaica Global” article that his grandmother, Christiana, died in 1951, at the age of 62. We found a record of a woman named Christiana Brown having died in Brown’s Town in June 1951. However, that woman’s age was listed as 70, which would mean she was born in 1880 or 1881. 

We found a birth certificate for a Christiana Brown, born to Frances Brown and an unnamed man, in September 1881. We found no other details about either of these women, and a woman born in September 1881 would be 69, rather than 70 years old, in June 1951. However, it’s possible that the June 1951 death certificate contained a small error about the deceased’s age, and that Donald Harris made a larger error in recalling his grandmother’s age at the time of her death, which took place several decades ago.

We also found a baptismal record for a male child born to Hamilton and Mary Melvina Brown in April 1881. No name was provided for the child, and the birth year does not match any of the Brown’s other children, as far as we are aware. It is possible that the child’s gender was recorded in error, and a female child born to the Browns in April 1881 would indeed have been 70 years old by June 1951. However, we have so far not been able to reconcile these discrepancies. 

(Stanford University agreed to send Donald Harris our request for any evidence that might corroborate his claim that his grandmother was a descendant of the planter Hamilton Brown. Unfortunately, we did not receive a response of any kind).

Complicated histories

Finally, it is worth noting that, even if it is true that the Harris family are descendants of the Antrim slave owner Hamilton Brown, they are also quite likely to be descendants of slaves. It is well-documented that British and Irish slave owners in the Caribbean (and their counterparts in the American colonies) routinely raped and engaged in illicit sex with female slaves, resulting in many “illegitimate” children of mixed racial heritage. 

If it is the case, for example, that Christiana Brown was the daughter of Hamilton and Mary Melvina Brown, this means that two of Christiana’s siblings were Mabel Melvina and Edwin Hamilton Brown, both of whom were listed in their baptismal records as “colored,” that is of mixed race (as opposed to “black” or “white,” the other labels used in baptismal records at that time). 

This in turn would mean that Hamilton Brown, a man born on the island of Ireland in the late 18th century and a prominent and powerful slave owner, had racially mixed grandchildren, after fathering a daughter (Mary Melvina) with a woman whose name did not appear on the baptismal certificate. Although we don’t have clear proof, that pattern strongly suggests that that particular branch of Brown’s family tree derived just as much from an enslaved woman, whose identity may well be lost to history, as it did from Brown himself.

Even if it is the case that the Harris family, by way of Christiana Brown, are descendants of Hamilton Brown, those who seek to attack or undermine Sen. Harris for the wrongdoing of a man who died almost 200 years ago should first gain a better understanding of the often complicated, traumatic histories of black families in the United States — and tread much more carefully.