Karlene’s story: what’s in a name?

Published on 2 October 2020

Many of us at some time or another, have thought of our “roots”. For me, it was easy, my roots are African. In Jamaica, where I’m from, students learn where their surname came from. I missed that part as I left Jamaica at age 12 to settle in the UK.

In Britain, my surname over the years drew comments and questions: “How come you have such a Scottish surname?”

So, what’s in a name? What is the connection between a Scottish surname and Jamaica? The connection dates from 1655 when Oliver Cromwell banished 1,200 Scots prisoners-of-war to be sold as indentured servants. In 1745-46 after the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion, 936 prisoners were sentenced to exile for life in the Americas.

At the same time the Scottish government began exiling criminals and religious dissenters to Jamaica. Others went seeking religious freedom, whilst others such as “gypsies, criminals and idlers”, were rounded up and shipped off. Doctors, lawyers and others from the middle class went in search of a quick fortune. A great many of the new settlers from Scotland (and Ireland) settled in, or were taken to, St Elizabeth on the south coast of the island.

My father’s entire male line all came from St Elizabeth and many Kerrs still live there. I have historical roots in Africa and Scotland – and the history is one of man’s inhumanity to man. It also reveals an interconnectedness between Britain and the Caribbean.

My story has a happy ending. From that history, I received a wonderful father. From such cruel beginnings came freedom and many other positive achievements for Jamaica.

In this month of Black History, we remain hopeful that as we acknowledge our historical connection – we can walk together, as one, on the road to reconciliation.

The Revd Karlene Kerr is Team Vicar in the Gaywood Benefice and Bishop’s Adviser for Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic Affairs