Kamala Harris ancestor links with Antrim town

Revealed: Vice-president-elect boasts Irish heritage as well as incoming president Joe Biden

Kamala Harris ancestor links with Antrim town

Kamala Harris.

By Damian Mullan


By Damian Mullan



TODAY, Wednesday, begins a new chapter in American politics as Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America and just the latest to boast strong family ties with Ireland.

The president-elect has spoken many times of his Irish ancestry. His great-great grandfather Patrick Blewitt was born in Ballina, county Mayo, in 1832, and left Ireland in the autumn of 1850 to settle in America.

Less well documented, however, is the reported connection with Ireland of vice-president-elect Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first black and Asian-American elevated to serve in a role a heartbeat from the presidency.

In an article which first appeared in our sister paper The Antrim Guardian, it was revealed that local historian Stephen McCracken had uncovered a link between the former senator from California and the town of Antrim.

Stephen had been researching the direct link between Randalstown and President Woodrow Wilson and between Ezekiel Vance - the saviour of Antrim during the 1798 rebellion - and President Andrew Johnston when he made an unexpected discovery.

Vice-President Elect Harris, a former Attorney General of California and District Attorney of San Francisco, is of mixed race. Her father is Jamaican and her mother is from India.

It has been reported that her four times great grandfather was a man called Hamilton Brown.

And Hamilton was born in Antrim in 1776.

According to the Senator’s father Donald Harris, a retired Stanford University economics professor who emigrated from Jamaica in 1961, the Harris family descends directly from Brown, who was a 19th-century slave owner.

“My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown (Antrim) 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 Antrim Town and Inverness, ancestry unknown to me)," he is reported to have said.

“The Harris name comes from my paternal grandfather Joseph Alexander Harris, land-owner and agricultural ‘produce’ exporter…”

Hamilton Brown, who died in 1843 following a carriage accident, was an Antrim born Irish sugar planter and slave owner in Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica.

He represented Saint Ann Parish in the House of Assembly of Jamaica for 22 years.

A man of considerable means, he gave his name to Hamilton Town in Saint Ann Parish, now Brown’s Town.

He even named one of his sugar plantations ‘Antrim’.

He started his career in Jamaica from humble roots as an Irish emigrant book keeper but he soon realised that the plantations were the best route to personal wealth.

It was difficult, back-breaking work - but the burden was lessened considerably if the labour was carried out by slaves.

And the Antrim man had no moral objection to that. A religious man - he built the original St Mark’s Anglican Church where he worshipped - he was nevertheless unapologetic about the subjugation of others.

In later life he would argue that slaves in Jamaica were better off than the poor in England, and therefore the British Government should not interfere.

However, 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.

After the abolition in 1833 Hamilton recruited workers from across county Antrim. Scores of them set sail for Jamaica in one of Brown’s ships.

They eventually settled in Saint Ann Parish and worked the Brown estates.

In 1836 he brought a further 185 people from Antrim.

In 1840 he embarked on a further failed mission to try and bring more people from the ‘old country’ but his efforts were widely condemned for ‘making slaves of the migrants.'

Hamilton Brown is buried at St Mark’s Anglican Church in Brown’s Town.

The memorial to him reads: ‘Sacred to the memory of HAMILTON BROWN Esq. Native of the County Antrim, Ireland, who departed this life on the 18th Sept 1843 in the 68th year of his age. He was the FOUNDER OF THIS TOWN. Was 22 years one of the Representatives for this parish in the Honourable. House of Assembly. His name will long be cherished.'

I suppose it depends who you ask.

A few years ago when Barack Obama ran for president an article was circulated by a local Dublin paper confirming his Irish Roots.

This set in motion a tour of Ireland and having that famous pint with his relatives in rural Ireland.

Perhaps Vice President Harris will do the same and visit the award winning Castle Gardens or have a pint in any one of the public houses in Antrim!

Kamala Harris initially sought the Presidential nomination in 2018 for the 2020 race however dropped out in December 2019 after a string of fiery exchanges against Joe Biden on race related matters.

She continued to maintain a high profile, notably becoming a leading advocate for social-justice reform following the May 2020 death of George Floyd, an African American who had been in police custody.

Her star is certainly in the ascendancy - but will the question of her heritage play a role?

Respected fact checking website Snopes certainly thinks so.

While the senator’s father is an impeccable source, they have followed the paper trail to investigate his claims - and at present the file has been marked ‘unproven.'

“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,” they say.

“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 Senator Harris owned slaves in Jamaica remains unproven. If evidence emerges that verifies that line of descent, we will update this fact check accordingly.”

They do not rule out that possibility but have warned against using the link for political gain.

“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 Senator 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,” they say.

Nevertheless, Donal Kelly of Antrim Town Tours said, if true, it would be exciting news for the town.

“I was delighted to hear about this link and it will help to highlight the fantastic history and international connections Antrim has all around the world," he claimed.

“This new discovery with Kamala Harris' ancestor coming from Antrim can only bolster our tourism offering especially in the very important US market.”

The new incumbents formally take up office on January 20.


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