I had met Henry Swanzy in Rhodesia but when, a year or two later, I got to the Gold Coast I looked him up. He was then head of programmes of Accra radio. He said he would be driving to Cape Coast the following day – a nice drive along the coast. Would I like to tag along?
I did. It would give me a chance to see more of the country. On the way he mentioned that an ancestor of his had been governor of Cape Coast castle, way back in the 17 hundreds.
“A slave trader, no doubt?” I ventured.
“You’ll eat your words, young Fraenkel,” he replied. Then he mentioned we would be visiting a family called Swanzy at Cape Coast. “The visit could be a bit… problematic”.
“Descendants of your ancestor?” I asked.
“That’s not what they say. And I think they’re right. Family retainers sometimes adopted the name of an employer… just as they did in Roman times.
Again I didn’t quite believe him.
“My family were …. squireens, if you know the term.”
I didn’t. He explained it meant small squires – land owners in Ireland. “They came with William of Orange and were rewarded with land in Cork after the Battle of the Boyne.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“1690. Didn’t they teach you any history in Rhodesia?”
“They did, but it started with the Pioneer Column in 1890.
We passed old fortifications. A row of ancient cannons were pointing out to sea. We stopped at a rather run-down old house. A little boy opened the door and bowed politely. Streaks on the wall showed that the roof must have been leaking. We were received with enthusiasm by these black Swanzys. Henry and I were seated on a worn-out settee – the seat of honour.
“Any friend of Mr. Henry’s is our friend,” said a handsome old man, the elder of the family. “We’ve been awaiting his visit.”
“Anxiously”, added his wife, laughing.
A pretty daughter brought in a carafe of rum and glasses.
“It’s early,” protested Henry, “and I’m driving.”
“We need a drink to calm our nerves,” said the elder “We hope you’ve brought us news …” he thought for a moment then added “… golden news.”
By now several generations of these Swanzys had crowded into the room. They were introduced. More chairs were brought in. I looked from one to the other. They did not look as if they had any European ancestry. But perhaps one white ancestor several centuries earlier would not show up so many generations later?
All looked at Henry expectantly.
He launched in: “I’m afraid I bring you disappointing news. I’m very sorry. The Bank of England have searched old ledgers. There is no surviving account in the name of Swanzy. They’ve given it to me in writing and I’ve brought you the letter”
A tasty meal had been brought in but the atmosphere was now rather subdued.
I kept quiet. I felt I had no right to participate in this family matter. I was hoping he would explain on the drive back.
He did. “It’s sad. They’re poor but what’s sustained them for a long time is this hope of great wealth waiting for them. They believed that my ancestor had left a fortune and the money had been deposited at the Bank of England, accumulating interest all these years. I told them long ago that I didn’t think it very likely. So far as I knew none of my family had ever been very rich. They were so crestfallen that I had to promise to make enquiries. It was a bit embarrassing. Would I be making a fool of myself? But a promise is a promise.”
“The bank took it seriously. I was pleased. They spent an hour or two going through ancient ledgers. It was, they told me, not the first time they’ve had to do such researches. Other families had such myths and once or twice they had come across real gold. In our case they did find an account in the name of Swanzy, but it had been closed a long time ago – 1782 I think, and anyway it had never held a fortune. I didn’t look forward to bringing the news back to Cape Coast. And I feared I’d be touched for money. But no. They’re too dignified. Or perhaps it was your presence – the presence of a stranger – that stopped them. “
We went walking over Cape Coast castle. One of the black Swanzys guided us. He pointed out a brass plaque let into the castle wall. It commemorated that earlier Swanzy –“the liberator of slaves”. I apologized to Henry for my tactless remark earlier. He nodded graciously.
Later, while driving back, he said: “I suppose I’ll have to offer to have that roof of theirs repaired. One Swanzy keeping another dry.”
In later years we worked together at the BBC. One day I happened to refer to our visit to Cape Coast castle. He smiled: “What I didn’t tell you – it was I who had that plaque put up. But it is true. The man did fight the slave trade.”