Thursday, November 01, 2007

Tribute to a long-lost relative 160 years on

A DESCENDANT of Reading’s first Sierra Leonean immigrant made on emotional visit to the town yesterday to pay tribute to his long-lost relative.

Mary Smart was only 17 when she died in Reading after leaving her native African country to study in England as part of a missionary scheme back in 1849.

Now almost 160 years after her untimely death from the skin disease erysepalas, her great great nephew Victor Okrafo-Smart got to finally lay flowers on her unmarked grave at the Cemetery Junction cemetery.

Victor Okrafo-Smart lays flowers Victor Okrafo-Smart lays flowers

Mr Okrafo-Smart was contacted by a team who have been researching Reading’s possible links to the slave trade to mark 200 years since the its abolition.

But Miss Smart was not a slave and was actually part of a successful and eminent family in the West African country.

After saying a short prayer in memory of his ancestor, Mr Okrafo-Smart, 70, who came to England 46 years ago and settled in Nottingham, said: “It’s very emotional in many ways.

“She died very young, she never lived to experience the achievements of her family – they were very successful and she never knew that.

“It’s very difficult and I would like to think that she was looked after, but in 1849 there were not a lot of black people here.

“How did she keep warm and what about food? Now you can get all sorts of African food but not at the time.”

Although records establish Miss Smart as the first known Sierra Leonean to live in Reading, the reason for her presence in town at the time remains a mystery.

Mr Okrafo-Smart said because his ancestors were a very successful family in Sierra Leone and had links with England through missionary projects it was likely the teenager had been sent to London to continue her teacher training.

He said he was able to track her down thanks to research carried out into the possible links between the town and slavery as part of the Reading International Festival.

The research, which received a Lottery grant and was carried out by volunteers, is currently the focus of an exhibition at Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC), the main organiser of the festival.

Historian Richard Stowell, who volunteered to take part in the research, said he found Mr Okrafo-Smart when he came across a book he had written about his family while looking for descendants of Miss Smart.

RISC’s Bente Madeira, the festival’s co-ordinator, said: “It’s really important that we make the invisible visible because by doing that we can reclaim our humanity.

“This has created new bonds in Reading, this is healing in itself and it makes us what we are today.”

Tribute to a long-lost relative 160 years on - Get Wokingham