Monday 8 May 2023


I've had a quite a bit to say about 23andme, not least because a very early hire was a graduate of TCD Genetics Dept, my alma mater. 23andMe may be original and best, but there is now a long list of other international corps which will analyse DNA from [cells in] your spittle and find a raft of rellies. I was tempted to submit when I had €100 to spare and thought it would be a bit of a jape. I'm glad I didn't, because like the spoken word and the sped arrow, you can't put the genii your DNA back in the box once you've thrown it out on the wind. 

Richard Atkinson had no such qualms, or managed to choke them down, it he had. He worked in the book-trade as an editor and publisher and felt adrift on hearing the news that his line and lineage would stop with him. At about the same time, he acquired a steamer-trunk full of family papers dating back to the 1700s. Shocked! 'e was; shocked! to twig that his ancestor and namesake, Richard Atkinson, was a slave-holding sugar-planter in Jamaica in the 1780s and 1790s. This realisation was rapidly followed by the news that his ancestors had, like George Washington his US contemporary, been shagging their property and there was a whole line [maybe 7,000 people] of black cousins. I mention this at the head of the post to acknowledge and park the murk; because nobody should beat themselves up for the sins of their parents, let alone more distant progenitors.

The original Rcd. Atkinson was a small farmer and tanner from Cumbria, who made his money work for him, moved to London and parlayed his assets into a fabulous fortune. He moved in the innermost circles of political power, knew ministers and fixers and was able to secure lucrative government contracts to supply matériel [rum, biscuit, horses, salt-beef, candles] to the British army during the American War of Independence. Along the way he acquired a controlling interest in a tuthree sugar plantations in Jamaica . . . with the attendant "personnel". 

The present Richard Atkinson spent ten years in county archives and family vaults reading reading reading letters, account books, certificates and wills and eventually wrote his first book Mr Atkinson's Rum Contract: The Story of a Tangled Inheritance, published in 2021. Leaving aside the author's hand-wringing, it's a really interesting insight into how the world turned 250 years ago. History, as she is taught, is a tired re-churning of the same old sources - many of which are the books of previous historians. Edmund Burke was eloquent, Charles James Fox was fat, William Pitt the Younger was young - Prime Minister at 24! Whereas Richard "Rum" Atkinson doesn't even merit an entry in Wikipedia. Battles and Generals fill the pages of Encyclopedia Britannica but nobody knows who ran the commissariat that allowed those generals to win those battles.

Mr Atkinson's Rum Contract redresses that imbalance and brings a rich seam of unpublished papers to see the light of day and, as you'd hope and expect from a book-reader and editor, the result is a well organised narrative with a cast of interesting characters. Short reading by author. Generally good fun; pity about the slavery!

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