They were nights Colin Wilkinson would never forget; nights which would change his life and give him a greater understanding of his roots.
Those evenings in 1968 were spent listening to his great uncle Frank in his home at Devonshire Avenue, Southsea.
What Frank told Colin would shock him to the core.
He was sworn to secrecy because of the supposed shame it might bring on the family – these were the far less-liberal and less-tolerant 1960s after all.
But the tales kickstarted a desire in Colin to dig deeper into his family’s fascinating and unusual history.
It’s a story that encompasses slavery, shipwrecks and 21 years in the Royal Navy which ended with service in HMS Warrior.
The news that stunned Colin was that his great-grandmother Rosetta was the daughter of an African slave and it was he who went on to enjoy that long career in the navy.
And it set him off on decades of painstaking research piecing together his family’s colourful history.
Now he has just published the story of Rosetta and proceeds from his book will go to the Portsmouth branch of the Samaritans where he volunteered for 25 years.
It is being sold at the Liverpool Slavery Museum, HMS Warrior 1860 at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, and at the Samaritans office at London Road, North End, Portsmouth.
Colin, 76, from Titchfield, a former chartered insurance practitioner, discovered that Rosetta’s father, Asa Asa, was born in Nigeria in 1812, captured by slave-traders.
He became a slave seaman, crewing a French ship that was taking slaves from Cape Coast in Ghana to the West Indies.
Colin says: ‘This ship, the Perle, was shipwrecked in 1825 near St Ives in Cornwall.
‘The residents took sympathy on those who had survived the journey. One of the town’s inhabitants was a friend of abolitionist William Wilberforce and he made sure the five slave crewmen were liberated.’
Asa learned English and started work as a servant in the household of George Stephen.
He was baptised and given the name Lewis Asasa. He became a footman for Mr Stephen, who travelled across the country speaking in favour of the abolition of slavery, and Lewis became something of a celebrity, as his story was often told by campaigners.
‘He met Elizabeth Cook, Rosetta’s mother, while travelling near Somerset in 1827, and they married and lived in London from 1831. Rosetta was born in 1838,’ adds Colin.
Lewis Asasa was working as a seaman in the Port of London when he was recruited to join the Royal Navy.
In 1841, he joined HMS Wilberforce and returned to the country of his birth as part of the Great Niger Expedition. Among other things, it aimed to persuade local Nigerian tribes to stop selling their people into slavery.
After serving on a number of other ships, he joined Portsmouth-based HMS Warrior, the navy’s first iron-clad ship, in 1861. It was a prestige appointment, and he retired from the navy two years later after 21 years of faithful service.
Rosetta grew up and married William Thatcher, who had also joined the Royal Navy and fought in the Crimean War and the American Civil War.
Lewis Asasa died in 1869, a year after Rosetta gave birth to Ernest Thatcher – Colin Wilkinson’s grandfather.
Ernest moved to Southsea in 1909 with his wife and family, and also fought in the First World War. Rosetta also moved to Southsea in 1912 and was buried in Highland Road cemetery in 1921 aged 83.
Colin, a member of St Peter’s Church, Titchfield, collaborated on the book with Peter and Tony Thatcher, who are also her great-grandsons.
He says: ‘Lewis Asasa led the most incredible life. It’s a story I have never known to be surpassed.
‘It took me aback, shocked me, when my great uncle told me Rosetta’s father was black and had been a slave.
‘He requested that I should never speak of it because of the shame it might bring on the family. Things were so different back in the 1960s.
‘But Lewis led a Christian and blameless life, and was loved and respected by all who knew him.
‘And the journey of what I have discovered about Rosetta has been wondrous. She remains our matriarch and our beacon of the way to live.’
· Rosetta, by Colin Wilkinson and published by him, is available from Waterstones, Fareham or via The Samaritans at 296 London Road, North End, Portsmouth PO2 9JN on (023) 9269 1313 or go to samaritans.org/portsmouth. It costs £12.50.
SLAVES THROWN OVERBOARD TO REDUCE FINES
After the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found on board.
However, this law did not stop the British slave trade. If slave ships were in danger of being captured by the Royal Navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by ordering the slaves to be thrown into the sea.
Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign argued that the only way to end the suffering of the slaves was to make slavery illegal.
A new Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1823 and its members included the MP and great Christian social reformer William Wilberforce.
Parliament finally passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. This gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.
The British government paid compensation to the slave owners. The amount that the plantation owners received depended on the number of slaves they had. For example, the Bishop of Exeter’s 665 slaves resulted in him receiving £12,700.