Gabrielle “Elsie” O’Donnell
My grandmother claimed descendancy from the O’Donnell clan, who were Irish Catholic nobles in the northern county of Donegal. The O’Donnells had built a castle in the 15th century, but it was lost to the English at the beginning of the 17th as part of the Nine Years’ War, with the subsequent plantation of Ulster, essentially a Protestant colonization. To this day, Northern Ireland remains a hotspot where tensions run high between Catholics and Protestants, a weight that my grandmother carried upon her shoulders throughout her life. “Bloody English,” she used to complain, “they stole our land.” That said, I never heard her utter a word in the Irish language.
My grandmother’s father had served in the British Army in India, where he had contracted malaria, and had been sent home to Dublin a weakened man. He worked in the Custom’s house, where he helped to smuggle weapons to the resistance during the revolution.
John “Jack” Collins
The oldest myth in the Collins family lore, dates back to my paternal grandfather’s great-grandfather, sometime in the 19th century. The story goes that he was a merchant seaman, owner of his own sailing ship, who would ply the seas from Ireland to Spain, trading cargoes back and forth. The story continues that he married a Spanish woman and brought her back to Ireland, hence the olive tint in our skin.
Sadly, his son was a gambler and a rake, and lost his father’s fortunes on cards and drink. This wouldn’t be the last fortune made and lost in the saga. As a result, my great-grandfather declared that cards were not to be allowed into the house under any circumstances. Accompanied by his brother, the two travelled Ireland painting and decorating houses.
My grandfather was John “Jack” Collins. There has been a John in generations going back as far as parish records begin. They were very traditional that way. My grandfather had said there was a family relation to Michael Collins, one of the leaders in Ireland’s successful battle for independence, although no-one knows quite how.
Jack & Elsie
My grandparents met in a cycling club, and together they engaged in cycling trips, ranging across the island together from their base in Dublin. This would have been in the 1940’s, a time perhaps more favourable to cycling, what with there being far less motorcars on the road.
My grandparents wed in Ireland, but do to lack of opportunity, they decided to emmigrate, as have done so many Irish before them at least since the time of the great famine. My grandfather boarded a steamship and worked his passage to Cape Town in South Africa and then rode the railroad up to Johannesburg. He then sent money for his young wife to join him. Together they travelled onward to Rhodesia.
My grandfather studied accounting and subsequently set up a successful accountancy practice in Salisbury. My father Brian John Collins was born and grew up there.
The earliest memory of my maternal grandmother’s grandmother was the slowly receding sight of her family home and lands burning, from her vantage point on the back of a wagon. The whole tribe had originally arrived from The Netherlands, sometime in the 17th and 18th centuries, and settled around Cape Town, then more commonly known as Kaapstad. There they lived for several generations in those fertile and blessed lands, where VOC ships would stop to load provisions on their way to India and the Spice Islands.
But the balance of power had changed, and the Cape Colony had been overrun by the British in the 19th century, so the Cape Dutch settlers hitched their wagons and headed off into the great unknown interior, in a migration known as the Great Trek.
They led a spliter group further North than most, to the lands of the Shona people and the caves of Sinoia, now called Chinhoyi. At the time these lands had no maps let alone roads. They had to hunt wild animals for meat.
Alas, the British were always a step behind, within a few years they found themselves part of the newly declared colony of Rhodesia.
My grandmother, Miriam Schultz was born one of 13 children.
In the mid-19th century, my maternal grandfather’s family decided to leave their homes in England and set up a farm in province of Natal, a recently acquired British posession, where they lived for several generations. Somehow, my great-grandfather came to live in Cape Town, where he wed a Cape-Dutch girl, and raised my grandfather Malcomb Nicholson.
Unfortunately my grandfather’s parents were terrible people, alcoholic and ill tempered, to the extent that my grandfather left home at age 14 to live with his neighbours. He worked odd-jobs to pay his tuition and then found a job working for the electricity board repairing power lines. This job brought him opportunities in Rhodesia, where he met and wed my grandmother Miriam.
Malcomb & Miriam
Together my maternal grandparents travelled to Uganda where my grandfather had found work on a hydro-electric dam. My mother Audrey and her siblings were born there. By this time, the British Empire was starting to disintegrate. Uganda was heading for independence, so the family left the country and went to Rhodesia, where my grandfather found work on yet another hydro-electric dam, this time at Kariba.
My mother, Audrey Ann Nicholson, was born and grew up in the tiny town of Kariba, where the temperatures ranged from very hot to extremely hot. They had a house with a lovely view over the great dam that streched to the horizon. My mother went to study in Grahamstown, but dropped out after a year. She always told me that she had wanted to study medicine, but her father had scoffed and said “Women can’t be doctors”, and instructed her to become a secretary instead.
Brian & Audrey
My parents met at a party in Salisbury, and wed a mere three months post. At the time, Rhodesia was the scene of a relatively low-level insurgency. The British government disengaged and the colonists banded together to form their own state. It was to be a futile struggle, for the colonists were too heavily outnumbered and lacked the needed material support. Robert Mogabe took power of the country and changed the name to Zimbabwe. The country has seen since seen a gradual slide into general abject poverty.
My parents saw the writing on the wall, and fled the country for London, where my sister and I were born. I’ve since been continuing the saga in my own way.