Jamaica Gleaner / The following is a contribution from Melissa deCordova, whose husband’s family is descended from Jacob and Joshua deCordova, the founders of The Jamaica Gleaner.
Norwich, New York:
My story about our family’s recent trip to discover our roots in Jamaica must absolutely, positively begin with a funny tale about something our daughter, Laney, said at the age of six.
While lunching with her kindergarten friend, hosted by the friend’s mother, she was asked whether she felt chilly in the air-conditioned restaurant and might she want to put on her sweater. Our girl is quoted as replying, indignantly: “I’m not cold. I have hot, Spanish blood!”
Grand Capitan Gonzalo Fern·ndez deCordoba – said Spanish general believed to be coursing through our daughter’s veins (or so her father has teased her since birth) – is my husband’s family’s assumed ancestor. Indisputably mighty, he was known for his campaigns in the Italian Wars and for the reconquest of Granada from the Moors in 1492. He singlehandedly invented trench warfare and influenced the generation of Spanish conquistadors that followed.
We say Gonzalo is the family’s assumed ancestor because he had no known sons.
Unfortunately, television programmes like Access Hollywood and social media searches into people’s personal lives didn’t exist back in the 15th century, so no one really knows. And, I do confess that we’ve allowed our daughter Lane, now 24, and also our son, Noel, 26, to grow up believing in their exceptionally powerful Spanish blood relative. We think they are better for it.
Grand Capitan was born in 1453 in Cordoba, Spain, the birthplace of many preceding generations of Cordobas and Cordovas. According to the research of several genealogists in the family, the first documented ancestor, Isaac deCordova pops up sometime in the late 1600s in Constantinople, Turkey. From there, Isaac’s son, Moses Raphael, and his son, Jacob Haim, are pegged in Amsterdam, Holland, having died in 1649 and 1712, respectively. Then, the line, led by Jacob’s son, Isaac, sets sail on the open seas and drops anchor in the early 1700s along the coast of your most beautiful Jamaica. It is here where my husband’s third great-grandfather, Joshua, alongside his half-brother, Jacob, founded De Cordova’s Advertising Sheet, which eventually morphed into its first newspaper: The Gleaner , in 1834-1836.
Being a journalist by trade, you can imagine my intrigue when I learned about my future husband’s connection to the most prominent newspaper in the Caribbean. After marrying Noel deCordova III in 1989, I made ‘Trip’ (as he’s called) promise to take me to Jamaica and to Kingston one day. Trip’s second cousin, Gillian deCordova Davies of Surrey, England, rented a home near Ocho Rios every winter and many, many times she had invited us to join her.
So why did it take us nearly 30 years to make the trip in February? Let’s just say we took a circuitous route.
The history of the deCordovas
Much of what I know about the deCordovas is courtesy of research conducted by Trip’s late father, Noel deCordova Jr of Poughkeepsie, New York; cousin Diane deCordova of New York City; cousin Bryan Ashenheim of Grand Cayman; cousin Vann deCordova of Texas; and our newest acquaintance, Ainsley Henriques, of Kingston. My father-in-law, and later, Diane, were initially inspired to research the family tree by Noel, Jr’s discovery in mid-1960s of his cousins Gillian and Col John deCordova, the latter of whom resides in Bath, England.
The two British deCordovas shared the same grandfathers, Joshua, and Noel, Jr’s grandfather was Joshua’s brother Raphael, all born and raised in Kingston. The cousins celebrated birthdays, weddings, and holidays together and travelled often between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Jamaica.
Our family of four from upstate New York was fortunate to visit Gillian in Surrey in the early 2000s. Our host threw a large party for us, where we met her sisters, Iona and Valerie deCordova; their husbands and respective children and grandchildren – the Cornishes and the Mains – and Col John’s three daughters. A second trip to England found us in Bath, where Lane and Noel sat in a deCordova family crest chair that was rescued from a termite-infested storage warehouse in Kingston.
TRIP TO SPAIN
Three years ago, we travelled to southern Spain during Lane’s college semester abroad and searched the village streets of Cordoba to find the Grand Capitan memorialised in bronze astride a large Andalusian horse. We toured the infamous Mosque of Cordoba and headed to Granada, where we tip-toed around the capitan’s tomb, which was featured centremost in the Royal Monastery of San Jeronimo.
When Gillian, who is still cheerful and able at 97, sent us an invitation last summer to join her in February of this year for a deCordova family reunion in Ocho Rios. We knew it was our time.
Thirteen family members would be expected, so we booked rooms at Moon Palace and requested a tour of The Gleaner. Diane hooked us up with the charming Mr Henriques, who put all of the various branches and 12 generations of the Jamaica deCordovas together for us during tours of the The Shaare Shalom Synagogue and restored cemeteries in downtown old Kingston. A Chinese Jamaican acquaintance of ours from Toronto, music promoter Bobby Chong, then met us and took us out to see Port Royal.
How do we happen to know a Jamaican Chinese Canadian music promoter, you might ask?
Answer: Reggae. Back in 2000, Trip coincidentally roomed at a soccer certification camp in Pennsylvania with Bobby, who, when catching a ride with Trip to practise the first morning of their training, was astonished to hear Toots and the Maytals playing in Trip’s car. Ever the consummate storyteller, Trip proceeded to tell about Bob Marley and the Wailers riding unicycles and playing soccer in 1979 at Colgate University (Hamilton, NY), where he was the junior varsity soccer coach. You can imagine the smiles and ‘Ya, man’s’ when they shared their Jamaican heritage. A year ago, we drove up to Toronto to hear Bobby’s friends play a concert to commemorate Jamaica’s 55th year of independence from England.
Our trip to The Gleaner Company (Media) Ltd
At The Gleaner, we had the pleasure of meeting The Honourable Oliver Clarke, chairman; Mr Christopher Barnes, managing director; Paget deFreitas, the overseas editor; and HR Manager Tanya Smith, among other staff. They treated us like royalty. We toured through each department, beginning with a timeline depiction of The Gleaner ‘s many deCordova and Ashenheim directors and editors framed prominently on the wall. We learned how the paper continued to publish despite fires and the 1907 earthquake that destroyed its offices.
We inspected the archives in the research room – bound, microfiche, and digital – and learned that the newspaper’s digital database contained an impressive 970,000-plus historical newspaper pages.
FRAMED FIRST EDITION
Mr Barnes gave Trip a framed copy of the first edition of The Gleaner , which, interestingly, featured a love poem. To my pleasant surprise, Noel and Lane both requested a copy of The Gleaner ‘s front-page story reporting the untimely passing of Bob Marley. A reggae music fan since the early ’70s also, I had the good fortune to hear Bob Marley and the Wailers play in 1980 in Toulon, France, just months before he died. I’m proud that our kids love reggae. But then, between their father and me, how could they not?
The Ocho Rios reunion was held at the home of John Bailey, whose grandmother, was – you guessed it – a deCordova. And, to make a small world smaller, we have had the pleasure of getting to know John’s mother, Shirley Hart Bailey of Canada and frequently Grand Cayman, Bryan Ashenheim and his wife, Madge and cousin, Darryl Myers, all of Grand Cayman, because Trip’s business often takes us there.
With slavery finally coming to an end in 1834 and waves of German and Scottish immigration in Jamaica, I found it odd that a love poem would take up nearly the entire front page of the first published Gleaner . I confess, again, that I struggled to understand the poem. But, I would like to think it was a prophecy for me.
JAMAICA: The deCordovas: Finding our roots in Jamaica
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