We all know how a certain American politician was nicknamed “Pocahontas,” years after claiming to be, without foundation, a native American. This has often been tried. Sometimes, however, it backfires. “A friend got his son into a better public school by declaring he was tribal,” a colleague writes. “Unfortunately, they didn’t tell the boy, who was then invited to an after-school meeting for those interested in Indians. My friend attempted to correct himself, but he found that in that city, you can change your racial identification only once.” (Who writes these rules?)
During a recent encounter with the medical world I received a questionnaire with the inevitable question, “Race.” I checked, “Other” and then wrote in “Human,” hoping for a repercussion—but alas no one noticed.
I was inspired by Randolph Churchill, son of Sir Winston, who used a parallel but different tactic when confronting the Race Question on a South African landing card in the days of Apartheid:
Randolph was outraged by the question. “Damned cheek!,” he shouted, and began writing furiously:
Race: human. But if, as I imagine is the case, the object of this enquiry is to determine whether I have coloured blood in my veins, I am most happy to be able to inform you that I do, indeed, so have. This is derived from one of my most revered ancestors, the Indian Princess Pocahontas, of whom you may not have heard, but who was married to a Jamestown settler named John Rolfe …
The story goes that the authorities did not take this at all well. Upon landing, Randolph was denied admission to the Republic of South Africa and put on the next plane out. Or so legend has it.
“Perhaps we are related!”
A leading Churchill myth is that WSC was descended in part from an Iroquois Indian. Even the myth does not claim Pocahontas, who has been linked as an ancestor to two American First Ladies, Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan, but not to the Churchills. I suspect Randolph knew there was no Pocahontas in his background, but with his usual zeal embroidered the story to express his outrage.
The fable of Churchill’s Indian forebears is exploded in detail in my book, Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality. (Please do not buy the hardback copy presently being offered on Amazon for only $3327.62. The paperback is only $29.95.)
Most of the Churchill family always believed the legend. Confronted with evidence proving it untrue, WSC’s daughter Mary admitted there was no basis in fact. Her nephew Winston, the late Member of Parliament, was harder to convince.
Once after one of his book tours my wife and I took him down to Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. As we drove up, we encountered a young man dressed as an Indian. I’m sure he was as Indian as I am. Enthusiastically, Winston alighted from the car and held out his hand. “I’m Winston Churchill, grandson of the prime minister,” he said. “Perhaps we are related!”
As he climbed back in the car, we burst out laughing. “Winston,” I said between guffaws, “You are as native American as my Siamese cat.”
“Never mind,” he fired back. “It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
More serious reading
“The Art of the Possible, Part 2,” The Age of Mandela