1 in 4 chance of being British. 

That’s my grandfather. Bill Fox from Bolton.He married Frieda Thomas from Pembrokeshire. 

My grandmother on the other side was Elizabeth Thorburn from Cardiff. 

My grandfather, however, was Francis D’Souza and came from a India, more specifically from Goa. He was a doctor and his father, my great grandfather, Major Peter D’Souza, was a doctor in the Indian Medical Service within the army in India. 

I only found this out for sure last week, as one of my aunts has spent 20 years piecing together a family history and that’s a family history has achieved mythical proportions within just one generation. 

It turns out my grandfather didn’t get scars wrestling a tiger and probably didn’t play at Wimbledon. 

He did, however, perform a documented case of CPR long before the technique became popular on these shores and there is a well reported act of heroism with him entering a collapsing mine and refusing to leave the injured despite risk of further collapses. There’s some truth to the myth. 
It’s an incredible read – a family of 14 children growing up as outsiders –  outsiders, yet at the heart of a Welsh mining village. He died before I was born, but I remember my grandmother well. 

David Fox, David Thomas and David Thornburn would be nice British names. David D’Souza? Less so. In fact any of the other combinations and I’m guessing nobody ever bothers to ask me ‘Where are your family from originally?’. 

It’s a natural question for people to ask, so much so that I’ve had it asked at the end of job interviews several times. I’ve never taken offence – but recent events would mean I’d be concerned if I was asked it next time I go for an interview. 

Last week I had some gaps filled in with regards to my sense of identity. I found out about our family and some things that were true and some that were untrue. 

But I’m still dominated by a surname that doesn’t fit in. For all our talk of multiculturalism something as simple as my surname marks me out as an outsider. And it marks my daughter out too. It’s the thing people most closely associate with you even in this day and age. The name of your father’s family. 

A couple of weeks ago I considered changing her name. I considered whether that was the right thing to do – to reduce the risk of her being bullied or being marked out due to a surname that represents about 1/8 of her lineage. Whether she would be better off as a Thomas.

Identity and ownership are at the core of lots of debate at the moment. Neither are simple concepts. In a world that people view as marked by scarcity the temptation to say ‘I was here first’ can be a compelling one. The temptation to say ‘I am only happy to share with my own’ is compelling. They are, in fact, understandable. 

My grandfather’s approach to being an outsider  was apparently a typically Indian one, to become more British than the British. To adopt the archetype of a British gentleman and proud subject of the Empire – to render the issue of difference to be redundant. 

It never will be. 

But a society where my daughter can have her difference celebrated rather than marking her out?  That’s something I’d like to sign up to. I’d just like someone to tell me how I can do that.

The D’Souza family. 

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5 thoughts on “1 in 4 chance of being British. 

  1. I remember when you first learned about your family history and not being fully Welsh/English a couple of years ago. It’s been fascinating to continue to learun what you’ve been discovering and learning. Some thoughts from me.

    You’re as English as they come, save the name. Everything you know, talk about, write about and think about is very much steeped in English culture. It seems that in some way, you’ve also taken on your grandfather’s philosophy and are quite probably more British than most British people. I wonder what that makes you think of further. These things are always an exploration.

    I understand why you think changing your daughter’s surname might be more beneficial to her. I guess it’s similar when people with foreign names have to provide a British/Western alternative so that they can integrate easier. It’s not right, and it’s not inclusive, but you can understand it.

    We’re all thinking about identity in a plethora of ways these days. Your blog today helps to highlight how it’s an ongoing discussion.

  2. Incredible post and what an amazing lineage you come from! The fact you have even thought about changing your daughters surname is heartbreaking though. Often a ‘different’ surname marks you out whether it’s a cultural difference or not. I grew up with the name McNabb which whilst not that unusual – or foreign (originally Scottish of course) – was different enough in small town Wales to mark me out with lots of nicknames (Kebab and Scab being two of the highlights!). I wasn’t bullied but equally I sometimes did wish my surname was Thomas. However, as I got older and started working and networking, I came to see people remembering me as beneficial. I once went for a role where one of the interview panel remembered me from work experience at school! And that was because of my name. In the end I found letting it go when I got married much harder than I expected.

    I hope this period of turbulence in the UK doesn’t mean your daughter needs to change her name. She should be proud of where she’s come from. Fingers crossed for the future.

  3. David, I loved your post as it’s from the heart, as always! I had thought that you had Portuguese ancestry but then Goa was colonised by Portuguese! Well, a fellow Indian, how marvellous!
    As Sukh has said, you’re as British as they come, same as I am or any of us are. I am Indian as well though I’m a foreigner in India because I wasn’t born there and I’m seen as a British Indian when I visit my extended family in India.

    I know that like any parent, you would worry about Olwen. She has her own destiny just as you and I have ours. Neither of us have had issues so far having dark colours or “different” surnames. My maiden surname is Acharya and had no problem with that either! You’ll know what to do when the time comes. xx

  4. It’s so timely that you should write this blog post though it makes me sad that you would consider changing your daughter’s surname but I totally get why you might want to do that.

    I was only talking to my mum last week about what means to be British.

    Bombay born in the British Empire, her upbringing Catholic, convent school educated by Belgian and French nuns, still able to recite Wordsworth and Shakespeare from school and steeped in English culture.

    She said, “I never knew I was different until I came to this country”. That was in 1964.

    Post-war, lots of Christian Indians, especially Anglo-Indians, anglicised their names and moved to the UK, or home as they considered it. The fact that you feel the need to do the same in 2016, is incredibly sad.

    Even now, I find it tiresome to have to explain where I was born or where my surname comes from. Worse still when I was Mrs Smith, endless awkward, sometimes hilarious questions and explanations. It’s natural to want to belong, to want to fit in, to not have to justify your existence.

    My wise old mum thinks that young people today see themselves as global citizens, not defined by geography, place of birth, faith, skin colour; I think she may be right…I really hope so too.

  5. Hi David, what a fascinating history your family has! When I was at school, I went to an International School in Cyprus – all the kids were from all over the world and very few had just one heritage. I was never an outsider until we moved to Oxfordshire when I was 15, and then suddenly for the first time I didn’t feel British. I was a foreigner in the county I was born in – but I got over it quickly and blended in as best as I could.

    Similarly to your Grandad, becoming more British than the Brits! Only my name stood out like a beacon. That was almost 20 years ago and all through University and working in London – no one batted an eye-lid at my surname. It’s only more recently now that I no longer speak Polish or Greek on the phone in public – I’ve seen too many of ‘those’ YouTube videos.

    Celebrate your name David and your history – even if you have to spell your name out to everyone who asks!

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