When I sat down at the long, gleaming wooden table in the Special Collections reading room at the National Library of South Africa in Cape Town—the equivalent of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.—I knew it was momentous, and I wanted to savor every moment. The winter light filtered through the high windows of the quiet reading room, and I took my time as I laid out my pen and pencil and opened my moleskin notebook to the first page. I pulled towards me the flat cardboard box that had been laid on the table. It had my name on it and the date, 10/08/12 (10th August 2012, in the European calendar format that is used in South Africa.) Inside were fifteen folders, all bound together with a white, cloth tape. I carefully undid the tape and opened up the first folder, marked MSB 57, 1 (1)—MSB for Manuscript Barker. I was looking at a Photostatted copy of the diaries kept by my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, George Barker. In the folder marked Journal 1815-1816 I read:


When we enter into important stations in life it becomes us to notice the particular dealings of God in providence Around us.

George Barker was a Presbyterian missionary, born in Wimbish near Saffron Walden, Essex, England in 1789. His preamble goes on:

Shew, O God, enable me to begin my Missionary voige (sic) & prosecute my labours among the Heathen, humbly relying upon thy faithfulness for the supply of all my wants, temporal and spiritual, & with gratitude acknowledging thy providential kindness in all that I receive. —

His handwriting was small, neat and slanted to the right, and even though it was difficult to make out some of the words I enjoyed that effort; it seemed to mirror the way that I was straining to communicate with this ancestor of mine over a timespan of 194 years. I read on to his first journal entry:

Feby 4th 1815. This day I entered into the solemn engagement of marriage previous to my departure from my native land, the Lord having provided Sarah Williams a native of Shropshire to be my companion in the arduous undertaking before me…

And here was the crux. From half way across the world, in Baltimore, I had been communicating for months with various librarians in South Africa to try to track down these diaries of George Barker. The originals are housed in the Cory Library of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, and his photograph is in the Albany Museum there, so his life is quite well documented. But I felt an urgency to try to get to know this shadowy figure, Sarah Barker, née Williams, who had been his companion in the arduous undertaking in Africa. This was the beginning.

Part of an original letter from
George Barker to his parents


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