Editor's Note - July 23, 2024: This article was originally published in August 2020 after Kamala Harris was named Joe Biden's running mate. This week, Harris has become the presumptive Democratic nominee for the 2024 US Presidential election after Joe Biden announced on July 21 that he is standing down from the campaign.

Does Kamala Harris have Irish heritage?

It is possible but not proven.

Harris' mother Shyamala immigrated to the US from India in 1959 and her father, Donald J. Harris, arrived in the US from Jamaica in 1963. It is on Harris' father's side that a distant link to Ireland may be present.

In 2018, Harris’ father said in an essay that he is the descendant of Hamilton-Brown, an Irish man who enslaved people in Jamaica in the early 1800s.

PolitiFact, the fact-checking site, stated in 2020 that “records and online genealogy archives suggest Harris’ great-great-great-grandfather (Antrim-born Hamilton Brown) was a slaveholder. But there’s also evidence that Harris is descended from people who were enslaved.”

Kamala Harris’ father, Donald J. Harris, wrote in 2018: "My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town) and to my maternal grandmother Miss Iris (née Iris Finegan, farmer and educator, from Aenon Town and Inverness, ancestry unknown to me).."

Iris Finigan (also known as Beryl Finigan) was not Irish; Finigan was her second husband’s name.

March 23, 2023: President Joe Biden greets Vice President Kamala Harris in the Red Room of the White House. (White House Flickr / Adam Schultz)

March 23, 2023: President Joe Biden greets Vice President Kamala Harris in the Red Room of the White House. (White House Flickr / Adam Schultz)

Who was Hamilton Brown?

Hamilton Brown (1776-1843) was born in Co Antrim and went on to become a British sugar planter and slave owner in Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica, which he represented in the House of Assembly of Jamaica for 22 years. He gave his name to Hamilton Town in the parish of St Ann, now Brown's Town, which he founded.

He was a dedicated slave owner who told Henry Whitley, a Quaker abolitionist, that he greatly supported slavery and slaves were better off than the poor in Britain.

Whitley witnessed the brutal treatment of slaves in Jamaica and found Brown was one of the most outspoken proponents of the evil trade.

Snopes.com, another fact-checking site, reported in 2019 that “Whiteley saw slaves, some girls as young as 12 years old, flogged between 40 and 50 times with a horsewhip, for supposed misconduct as trivial as over-sleeping or not meeting their assigned work targets. In one case, a man was whipped 39 times despite not having committed any discernible 'offense.'"

Whiteley found that the conditions of life for slaves in Jamaica could not have been further from the outlandish claims made by Brown and his fellow colonial settlers.

Snopes notes that Christiana Brown is the link to Hamilton Brown and Kamala Harris. Slave rape was very common and children of such unions are very hard to track.

Snopes notes that a “Hamilton Brown Jnr.” (likely the Antrim slave owner) had a daughter named Mary Melvina Brown, born to an unnamed woman, and baptized on June 4, 1839.

Now it starts to get complicated, as Snopes notes. “Mary Melvina later married a different Hamilton Brown. By him, she gave birth to several children, including Mabel Melvina (born 1879, died 1935); Edwin Hamilton (born 1877, died 1932); and Gilbert Charles Clement (born 1875, died 1948)."

But Snopes hit a dead end: “We have not yet found a record of a Christiana Brown being born to Mary Melvina Brown. Such a record would establish a link between Donald Harris’s paternal grandmother Christiana and the Antrim slave owner Hamilton Brown. As a result of this absence, we are issuing a rating of 'unproven,' until such evidence emerges.”

So the Irish link remains likely but unproven - not that I think the Irish should celebrate it if proven true.

By her very success, Kamala Harris gives the lie to the vicious slave owner Hamilton Brown from Ireland that slaves and their offspring were only good for bondage and being worked to death.

The one fact we do know is that Kamala Harris’ father says he’s a descendant of Hamilton Brown

It will be up to genealogists to tease out the truth of her Jamaican background. Alas, it appears her Irish ancestry if it exists, may have come from raping an enslaved person.

*Originally published in August 2020. Last updated in July 2024.