John DaCosta & Sarah Smith


William Robinson Clarke

‘Boy who left the jungle to get an education’

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John Graham DaCosta was six when he boarded the Empire Windrush in Trinidad with his grandmother, 65-year-old Sarah Ann Graham Smith. They were destined for Sarah’s home in Edinburgh. The passenger list shows the surname as ‘Da Costa’ but the family uses ‘DaCosta’.

Born on September 1, 1941, he was the son of Dr. Alric Benedict ‘Rico’ DaCosta, who hailed from St Vincent and had been a medical student in Edinburgh in the mid-1930s. There he married Joen Kerr Smith, a former Miss Scotland. The couple would go on to have six sons.

In 1945, Rico returned to St. Vincent to practise for three years as part of his scholarship agreement to study medicine at Edinburgh. John recalls St Vincent with fondness. He met his father’s side of the family and remembers his grandmother and his many aunties. Their home was isolated and Rico’s workplace was a small clinic in Chateaubelair on the northwest coast of the island. The family had a green Chevrolet sedan that Rico used for house calls.

After their St. Vincent sojourn, the family moved to British Guiana, modern-day Guyana, where Rico had secured a job with Reynolds Aluminium as the camp doctor for its mine at Kwakwani, about 100 miles up the Berbice River in the South American jungle.

Rico provided medical services to Amerindian workers as well as anyone who could find their way to the clinic from the surrounding bush. John enjoyed living in Kwakwani but the location meant he was being brought up without any formal education.

In 1948, Sarah made the gruelling journey to Kwakwani to help Joen with her new-born son. The family agreed that when she returned to Scotland, she should take John with her. The journey from Kwakwani to Georgetown proved to be horrendous. Transport was by motor- powered river boat with a captain, a crewman and six passengers. It was night-time, dark and stormy and John remembers feeling frightened. There were no cabins and passengers had to sit on benches at the rear of the boat.

After drifting off to sleep, John was awakened by noise and shouting. In the storm, a tree had fallen and there was much commotion. John was traumatised and recalls nothing else of the journey or the voyage on the Windrush.

John did not see his parents and brothers again for almost two years. Rico’s contract in British Guiana ended in 1949 and the DaCosta family returned to Britain. John was still living with his grandmother in Edinburgh.

He went on to achieve an award in medicine, MB ChB summa cum laude (the greatest distinction) at Edinburgh in 1967 and subsequently moved to Canada to practise as a doctor. John currently lives in Brighton, Ontario, Canada, where Rico died in 2003.

John DaCosta & Sarah Smith – Courtesy of John DaCosta

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