This week on the Secret Library blog, Librarian Antony Ramm lays out the process for anyone beginning research their African-Caribbean (and African) ancestry. This article is part of our series on Family History.
You can read more in our research guide – and keep an eye out for upcoming, online African-Caribbean Family History workshops…
Tracing African-Caribbean and African ancestry is a four-part process: identifying earlier generations born in the U.K. (if not already known) and pinpointing the Caribbean island of embarkment and/or origin for those ancestor(s); using Caribbean records to trace that line back to records of enslaved people; locating ancestors held in bondage; and, finally, using the information given in those latter records to identify likely places of origin in historical West African communities. This article will explore those different parts of the process and, crucially, help you locate resources and databases that you can use in each step.
It is important to stress that this is very-much a theoretical ‘map’ of this process, rather than an exact indication of what each individual researcher will be able to achieve: different researchers will find or not find their ancestors in the available records, depending on historical factors (loss of records, ancestors ‘slipping through the cracks’ of registration, etc). The point here is simply to identify the tools and the process, enabling family historians to attempt the research to the extent possible in any given scenario. There is – as in any family history research – absolutely no guarantee that matching results will be found.
Having said that this is a four-part process, we actually start with a kind of ‘part zero’: the first steps for the family historian. These are more extensively covered in an earlier article on this blog, but a few points are worth underlining:
- Draw-up a family tree, based on what you already know – no matter how vague or un-evidenced in documentation. Start with yourself, and go as far back as you can: the last name(s) on your tree are where you want to start your research.
- Decide which side of your family tree you want to research, whether mother’s side or father’s – and stick to that side, until you can go back no further. It is always better to follow ancestral lines back as far as possible before branching out to Cousins, Uncles, Aunties, niblings, etc – you risk your ancestral tree ‘mushrooming’ out of control otherwise
- Borrow or buy a good book on general family history research and, specifically, African-Caribbean genealogical research.
Part I: U.K. ancestors and place/island of Caribbean origin
We come to the first part proper, the aim of which is to identify the name(s) and/or place of origin(s) for your first-generation arrivals in the U.K. – knowing one or more of these crucial bits of information will allow you to more-accurately search Caribbean island records for earlier ancestors.
The best place to start is with relatives, especially older ones – talk to them and gather as much information as possible. In particular, you are looking to find the name, date and Caribbean island of origin for your first-generation ancestor – or perhaps the names and contact details for any family members who are still living in the Caribbean. If this not possible – or your answers do not yield the information you are looking for – the next best option is to use English and Welsh records of birth, marriage and death (BMD) to trace your family lineage using the information on BMD certificates (primarily names of parents), until you reach an ancestor for whom you cannot find a registered birth in the U.K. That ancestor is likely (but not certain) to be the first person in your family line who arrived in the U.K. from a Caribbean island.
Another method is to use records on Ancestry or at the National Archives that allow you to search lists of incoming passengers to the U.K. – these records are not complete and do not include arrivals from the Commonwealth, but still worth searching just in case. For access to Ancestry, please see an earlier article on this blog; the Passenger page is the best place to start for relevant records at the National Archives.
Part 2: Caribbean Civil Registration and Parish Records
Once/if you know which Caribbean island your ancestors came from, you can begin searching Caribbean records for other ancestors; if you have not been fortunate enough to identify a specific island of likely origin, you can search across all available Caribbean records using the name(s) of any individuals you have identified – a more time-consuming process, but one method of continuing your search even in the absence of geographical specifics.
There are two types of records available to aid your Caribbean search:
- Civil Registration – records of birth, marriage and death, as seen in certificates issued after the registration of each event. These work in the same way as the equivalent English & Welsh records, but generally start later in the 19th-century (English and Welsh Civil Registration records started in 1837). Each Caribbean island has a different start date for these records.
- Parish records – Church records of baptism, marriage and burial. This is the only easily-accessible source available to family historians prior to the introduction of the Civil Registration process. Church records remain useful even after that point, and also during the period of enslavement.
Some of these records are available on Ancestry, but the Family Search (formerly known as the International Genealogical Index, or IGI) website offers a much better selection (free registration is required), covering most Caribbean islands, in records spanning the 16th to the 20th-centuries, and including not just index details but also some images of the records themselves.
Find the records you want
Once you’ve logged in to Family Search, click on Search on the top menu bar, and then Records:
That will take you to a page showing a map of the whole world, from where you can select the specific country or region you are interested in searching. Hovering over the Caribbean region will allow you to select records from a specific country:
Selecting a country – Jamaica, for example – will bring up the following page (or equivalent), listing the records available on the Family Search website for that area:
At this stage, you can either perform a general search across the three record sets listed here – or select a specific one, to narrow your search (a similar search function will be available after you choose a particular database).
As suggested above, if you do not know which Caribbean island your ancestor(s) originated from – or have multiple you want to search across – there are several record sets on the Family Search website that cover the whole region (albeit not necessarily in the same depth as records for individual countries). To access these, click Browse All Published Collections – which you can see just beneath the image of the world a few steps above. Selecting that option then takes you to a page showing all available, worldwide records on Family Search, from where you can narrow your search to the specific location you are interested in (most likely by inputting ‘Caribbean’):
If you are unable to identify any matching records for either your ancestral individual, or an island of origin, you may need to contact the record office for that country(s). This BBC page has a list that is a good starting point, though bear in mind it is now a few years old.
The operators of the Family Search website also run Family History Libraries, at which you can find microfilms of records that have not yet been scanned into the website – this is another profitable option if you are struggling to find details of your Caribbean ancestors. You will find these records listed on the page for the country you are interested (selected through the world map image, as above), just below the records that available on the website itself:
Selecting a particular record of interest – e.g. Clarendon Parish birth registers, 1878-1930 – will take you this page:
Under Film/Digital Notes you will then find the full-list of Family History Library records; clicking on that title under Location will allow you to search for your nearest centre, by inputting a postcode. The Leeds centre is based on Vesper Road in Kirkstall – you can find more details on its dedicated Family Search Wiki page.
The aim using all these resources is to trace a family line back into the mid-19th-century, at which point you may be able to identify Caribbean ancestors likely to have been alive prior to 1834, when slavery was abolished.
If you are fortunate enough to achieve this goal, you can begin searching in Registers of Enslaved People – also known as Slave Registers. (See this helpful guide for the importance of the language used when describing the system of slavery)
Part III: Registers of Enslaved People
The trade in enslaved people was abolished in 1807, but the abominable practice of slavery itself not until 1834; even then, a four-year ‘apprenticeship’ was enforced on people supposedly freed from perpetual bondage.
Records of enslaved people in the Caribbean islands were created after the abolition of the trade, as a way for masters to prove ‘their’ enslaved people had been ‘purchased’ prior to 1807. As such, the earliest available dates to 1813 and the records stop in 1834. The most comprehensive set is from 1817 – after that, the records are often just statistical number-counts.
Ancestry.com has digitised scans of the original registers. If you are not already a member of Ancestry, see our guide to find out how you can access it for free from home during August via Leeds Libraries (please contact us using the details below if you wish to access Ancestry after August).
If you are able to access Ancestry, you can find the relevant records by selecting Search from the top menu:
From there, select +Card Catalog on the right-hand side of the screen, and then type ‘British slave register’ into the Keywords box on the next page, before pressing the return button:
You can now search the so-called Slave Register for the names of any possible ancestors. At the very bottom of the database page you will find a full-list of the countries and dates covered by the register.
An example of one result, for John Crooks, held on the Cousins Cove plantation in the Hanover Parish of Jamaica in 1817:
Register details, such as the name of the Plantation, can link individual enslaved people to specific ‘owners’. You can then use the Legacies of Slavery website to find out more about particular ‘owners’ of enslaved people across Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada – including details such as the precise location of plantations, and any business relationships the ‘owner’ may have had (these details can help you identify, respectively, other Civil and Parish records to search for ancestors; and possible ‘trading’ routes from West Africa to the Caribbean). However, the vast majority of plantation records are kept in private or national archival collections – other good records to search for details of enslaved ancestors would include local newspapers and wills.
Part IV: The trade in enslaved people and records of African origins
If your ancestors are listed in any Caribbean records with non-Anglicised names, it may be possible to trace their origins to particular African countries and, eventually, specific places of settlement within those regions. Two useful websites are:
- The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Records on this site can provide details about specific ship owners and traders, who may have had links to particular plantations – connecting your ancestor to a plantation, and then that plantation to a trading route, could allow you to identify the embarkment location, and therefore a place of origin for your ancestor (bearing in mind that enslaved people would often be trafficked from the African interior to the Western coast of the continent)
- African Origins. Extremely useful, as it allows you to identify hints about specific geographical locations for particular African names – that information can be triangulated with the records on the mentioned above.
Family history research is always difficult; but especially so given the historical context of white supremacist efforts to dehumanise people of African origin, including the very-deliberate keeping of minimal records as to their existence. Even when records have been kept – e.g. the so-called Slave Registers – they are often of little use to later generations, given the insensitive naming practices of plantation ‘owners’ and overseers: many individuals were given infantile, Anglicised names, with the intention of stripping away the person-hood, dignity and African heritage of enslaved people. It can be almost-impossible to connect those people to their descendants today.
The effort is worth making, even so – genealogy is almost always rewarding; researchers usually find at least one nugget among the mass of false leads. So, if you do undertake your African-Caribbean family tree and require further assistance with any of the resources mentioned above, please contact the Local and Family History department on 0113 37 86982, or via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also book 1-1 sessions with a Librarian through our regular Telephone Consultation slots – details of upcoming dates and times can be found on our Ticketsource page.
We also run biweekly, online Family History for Beginners workshops, focusing on English & Welsh records (details on Ticketsource). While these could still prove useful, depending on your family tree, we are also hoping to run Caribbean-specific sessions later in the year. To get early-bird booking details for forthcoming online African-Caribbean Family History sessions, contact us on the details above and ask to have your email added to our mailing list!