Researching African-Caribbean Family History

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Researching African-Caribbean Family History

Post by bimjim » Mon Dec 31, 2012 1:07 pm ... e_01.shtml

Researching African-Caribbean Family History
By Guy Grannum

Researching family history can be quite challenging for African-Caribbean people because the dispossession caused by the slave trade means that ancestral links have been lost or buried. Guy Grannum suggests some useful leads on uncovering your family's past.

On this page

- Introduction
- The clues in surnames
- Records of owners and their property
- Other useful records
- Reconnecting with Africa
- Preparation
- Find out more


Most Caribbean people have African ancestors. It has been estimated that more than 1.6 million people were transported between Africa and the Caribbean between 1640 and 1807. Once in the Caribbean, these people were enslaved and forced to toil on the plantations and in households. Although the British slave trade from Africa was abolished in 1807, emancipation of the people did not occur until 1 August 1834.

For most people, slavery did not officially end until 1 August 1838

Until emancipation, most African-Caribbeans were considered to be the property of their owners. This meant that they were subject to the whims of their owner and local slave laws. For example, families could be split up, people could be sold, gifted and inherited as property. The enslaved people migrated with their owners to other countries, and were often denied an education and not allowed to attend church. Therefore, enslaved African-Caribbeans are not listed in the usual records used by family historians.

Although slavery in the British Caribbean officially ended on 1 August 1834, most former slaves were apprenticed to their former masters for a period of four years. Only children under the age of six, and slaves in Antigua and the Bahamas (who had passed local laws abolishing apprenticeship) were freed immediately. Therefore, for most people, slavery did not officially end until 1 August 1838.

To research African-Caribbean people who were freed before and after emancipation, the usual sources such as church registers, employment records, poor law records and wills, etc. can be used - most of which will be held in Caribbean archives and libraries, although copies are sometimes available in the UK. General guidance on building family trees is available at Family History.

Using these sources it is often possible for people to trace their families back to the 1840s. Going back earlier into the period of slavery is more challenging because African-Caribbeans were viewed as property, so the name of at least one owner is very useful to narrow down the options for your particular ancestor.

The clues in surnames

An expert examines a parish burials register An expert examines a parish burials register © Standard genealogical research in the UK relies on three assumptions:

- People have surnames.
- The surname is passed on from the father to his children.
- Most parents get married usually before, or around the time of the first child.

For Caribbean researchers, this is not necessarily the case:

- Most children were born outside marriage and therefore registered under their mother's name. To complicate matters they might have later taken on their father's name.
- Women might have had children by different men, and men might have had children by different women. Some children might have been born before marriage.
- Until emancipation, enslaved people did not have legal surnames. However, it is apparent, from runaway notices and manumission registers that many enslaved people used surnames before freedom even if they were not recognised by the owner or state.

It is believed that freed slaves adopted or were given the surname of their owner, but research shows that although this did happen, there were other options available to free men and women:

- Surname of an owner - this could be the last owner or a former owner.
- Surname of father - a white master or employee, a freed man, a slave from another plantation, or the name of the father's former or original owner.
- Surname of mother.
- Last forename - many captives had multiple names that were often used to differentiate between slaves who had similar first names. Many were surnames of local people and may have been kept as a surname after emancipation.
- Chosen the surname - freed men and women could choose their surname, maybe to confirm family ties, to disassociate themselves from former owners, or after influential people.
- Given by the church or state for official purposes.

Although men and women could chose their surnames on emancipation, most, if not all, chose surnames from those among the local population.

Records of owners and their property

Enslaved people were considered property so the best place to find information about slaves is by looking through the private papers of the owner, or in records about the owner or his property.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to find out who the owner was.

- Many official records, such as baptism records will usually give the name of the owner, using the phrase "..., Black slave of ...", or they may give the name of the estate.
- Speak to relatives who may have oral knowledge of where the family was from and look for clues in surviving family papers and photographs. Baptism, marriage and burial registers may give clues to where your family lived. For example, from 1825 church registers ask for place of residence.
- In the absence of any other evidence, try looking for slave owners with the same surname.

- Wills of owners may name slaves that were bequeathed to family members or friends, or name slaves that an owner wanted to free

Once the locality of where a family lived is known, look for slave owners in that area by checking tax lists, directories, church records, maps, deeds registers, slave registers, and slave compensation claims.

Private records, which may contain information on slaves, include inventories, valuations, receipts or accounts for purchases and sales, loans and mortgages, and personal letters. Surviving papers may still be with the family or maybe deposited in a local archive or library where the family lived or settled. If the owner settled in the UK you could try searching by family name or the name of the estate on A2A and the National Register of Archives. Otherwise try contacting archives and libraries in the Caribbean where they lived.

Wills of owners may name slaves that were bequeathed to family members or friends, or name slaves that an owner wanted to free (manumission). They may also give information about an enslaved person's personal relationships. Inventories are lists of the deceased's property and may include lists of slaves, sometimes with ages and occupations and maybe family relationships.

Most wills can be found in the local Caribbean archive. But those who also had property in the UK may have had their will proved in the UK. Try searching National Archives Documents . for English and Welsh wills; and Scotland's People for Scottish wills. If the owner lived and died in the UK, it is worth searching for their will and associated documents at their local record office. Registers of deeds, which are held in local Caribbean archives, may contain information such as manumissions (grants of freedom), sales and transfer of property, and mortgages, which may include information on slaves.

Other useful records

Until about 1817 there were few local or central government records specifically relating to enslaved people. References to slaves tend to be ad hoc and intermingled with other records relating to other individuals and to the administration of the country.

Most records are to be found in Caribbean archives and register offices, but some copies may be held in the UK National Archives (TNA) in London. Also, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) has microfilm copies of many records, including Jamaican and Barbadian births, marriages and deaths.

- Until 1834, church registers gave details on ethnicity and the name of the owner ofenslaved people, and sometimes the name of the estate

The following types of records can contain useful information about slaves and slave owners:

Church records in most British colonies slaves were not allowed to attend church, especially the Anglican church. From the 1790s there was a growth of non-conformist churches (eg Moravian, Baptist and Methodist) established in village locations, which encouraged African-Caribbean congregations. Also, from the 1820s the Anglican church was encouraged to accept enslaved people into their churches.

Until 1834, church registers gave details on ethnicity and the name of the owner ofenslaved people, and sometimes the name of the estate. Church records may be held by Caribbean archives or register offices, and some may still be held with the church. The LDS has microfilm copies of many church registers (check out Family Search for a catalogue of its holdings and locations of its family history centres).

Court records for cases of theft, murder and rebellion, and matters relating to property ownership, financial disputes, legitimacy, status, and inheritance.

Manumission records (grants of freedom) were often filed in local deeds registers, but they could be recorded separately. Manumission could also be granted by the local government and details may be found in local legislation and minutes of the assembly. TNA holds copies of Caribbean laws and minutes of the local assemblies.

Reports of Protectors of Slaves start in 1824 and provide details on punishments, conditions on the estates, complaints by slaves against their owners, marriages and manumissions. TNA holds reports for St Lucia, Trinidad and Guyana.

Colonial Office records, held by TNA, contain a wide variety of material relating to slaves, such as rebellions; court cases; petitions from free men and women; lists of slaves received by the government in lieu of taxes or for debt; sales of these slaves; and runaways detained in gaol or the workhouse. In the 1820s, the government asked for information on slave imports and exports, grants of freedom, baptisms and marriages. These reports are held in Colonial Office files - many just give numbers, but others give names.

Slave registers. The central registries of slaves are a census of all slaves held in the Caribbean, covering from about 1817 to 1834 when slavery was abolished. They were first established under British laws in Trinidad in 1813 and St Lucia in 1815. The other countries passed their own laws to establish local slave registries. Between 1816 and 1817, most had done so, although some started later: Bermuda in 1821, the Bahamas in 1822, Anguilla in 1827, and the Cayman Islands and Belize in 1834. Duplicate registers were sent to London and these survive at TNA in the series T 71. Many of these registers can also be searched . at Note that it is pay-per-view to view images of the relevant documents.

The slave registries were set up under a mixture of central and local laws, so the information recorded varies from country to country. The registers are arranged by owner and most contain indexes to owners or estates.

The first return is a general list of all slaves. Most later returns show only the changes to the slave populations such as deaths, births and manumissions and the movement of slaves between owners: imports, exports, sales, purchases, inheritances and gifts. Most returns group the slaves according to gender and age - so there are lists of men, boys, women and lastly girls, with few clues to family relationships.

The registers provide personal information on enslaved people:

- Name - usually this is only the plantation name, but St Lucia, Trinidad and Belize give surnames and Jamaica states a baptismal name.
- Age - this may be an estimate, especially for people born in Africa.
- Colour - often this is only black/negro for people of pure African descent, or mulatto/coloured for people of mixed European and African origins and usually means that the person is of European paternal ancestry.
- Place of birth - this might just say African or Creole (born in the Americas); others may give country of birth and occasionally African ethnic group.

Other information may include mother's name, physical description including disabilities, country marks for Africa-born people, date of birth, death or manumission, and the names of people receiving or purchasing slaves.

The registers also provide some information on owners. For example, they indicate if a person had died, or recently married because slaves were often included as dowry gifts. Registers for Barbados, Antigua and St Vincent indicate if the owner was a freed man or woman.

Slave Compensation Commission papers: Under the 1833 Emancipation Act slave owners were granted compensation. These papers held by TNA in T 71 relate to compensation claims and, although they apply mainly to owners, they can provide useful information on enslaved people such as:

- Claim certificates can include names of slaves omitted from the registers or were born between the last registration and 1 August 1834, and will usually name the mother.
- Sales of slaves, which give the names of slaves and may indicate family groups.
- Counter claims occurred where there were disputes over the ownership of the estate or slaves. For example, the land was mortgaged or a will was invalid or being disputed. Evidence presented may contain useful information about the property that includes slaves.

Newspapers contain notices of runaways, which give names, occupations, and physical description. Other notices include slave auctions, arrival of ships, names of slaves for hire, and lists of runaway slaves found. The British Library has a good collection of Caribbean newspapers.

Reconnecting with Africa

African-Caribbean genealogists are keen to discover their African ancestral roots. This can be difficult as few records give African ethnic group to help cross the Atlantic divide: auction notices rarely gave the names of slaves or purchasers. Shipping records do not give any names or origins of slaves. It is possible that receipts and accounts may say where people were bought, which may help identify the ship and then it may be possible to track back the ship's movements to Africa.

- Many African naming traditions survived in slavery and many children were given African names, although some were anglicised

Private papers and slave registers may indicate possible ethnic group, and may sometimes describe physical characteristics of slaves such as tattoos and country marks, which may provide evidence of ethnicity. Newspaper notices when describing African runaways often gave details about ethnicity.

There may be family stories about African ancestors. However, the British slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean ended in 1807, and slavery ended in 1834, and so the tales may be diluted or exaggerated.

Linguistic evidence and naming practices may also give clues. Many African naming traditions survived in slavery and many children were given African names, although some were anglicised.

In the absence of documentary evidence it has been suggested that DNA analysis may help reconnect people with Africa. The (BBC 2 Motherland documentary) told the stories of three British African-Caribbean people and their search for their African roots. Read Beaula's story.

The documentary, however, highlighted one weakness of DNA analysis: it revealed that 27 per cent of the men and 2 per cent of the women tested had European roots. This is because the DNA analysis comprises two tests: the Y-Chromosome (for men only), which shows paternal ancestry, and Mitochrodrial DNA (men and women), which shows maternal ancestry. These tests only show direct paternal and maternal DNA - it misses the DNA of other ancestors.

For example, we are about seven generations away from abolition - someone might have 64 ancestors (32 men and 32 women), but the analysis will only reveal information on two of them; and only details of the maternal line for women. If there is a European paternal or maternal line, the DNA result will be European. There is another test that breaks down a person's overall genetic make-up. For example, in the third series of 'Who Do You Think You Are?', Colin Jackson found that his genetic make-up was 7% indigenous Amerindian, 38% European and 55% African.


Family history can be very absorbing, almost addictive, and very rewarding. It can help a person to find out more about themselves, their family and where they come from. However, someone researching their family history will also need to be prepared for disappointment and maybe even anger or distress at what they may find.

- It is very likely that many, if not all of an African-Caribbean person's direct African ancestors may have been enslaved

It is very likely that many, if not all of an African-Caribbean person's direct African ancestors may have been enslaved. Moira Stewart, in the first series of Who Do You Think You Are?, although aware that this was likely, was obviously very emotional when she saw a slave register that contained the name of a possible ancestor.

Other things to think about:

- DNA may only show European paternal and maternal ancestry.
- A person may be less genetically African than they believed.
- In addition to slave ancestors, a person may also find ancestral links to slave owners, traders and raiders.
- Many records do not survive and so it may not be possible to go back many generations.
- There might not be any record of the name of an owner, so it will not be possible to progress back before the 1840s.

Find out more

There are very few printed and . guides describing sources and techniques for Caribbean family historians. I have included a couple of guides to African-American genealogy, which although relate to the USA, will be useful.

Tracing your West Indian ancestors by Guy Grannum (PRO Publications, 2002)

Ancestors by Paul Crooks (Black Amber, 2002)

Jamaican Ancestry: How to Find Out More by Madeleine E Mitchell (Heritage Books, 1998)

Jamaican Records. A Research Manual: a two-part guide to genealogical & historical research using repositories in Jamaica & England by Stephen D Porter (Stephen D Porter, 1997)

Tracing Ancestors in Barbados: A Practical Guide by Geraldine Lane (Genealogical Publishing Co Inc, 2005)

DNA and Family History by Chris Pomery (The National Archives, 2004)

Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African-American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs (The Fireside, 2001)

The How to Guide for Tracing African-American and West Indian Roots Back to Africaand Going there for Free or on a Shoestring Budget!! by James E White and Jean-Gontran Quenum (, 2004)

Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity by Dee Parmer Woodtor (Random House, 1999)

Unlocking your Genetic History: A Step-by-Step Guide to Discovering your Family's Medical and Genetic Heritage by Thomas H. Shawker (National Geneological Society Guide, 6, 2004)

Trace your Roots with DNA: Use your DNA to Complete your Family Tree by Megan Smolenyak & Ann Turner (Rodale Books, 2004)
Links - Guidance on Caribbean genealogy - Empowering and influencing the black community through history, genealogy and heritage - African-American genealogy; especially, African-American Genealogy: An . Interactive Guide for Beginners, by Dee Parmer Woodtor - index of people researching Caribbean families - list of useful addresses and resources in the Caribbean including professional researchers and material which has been microfilmed by the LDS - Caribbean genealogical web project - links to a public newsgroup and to . histories and resources ... ?art=40258 - Tracing Jamaican ancestors
Useful addresses:

The National Archives (UK), Kew, Surrey TW9 4DU. Tel: 020 8876 3444, email via webform

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - the website has . indexes to Barbadian baptisms and marriages, locations of their family history centers, and their catalogue of their microfilms of archive and library material. Its Hyde Park Family History Center, 64/68 Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, tel: 0207 589 8561, has many Caribbean resources on-site, including registers of births, marriages and deaths for Barbados and Jamaica.

Caribbean archives, libraries and registry offices:

Most archives, libraries and registry offices do not have websites and it has been difficult obtaining these addresses. Where I have found websites I have obtained contact details from these, or used other official and government sites. It is possible that some of these contact details may not be accurate. My experience is that some services are excellent and others tardy but on the whole it can take some time to get a reply - be patient.


- Anguilla Library Service, The Valley, Anguilla, BWI, tel: (264) 497-2441
- Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Judicial Department, The Valley, Anguilla, BWI, tel: (264) 497-2377


- The National Archives, Rappaport Centre, Victoria Park, St John's Antigua, West Indies, tel: (268) 462-3946, email:
- The Registrar General's Office, High Court, High Street, St John's Antigua, West Indies, tel: (268) 462-3929
- Antigua and Barbuda Public Library, Market St, St John's, Antigua and Barbuda,, tel: (268) 462-4959, email:


- Department of Archives, PO Box SS-6341, Nassau, Bahamas, tel: (242) 393-2175, email:
- Registrar General's Office, PO Box N532, Nassau, Bahamas, tel: (242) 322-3316
- Nassau Public Library and Museum, Shirley St, Nassau, Bahamas, tel (242) 322-4907


- Department of Archives, Lazaretto Building, Black Rock, St Michael, Barbados, tel: (246) 425-1380, email:
- Registration Department, Supreme Court of Barbados, Law Courts, Colleridge St, Bridgetown, Barbados,, tel: (246) 426-3461
- National Library Service, Public Services Division, Coleridge St, Bridgetown, Barbados, tel: (246) 426-6081, email:


- Belize Archives Department, 26/28 Unity Boulevard, Belmopan, Belize, tel: (501) 822 2247, email:
- Registrar General, Supreme Court, Belize City, Belize, tel: (501) 227 7377
- National Library Service, Bliss Institute, PO Box 287, Belize City, Belize,, tel: (501) 223 - 4248, email:


- Bermuda National Archives, Government Administration Building, 30 Parliament St, Hamilton HM 12, Bermuda, tel: (441) 295-5151
- Registry General, Ministry of Labor and Home Affairs, Government Administration Building, 30 Parliament St, Hamilton HM 12, Bermuda, tel: (441) 297-7739
- Bermuda National Library, 13 Queen St, Par-la-Ville, Hamilton HM 11, Bermuda, tel: (441) 295-3104

British Virgin Islands

- Library Services Department, Flemming St, Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands, tel: (284) 494-3428
- Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Government of the British Virgin Islands, Central Administration Complex, Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands, tel: (284) 494-3492, email:

Cayman Islands

- Cayman Islands National Archive, 37 Archive Lane, (P.O. Box 10160), Grand Cayman KY1-1002, CAYMAN ISLANDS. tel: (345) 949 9809, web site:, email:
- Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, General Registry Department, Tower Building, Grand Cayman. tel: (345) 244 3404, email:
- Public Library, Edward St, George Town, Grand Cayman, tel: (345) 949-5159


- National Documentation Centre and Public Library of Dominica, Roseau, Commonwealth of Dominica, tel: (767) 448-2401, email:
- General Registrar, Bay Front, Roseau, Commonwealth of Dominica, tel: (767) 448-2401


- Public Library/National Archives, 2 Carenage, St George's, Grenada, tel: (473) 440-2506
- Registrar General, Church St, St George's, Grenada, tel: (473) 440-2030


- National Archives of Guyana, 28 Main Street, Cummingsburg, Georgetown, Guyana, tel: (592) 227 7687, email:
- General Register Office, GPO Building, Robb Street, Georgetown, Guyana, tel: (592) 225-7561
- National Library, 76/77 Church & Main Streets, Georgetown, Guyana,, tel: (592) 227-4053, email:


- Jamaica Archives and Records Department, 59 Church St, Kingston, Jamaica,, tel: 876 922-8830, email:
- The Registrar General, Vital Records Information, Twickenham Park, Spanish Town, Jamaica,, tel: (876) 984-3041, e-mail:
- National Library of Jamaica, 12 East St, Kingston, Jamaica,, teL; (876) 967-1526, email:


- Montserrat Public Library, Government Headquarters, BBC Building, Brades, Montserrat, tel: (664) 491-4706, email:
- Registrar General, Department of Administration, Government Headquarters, Brades, Montserrat, tel: (664) (664) 491-2129

St Kitts and Nevis

- National Archives, Government Headquarters, Church St, Box 186, Basseterre, St Kitts, West Indies,, tel: (869) 465-2521, email:
- Nevis Archives and Library, Nevis Historical and Conservation Society, Nelson Museum, Bellevue, Charlestown, Nevis, West Indies,, tel: (869) 469-0408, email:
- Registrar General, PO Box 236, Basseterre, St Kitts, West Indies, tel: (869) 465-5251

St Lucia

- St Lucia National Archives, PO Box 3060, Clarke St, Vigie, Castries, St Lucia, tel: (758) 452-1654, email:
- Registrar of Civil Status, Peynier Street, Castries, St Lucia, tel: (758) 452-1257 Central Library of St Lucia, Bourbon St, Castries, St Lucia,

St Vincent and the Grenadines

- National Archives, Cotton Ginnery Compound Frenches, Kingstown, St Vincent and the Grenadines, tel: (784) 456-1689, e-mail:
- Registrar General, Government Buildings, Kingstown, St Vincent and the Grenadines, tel: (784) 457-1424
- Department of Libraries Archives and Documentation Services, Lower Middle Street, Kingstown, St Vincent and the Grenadines, tel: (784) 457-1111, email:

Trinidad and Tobago

- National Archives, PO Box 763, 105 St Vincent St, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, tel: (868) 625-2689, email:
- Registrar General's Office, Registration House, 72-74 South Quay, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad,, tel: (868) 624-1660
- Tobago Registrar General's Office, Jerningham Street, Scarborough, Tobago, tel: (868) 639-3210
- National Library and Information System Authority, 105 Abercromby St, Port of Spain, Trinidad,

Turks and Caicos Islands

- Turks and Caicos National Museum, Guinep House, Front Street, PO Box 188, Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos, British West Indies, tel: (649) 946-2160, e-mail: use webform
- The Registrar's General Office, Front Street, Turks & Caicos Islands, British West Indies, tel: (649) 946-2800

About the author

Guy Grannum has been researching his own Barbadian ancestry for many years, and in doing so has gained first hand an in depth knowledge of how to research West Indian ancestry. He works at The National Archives and is the author of a number of genealogical guides and article.

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