Trace your Caribbean ancestors like Liz Bonnin
Inspired by Liz Bonnin's episode? Who Do You Think You Are? television series genealogist Laura Berry highlights the wide range of resources available for researching ancestors from the Caribbean
In her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Liz Bonnin researched the lives of her maternal ancestors on the island of Trinidad (Credit: Getty Images)
Irish presenter Liz Bonnin was born to a French Martinican father and Trinidadian mother with Indian and Portuguese ancestry. Such an exotic cultural mix is a reflection of the diverse populations that settled in the Caribbean, whether by choice or by force.
The history of the Caribbean islands was dominated by sugar and slavery from the 16th century, when the first European colonies were established there. African slaves were transported to the islands in huge numbers by the 18th century, and slavery was not abolished in the British Caribbean until 1838, in the French Caribbean until 1848 and in the Dutch Caribbean until 1863.
Unfortunately, researching slave ancestry using documentary sources is often complicated and might not be possible at all before these dates. Even after slavery was abolished, family history research can be difficult because children were frequently born out of wedlock and subsequently registered with their mother’s surname and they sometimes adopted their father’s surname when they grew up.
It wasn’t uncommon for people to have large extended families made up of half brothers and sisters and a couple might marry later in life long after having had children.
Incoming passenger lists, held by The National Archives, can be viewed digitally on genealogy subscription websites including Ancestry
Oral history is invaluable for researching Caribbean roots. It’s vital to talk to as many relations as possible to try to find out when your relatives left the Caribbean if they emigrated, and exactly where they came from.
If any relations settled in the UK then it may be possible to order a marriage certificate from the General Register Office here to find out what their fathers’ names and occupations were.
Ships’ passenger lists for people arriving in the UK up to 1960 can be searched on Ancestry and in the mid-20th century these sometimes provide dates of birth and additional information about citizenship.
A fair amount of research can be done online now, aided by free genealogy websites like caribbeanfamilyhistory.org, but it’s always best to try to visit the places where your family were last known to reside and speak to neighbours – island communities are close-knit and memories go back a long way.
The Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer website offers free access to baptism and marriage registers from several French Caribbean islands
Births, marriages and deaths
A large number of births, marriages and deaths registered in Jamaica and Barbados have been scanned and made available at FamilySearch. Just register for a free account to see the digital images. You’ll find records for other areas of the Caribbean too by using the ‘Research by Location’ map on the ‘Search’ page.
Church registers of baptisms and marriages in Martinique, Guadeloupe and other French Caribbean islands can be searched online for free here, and the available records can be very detailed.
Anglican churches in the British Caribbean did not start to admit slaves until the 1820s. As a result, African-Caribbean people were more likely to worship at a nonconformist chapel instead, so you may need to search the records of the local Baptist, Methodist and Moravian churches.
Locating civil records is not always straightforward either. Only an official government search clerk can access records at the Registrar General’s Department for Trinidad and Tobago, and searches are restricted to three-year blocks. Navigate to the ‘Family and Relationships’ page at ttconnect.gov.tt to find contact details.
Obituaries and announcements of deaths in newspapers can prove useful too. The British Library News Room holds microfilmed newspapers published in the colonies, such as The Trinidad Guardian and The Barbados Standard.
Records relating to Indian immigrants who moved to Trinidad can be found online at the nat.gov.tt website
Following the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean, indentured labourers willing to work cheaply were shipped from India and China to replenish the workforce. Passenger lists from the 19th century told Liz Bonnin where her Trinidadian ancestors came from in India. Their passage was paid, but they were contracted to work on the same plantation for years.
The National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago hold registers of Indian immigrants who arrived between 1845 and 1917 – information about them and lots of other useful guides for researching ancestors from these islands can be found at trinidadandtobagofamilyhistory.org.
As with slave ancestors, if you can establish which family or estate they worked for then it’s worth searching for estate records. Those that have been brought back to the UK may be found via The National Archives' Discovery catalogue.
Slavery records can sometimes be difficult to trace (Credit: Getty Images)
Manumission records created when slaves were freed can be found in local archives, and registers listing slaves and their owners in the British Caribbean between 1813 and 1834 are available on Ancestry.
Further records of the Slave Compensation Committee may be found in series T 71 at The National Archives in Kew, where there are also reports of protectors of slaves from Trinidad, St Lucia, Guyana and so on within Colonial Office files.
Slaves rarely had surnames so there is a higher chance of finding information for slave owners than their slaves. The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership has a database of owners and their associates at ucl.ac.uk/lbs.
There are records and registers of slaves held in Martinique online here but, again, you need to know the name of the owner to begin a search, and the records are in French.
Details of plantations can often by found by searching newspapers and colonial gazettes (Credit: Getty Images)
Additional information for plantation owners can be found in the form of probate, land and church records in local archives. Newspapers and colonial gazettes are also worth searching. Le Journal Officiel de la Martinique is freely online along with other published sources via the Bibliothéque Nationale de France website.
In theory, everything in the regional Departmental Archives in the French Caribbean has been duplicated and copies deposited at the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer.
This includes colonial compensation records of payments made to owners by the government when slaves were freed, and ‘actes notaries’, being legal records and wills. Some records have been digitised here.
In the British Caribbean, colonial ‘Blue Books’ recorded the names of local civil servants, and these may be accessed at some university libraries such as the Senate House Library in London.