How to find key Jamaican family history records

Sharon Hintze reveals how you can trace your roots on this Caribbean island using online records, many of them free

Ruins of Mirtle Bank Hotel after the earthquake

The national motto of Jamaica is ‘Out of many, one people’, hinting at a remarkable diversity of cultures.

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Almost everyone who has been there will tell you that Jamaica is special.

It also boasts an impressive wealth of records awaiting the family historian.

Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine July 2020, on sale now

1

Church records and cemeteries

The earliest religious groups active in Jamaica were Catholics and Jews during the Spanish occupation.

The Church of England arrived with the English. By 1661 there were 15 parishes, and eventually 22, amalgamated to 14 today. The parishes came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London until 1824 when the Diocese of Jamaica was formed.

Existing records of these parishes have been digitised and indexed in a collection called Jamaica, Church of England Parish Register Transcripts 1664–1880. Because the digitised records are copies sent from the parishes to the Registry Office in Spanish Town, they are like Bishops’ Transcripts. This origin is reflected in the title of the collection.

These transcripts continue to be revised in minor ways by FamilySearch, most recently in March 2020. The transcribed text is available on Ancestry without images, and Findmypast with images, but the most up-to-date version with images is on FamilySearch.

Almost every nonconformist faith has had a presence in Jamaica as have Roman Catholics, Jews and Quakers. The best online source for these records is Patricia Jackson’s site Jamaican Family Search.

There are a surprising number of memorial inscriptions and cemetery records for the country. Many of them exist as books or pamphlets, but the best online source is again Jamaican Family Search.

2

Civil registration

Marriage record for Bob Marley's parents Norval and Cedella in 1944
Marriage record for Bob Marley’s parents Norval and Cedella in 1944
c. FamilySearch

Civil registration began in 1878 for births and deaths and 1880 for marriages, but actually started as much as four years later in some parishes. As expected, the information provided on the entries is the same as that for English certificates.

The records that are available online are births for 1878-1930, deaths for 1878–1990, and marriages for 1880–1950, although some parishes have entries a few years later than these dates, especially for deaths. Some years are missing in some parishes.

Transcriptions appear on Ancestry, and you can find transcriptions with images on FamilySearch. The FamilySearch transcriptions and images have also been shared with Findmypast and MyHeritage.

You will need to contact the Registrar General’s Department in Kingston for later birth and marriage entries.

3

Censuses

Censuses were taken in the British Caribbean from time to time between the 17th and the 19th centuries, but none of these contain names of individuals. An exception is a census for 1823 for the parish of Hanover on Jamaican Family Search.

Census substitutes include the Jamaica Almanacs containing both civil and military individuals, and a small selection of directories. Transcriptions of individuals in these are also available on Jamaican Family Search.

4

Military records

Jamaicans of different ethnicities served in both world wars and also in the Merchant Navy. Unfortunately those not of British parentage suffered frequently both as a group and as individuals from racial discrimination, and few black soldiers ever became officers.

Service records for all Jamaicans should be sought in the usual collections such as British Army Service Records, British Army First World War Casualty Lists and British Army Casualty Lists 1939–1945, all of which can be found on Findmypast and many are also on Ancestry.

5

Newspapers

Newspapers have existed in Jamaica since the 18th century.

The Royal Gazette of Jamaica 1779–1840 is available on Findmypast to those who have a ‘Pro’ subscription; it is also on the British Newspaper Archive.

There are many transcriptions of personal items on the Jamaican Family Search website for 1793 and 1794, and for a handful of other years with useful genealogical information.

The Kingston Gleaner and sister title the Sunday Gleaner both started life in 1834 as the Daily Gleaner and are available all the way up to the current day at gleaner.newspaperarchive.com.

The Kingston Gleaner is full of the kind of treasures we all hope for: accident reports, names of people in a graduating class and legal notices, as well as the usual birth, marriage and death notices.

6

Slaves and their owners

Slave register 1820
Return of Slaves, 1820. A register of enslaved people on the Knight’s Estate, Jamaica. Available on ancestry.co.uk
c. The National Archives/Ancestry

After the 1807 prohibition of further slaves into Jamaica, there was recognition of the need to track existing ‘legal’ individuals. Estate owners were required at intervals of three years to make a list of their slaves, and compare it to the previous list explaining the differences. The registers cease in 1834 when slavery was abolished.

Slave registers are available on Ancestry for free in the collection Former British Colonial Dependencies, Slave Registers, 1813–1834. The registers, which cover all of the British Caribbean islands, constitute a crucial census for slaves.

A great deal of information about estates, individuals, maps and legacies (such as country houses built on Caribbean wealth) is held by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London. This gives access to the history of estates, entries in the Jamaica Almanac, slave compensation claims, etc.

The two collections complement each other, so we can use details from a slave register to find out further information on the UCL database.

7

Wills and probate

Where there is property, there are wills. More than 600 people with Jamaican connections have Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills. These are listed for 1655–1816 in Caribbeana, Being Miscellaneous Papers Relating to the History, Genealogy, Topography and Antiquities of the British West Indies Volumes 2, 4 and 5. An index to the locally held wills 1725–1927 can be found on Jamaican Family Search, together with transcriptions of some of the wills.

8

Passenger lists

Windrush passenger list 1948
Windrush passenger list, 1948, available from Ancestry.co.uk
c. The National Archives/Archives
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Details of passengers who arrived in the UK between 1878 and 1960 are held at The National Archives in their BT 26 series, however this collection is also available online at Ancestry. If your relative was part of the Windrush generation you will be able to find their name, age, proposed address in the UK and occupation. Using this information, you may be able to take your research back further in Jamaica.