Searching for Jamaican ancestors

Although the country's records are often incomplete, Jenny Thomas explains how researching your Jamaican ancestors can still be an exciting and rewarding process.

Ruins of Mirtle Bank Hotel after the earthquake

‘Out of many, one people’ – so runs a traditional Jamaican saying, and it is particularly relevant to the study of Jamaican genealogy, which is likely to become a study of movement to and from the island.

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But whatever your connection, it will always be an exciting area to research: what were your ancestors doing in Jamaica? From where, when and why did they come, and to where, when and why did they go?

Your research may be full of the unexpected. But before you begin, take heed of a basic health warning: Jamaican genealogical records are not as thorough or as easy to use as those we take for granted in Britain. There are no surviving censuses for the island, and sometimes you will find that key information is missing from the vital records – for example, parents’ names on a birth certificate.

But this is no reason to despair. Colin Jackson demonstrated just how much the records can tell us: if you persist, there is plenty to be uncovered. And the good news is that you will not have to travel to Jamaica in order to do your research. Many of the records are available in the UK, and for the remainder, you might choose to hire a Jamaican researcher or communicate directly with the Registrar’s General Department. Here are some suggestions as to how you might set about your research.

1

Basic information

Collate the basic details that are already known to you and your family.

Write down as many of your ancestors’ names, dates, locations and occupations as you can, and any other details that you can muster.

It is helpful to put the same questions to several family members: different relatives may tell you different stories or have flexible ideas about names, dates and ages: this is what oral history is all about. Note them all down, and you can investigate later. It is helpful to check that the names you are recording are the actual names of your ancestors, rather than pet names (which are very common in Jamaica), and it is worth while recording birthdays and anniversaries even if the precise year is not known.

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One of the key pieces of information that you will need is the area of Jamaica in which your ancestors lived: ideally, the name of the parish. There are more than 20 parishes on the island, so if you have no idea where you are looking, your search may be a long one.

2

UK arrival dates

If the period of your ancestors’ residence is Jamaica is not preserved in the family memory, there are other sources which may be able to help.

You can use certificates, census returns, parish records and passenger lists to try and establish when they were in this country and when abroad.

You might also try Jamaican almanacs (information handbooks), particularly if you are researching an unusual name, to see if you can find a presence in Jamaica.

Basic genealogical sources, or indexes to them, are available at:

www.ancestry.co.uk
www.findmypast.com
www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

Almanacs and all kinds of Jamaican genealogy resources are available on the free www.jamaicanfamilysearch.com website, or at archives in Jamaica.

3

Jamaican records

Use records of birth, marriage and death to work your family lines back.

Civil registration began in Jamaica in 1878, and you can hope to find similar information to that found on British certificates – although sometimes, frustratingly, essential pieces are missing. Before 1878 the key resource is parish records, which just like their British equivalents, rarely give the same range of information as civil registration certificates.

You can get a lot out of these records, but it is important not to assume that because someone has the right name, that they are necessarily related to your family. It is fine to put dotted lines on your family tree to indicate that you are not sure.

A good collection of Jamaican genealogical records is available at the Latter Day Saints Family History Centre at Hyde Park; their website is a good place to start.

The LDS collections do not cover much of the period after 1930. The Registrar’s General Department in Jamaica holds full copies of the birth, marriage and death records, and their material is indexed. Further information is available at their website.

4

LDS records

There are all kinds of other records available at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) centre and in Jamaica: wills, slave registers, military records, gazetteers, pedigrees and more.

There will also be records of the administration of the colony at The National Archives at Kew. It is a question of searching the catalogues and examining anything that might be relevant to you. If you are searching for ancestors who immigrated to this country, try looking for a naturalisation record on the National Archives website.

The Jamaica Archives and Records Department is also a good source of information.

Tip: Remember that slaves often took the name of the master when they were liberated.

5

Read around

You can gain a great deal of useful background information by examining the wider history of Jamaica and its people.

Even if you cannot prove precisely who your ancestors were and what they were doing, histories of the island can give you a good idea of the patterns of movement and activity in which they might have been involved. There is plenty of information on the Web about slavery in Jamaica, and Wikipedia’s History of Jamaica page  gives a good introduction.