*   Tracing Caribbean Roots
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* Introduction
* Caribbean
*Tracing Caribbean Roots
*Life Events
*Land and Property
*Slavery Records
* Irish
* Jewish
* South Asian


In this section * * * * *
West Indians: An Introduction*    
West Indians In Britain*    
How Do I Start My Research?*   newspapers and early official gazettes* electoral registers* The records of the Colonial Office* Other sources of information for tracing Caribbean Roots*   
A Few Words of Warning!*   The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints*   
Homeward Bound!*    
How Do I Find the Country of My Ancestors?*    
Case Study*   personal account of Paul Crooks*   

"West Indians: Out of Many, One People"(Jamaican Motto)

*West Indians: An Introduction*top of page

A Hindu temple, Trinidad in 1931
A Hindu temple in Trinidad, 1931.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (RGS) S0001796
The former British West Indies are among a chain of volcanic and coral islands stretching from Florida to Venezuela across the Caribbean Sea. They include Anguilla, Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Because of the historic links between the British West Indies and Belize and Guyana in Central and South America, people from these countries are also considered to be West Indian or Caribbean.

When Europeans first discovered the West Indies in 1492 most of the islands had *indigenous populations. The Portuguese and Spanish enslaved many of these *Amerindians to work on plantations and in the gold mines of South America. Large numbers of people died when the Europeans arrived, either through violence resisting the invaders or from diseases brought in by the newcomers against which the people of the Caribbean had no protection.

By the mid-17th century the indigenous population of Jamaica had been considerably reduced, although St Lucia, Dominica, St Vincent and Tobago still had large numbers of indigenous people. Indeed, on St Lucia, St Vincent and Tobago, the Caribs, one of the indigenous groups in the West Indies, managed to resist European expansion until the 18th century. *Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink is an online resource for the Caribbean Amerindian communities.

Although the Spanish were the earliest European arrivals in the Caribbean, they did not establish permanent settlement on most of the islands. The Americas were 'beyond the line': they lay outside the territorial limits of treaties or agreements made between European countries, and disputes in the Americas did not invalidate peace treaties in Europe.

Two members of the harbour police force in Bridgetown, Barbados on duty in 1955
Two members of the harbour police force in Bridgetown, Barbados on duty in 1955. Their uniform was similar to that worn by sailors in the Royal Navy at the time of Nelson, some 150 years earlier.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) INF 10/40/009
While the Spanish tried to keep other European powers out of America, the allure of gold, which was intensified by myths such as the fabled golden city known as El Dorado, acted as a magnet to adventurers and pirates. During the 17th and 18th centuries other European countries (mostly the Netherlands, France, England, Portugal, and, to a lesser extent, Denmark and Sweden) challenged Spanish claims to the Americas and settled on many Caribbean islands, as well as in different parts of North and South America.

Until the mid-19th century, regular territorial disputes and European wars meant that control of the islands frequently changed hands between one European power and another. On islands captured by Britain from the Spanish, French and Dutch, there was little or no attempt to expel all the non-British. During the French Revolution and Spanish-American independence wars, many refugees fled to so-called friendly British islands.

The majority of Caribbean people are immigrants and include a diverse population of Caribbean Amerindians and the descendants of African slaves and settlers, and Dutch, Spanish, British, Portuguese, Lebanese, Chinese, Danish, Asian Indian, German and French settlers.

The largest ethnic groups in Anglo-Caribbean countries today are people of African, British and Asian-Indian descent.

*West Indians In Britain*top of page

At work on a sugar plantation
Workers on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean before the First World War.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (RGS) S0001575
The term 'West Indian' originally had two meanings. The first described a person born or settled in the West Indies. The second described someone living in Britain who had a financial interest in the West Indies, such as a merchant (trader) or and owner of an *estate there. These people may never have left Britain but are nevertheless referred to as West Indian merchants.

Since the settling of Caribbean countries in the 17th century Caribbean people have returned or migrated to Britain. Many *planters, land owners and merchants living in the West Indies sent their children to school in Britain and may themselves have retired to Britain, bringing their servants, including slaves, with them. West Indian merchant seamen, soldiers and sailors were often discharged in Britain and decided to remain there, and many others arrived as businessmen and students.

While white Caribbean migrants were soon integrated into British population and society, black Caribbean migrants could not easily do so because of their colour. Most early black Caribbean settlers in Britain were men - discharged soldiers and sailors, or students. Since there were no Caribbean communities in England at this date, they usually married white women which meant that after several generations, descendants of these settlers would be considered white.

Although Caribbean people have settled in the UK for over 300 years it was not until 1948 that large numbers migrated to the UK and this is demonstrated in the census returns, covering the period 1891-1951. It is not possible to identify ethnic origin here although it can be assumed that the majority of migrants were of African descent and to a lesser extent European and Asian.

Passenger list of the Tilapa
Passenger list of the Tilapa from July 1948. The Tilapa departed from Jamaica and arrived in Liverpool.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) BT 26/1234/0015

*How Do I Start My Research?*top of page

The techniques and sources for researching Caribbean families are essentially the same whether you are starting with a family in the UK, USA, Canada or in the Caribbean. You may find it useful to read our first steps in family history section for tips.

  • First of all start with what you know about yourself and immediate family.
  • Talk to family members to find out dates of births, marriages and deaths of parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and other such details.
  • Try to find out people's official names; many people from the Caribbean use family and pet names, which are different from their official names as used by employers and the state. You will need to know the official names in order to research further information from religious, employment or government documents.
  • Try to discover where events happened; this is important because there are 20 Anglo-Caribbean countries and each has their own records and *archive offices. In the UK there are separate archive offices for events that occurred in Scotland, Ireland or in England and Wales.
  • Collect or copy photographs, birth and baptism certificates, family letters, information written in family bibles, and family trees; listen to family tales and oral traditions, which if not totally accurate may have some truth in them.
At some point your research will take you beyond your immediate family and you will need to visit archives, register offices, religious institutions and libraries. In order to do this you need to know:

  • Where your family is from, and ideally the *parish or village. Click here for some tips on how to find the Caribbean island of your ancestors.
  • Approximately when they lived there
It will also be useful if you know:

The sources you will start searching will be dependant on the information you know already but they will include:

Family portrait - 1970's
A colour studio portrait of a family in the 1970's in Birmingham.
Why not read a story, contributed by Ruth Crook, which may give you some insight into how best to start your family history research.

*A Few Words of Warning!*top of page

  • It is not always possible to identify people who are from the Caribbean. West Indians have European or Asian surnames and first names.
  • UK records rarely say where someone was born or their ethnic origin. For example, a UK census return under the heading 'Where born' may only say 'West Indies' and occasionally this may be annotated with 'BS' or 'British Subject' .
  • Britain does not hold the domestic (locally created) records of her dependencies and former colonies. There are no unified records and most records for family historians, if they survive, are to be found in the archives and register offices of the relevant country. Many have been microfilmed by the *The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Read more on the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints*. However, The National Archives holds the records of the Colonial Office Colonial Office and other departments which touch upon Caribbean affairs. There are many records that complement and duplicate material that no longer survives in the Caribbean.
  • Local Caribbean records are incomplete. Many historical records have been lost through neglect, poor record-keeping practices and fire - fates familiar to researchers in Britain. Most of the losses, however, are due to two major factors which will not be experienced by researchers in Britain:
    War and Invasion This often led to the destruction of public and private buildings, estates and personal property and the migration of victors and the defeated.
    Tropical Climate High humidity, tropical insects and tropical storms, especially hurricanes, are a significant cause for the loss of records. In addition many of the islands experience earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The remains of Richmond Great House
The remains of Richmond Great House in St Vincent which was destroyed and buried in volcanic dust and ash when Soufrière erupted on May 8th 1902, killing over 1, 600 people.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (RGS) S0001852
  • Local records are not centralised and each county has its own archives, libraries and registry offices.
  • Records (in the UK and in the Caribbean) are not always written in English: those countries which were conquered or granted to Britain still used Dutch, Spanish or French in official correspondence and legal documents for many years afterwards.
  • Many Caribbean countries were captured from or taken over from other European powers and records of their pre-British history may survive in national and provincial archives in other countries.
  • Write everything down and include the source such as the family bible, archive address and reference; you may also find it useful to record sources for which you did not find any information.
  • Respect people's wishes: if they do not want to give you information do not press them.
  • And last but by no means least - check the original material whenever possible as errors may have crept into indexes or transcripts.
Rodney House, Spanish Town, Jamaica
The Rodney Memorial building and colonnade were erected to commemorate the victory of British Admiral Lory Rodney over the French at the Battle of the Saints in 1782.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (RGS) S0001679

*Homeward Bound!*top of page

Maroon Negroes
Two Maroons in Jamaica around 1909. The Maroons are the descendants of run-away slaves from the days of Spanish colonial rule.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (RGS) S0001636
With the exception of a minority of surviving Caribbean Amerindians in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, most people from the Caribbean are immigrants. Therefore, the culmination of your research may be to find the country of origin for your Caribbean ancestors. If you are lucky enough to find clues to the homeland for your West Indian ancestors you will be able to start researching archives in that country. If your ancestor migrated before the 18th century you may also need to know from which town, village or parish he or she left because most records were made by religious or local authorities rather than by the state. However, not all countries recorded events in legal documents and you may need to research oral evidence and traditions.

*How Do I Find the Country of My Ancestors?*top of page

A street scene in Montego Bay
A street scene in Montego Bay in January 1961.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) INF 10/143/002

Each country is independently governed and therefore each country maintains its own archives and register offices. There are no central indexes or lists of families who lived on the islands.

*Case Study*top of page

Paul Crooks was raised a stone's throw from Wembley Football Stadium and now lives not far away with his wife and daughter. He started searching for his African slave ancestors after being told it was not possible and it has taken him 13 years of research to trace them. After his lengthy and arduous research, Paul gathered all the facts and wrote the book Ancestors. Read this personal account of Paul Crooks* about his search for his forebears and where he found them!

Creators: Guy Grannum

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