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Slave registers

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Slave registration


The slave registers are among the records of the Registry of Colonial Slaves and the records of the Slave Compensation Commission in the National Archives series T 71.

The returns are in T 71/1-671. There are loose miscellaneous returns (some of which may be duplicates) in T 71/681-683. The returns are arranged by colony – firstly the Caribbean colonies followed by Mauritius, Cape Colony (Republic of South Africa) and finally Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The registers were later used by the Slave Compensation Commissions to establish legal ownership for compensating slave owners in the British colonies in America, Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius under the abolition of slavery act, 1833; there are slave registers for Ceylon (Sri Lanka) but Ceylon was excluded from the provisions of this act.

They are of international importance (note 1), being nominal censuses of all slaves legally held in the former British colonies and Overseas British Territories in the Caribbean, South Africa (Cape of Good Hope), Sri Lanka and Mauritius between 1815 and 1834. Although they are duplicates of returns made in the colonies it is known that they have not all survived locally (note 2). It is estimated that there may be as many as 3 million people described in the registers, although most people are likely to be duplicated through the returns, which were held approximately every three years.

Background to the slave registers

The slave trade from Africa to the British colonies was made illegal from 1807 (note 3), but other forms for slave trade, for example between the islands and importations from foreign countries did not become illegal until 1811 (note 4). As a means to monitor the illicit transportation of slaves the British government attempted to pass a bill to set up colonial slave registries. There was much opposition and the bill was withdrawn but an Order in Council was passed on 26 March 1812 to establish a registry of slaves in Trinidad (PC 2/192). This registry was extended to St Lucia and Mauritius by a second Order in Council on 24 September 1814 (PC 2/196). Following renewed pressure by government and the anti-slavery lobby the other colonies were encourage to pass their own slave registry legislation. Between December 1816 and May 1817 most colonies passed acts to establish their own registries. These were submitted to the Privy Council and approved on 9 January 1818 (PC 2/200) (note 5). However, this did not include all colonies or dependencies: Bermuda and the Bahamas did not establish their registries until 1821 and 1822 respectively, and the Cayman Islands (a dependency of Jamaica) and Honduras (Belize) did not make any returns until 1834 in a pragmatic approach to enable their slave owners to be compensated when slavery was abolished on 1 August 1834; the Honduras slave registry was established under the British Abolition of Slavery Act, 1833, (s62).

A Colonial Office circular of 6 February 1818 (CO 854/1, fos 58-61) was sent to West Indian governors with instructions for the registrars of slaves. The instructions described how a register was to be maintained: each volume was to have an index to owners and plantations at the front and on completion of each register the registrar was to compile in a separate book an index to slaves. Since very few indexes to slaves are found in T 71, either the instructions were not followed or few transmitted to the Registry of Colonial Slaves. The former is likely to be the case as it was not practical in the vast majority of cases where slaves did not have last names and the indexes would have pages of Williams and Marys (see T 71/493 for St Vincent, 1817 as the only example). However, there are indexes for St Lucia (T 71/376-377, 1815 only) and Trinidad (see T 71/502-519) where the slaves had surnames recorded. The first Trinidad registers (1813-1816, T 71/502-505) index all slaves, thereafter only new born or imported slaves are indexed.

An act of 1819 established the Registry of Colonial Slaves in London (note 6), which was to receive copies and duplicates of all registries or returns of slaves, indexes and abstracts and associated papers. Under the act no slave could be bought, sold, conveyed, imported, exported, or inherited etc without first being registered in the appropriate island registry. A Colonial Office circular of 1 May 1821 (CO 854/1, fo94) instructed governors to forward duplicates of the slave registers and associated abstracts and indexes to the Registry of Colonial Slaves; however, The National Archives does not hold any registers for Cape Colony after the 1819 return.

Under the terms of the abolition of slavery act 1833 (note 7) registered ex-slaves in the American colonies over the age of 6 on 1 August 1834 became bound apprenticed labourers until 1 August 1840. Slavery was not abolished in Cape of Good Hope or Mauritius until four and six months later respectively (s65); the territories of the East India Company, St Helena and Ceylon are expressly excluded from this act (s44). Slaves living in Britain or arriving in Britain after the passing of the act were freed (s3). The slave registers were used by the local authorities to determine who were to be apprenticed labourers and by the Slave Compensation Commissioners to establish legal ownership and final evaluations for compensation purposes.

Sri Lanka registers

The Sri Lanka registers need to be described separately. The type of slavery and history of slave registration for Ceylon (Sri Lanka) differs from the other colonies. It appears that Ceylon did not extensively use imported slave labour from India, Africa or Indonesia and instead had a form of domestic slavery, noted in the registers as Covia, Nallua and Palla caste (Koviyar, Nallavar, and Pallar). However, it seems that the British administration also inherited some non-indigenous slaves from the earlier Dutch administration. These slaves are listed in the "Domestic" returns and usually have single names such as October and Pompey. The first registration of slaves was made for the Jaffnapatam district under 13th regulation of 1806 whereby owners of slaves in that district were to register their slaves within four months or forfeit legal title to their slaves. It appears that the penalty was not enacted and in 1808 the regulation was suspended under the 3rd regulation and extended for a further six months. After which officers were directed to liberate and issue deeds of manumission to all slaves who had not been registered (described in the Ceylon Government Gazette, 20 June 1818, CO 58/3). In 1818 following the still birth of Princess Caroline’s baby loyal Dutch and local inhabitants made a loyal address to the prince regent offering to free all children born to their female slaves who were born on or after his birthday (August 12) in 1816. This led to a proclamation dated 25 March 1818 which stated that "the necessary regulation for securing the full execution of the humane and liberal views of the subscribers of the address to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent will be promulgated in a short period" (Ceylon Government Gazette, 28 march 1818, CO 58/2). Regulation 8 of 1818 (18 June 1818) was an interim solution, which suspended the earlier regulations until a time when a new and efficient registry was established (Ceylon Government Gazette, 20 June 1818, CO 58/3). The registration of slaves was re-enacted under regulation 9 of 1818 (5 August 1818), which set up two registers: domestic slaves and register of Covia, Nallua and Palla slaves, which appear to be agricultural castes (published in the Ceylon Government Gazette, 14 August 1818 and includes a list of the subscribers to the loyal address, CO 58/3).


There are slave registers for all principal slave owning plantation colonies and their dependencies in the Americas, South Africa and the Indian Ocean. There are no returns for the territories of the East India Company which although British were not colonies at the time. There are returns for the following colonies:

  • Anguilla (a dependency of St Christopher)
  • Antigua
  • Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Berbice (Guyana)
  • Bermuda
  • Cape Colony (Republic of South Africa)
  • Cayman Islands (a dependency of Jamaica)
  • Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
  • Demerara & Essequibo (Guyana)
  • Dominica
  • Grenada
  • Honduras (Belize)
  • Jamaica
  • Mauritius
  • Montserrat
  • Nevis
  • St Christopher (St Kitts)
  • St Lucia
  • St Vincent
  • Tobago
  • Trinidad
  • Virgin Islands

Most returns of colonial dependencies are found among the returns of the principle colony, for example the returns for the Seychelles are under Mauritius, and the Turks Islands are under the Bahamas. However, it is apparent from the catalogue that some dependencies either made later separate returns from the principle colony (eg Anguilla in 1827 and the Cayman Islands in 1834) or may have been excluded altogether. It will be difficult to establish if dependencies have been excluded because the registers do not always record parish, for example the declarations made on the Antiguan returns reveal that the returns relate only to Antigua because the declarations make occasional reference to additional slaves working on other islands especially Barbuda. It is unclear if owners who only lived in Barbuda also made returns. Without extensive analysis of the registers and knowledge of slave owners not living on the principal colonies it will not be possible to identify omissions.

Summary of the returns

  • For a detailed statistical analysis of the Caribbean registers see Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834, chapter 2

Summary analysis of the slave registers: Slaves

All the returns give the slave’s plantation name, gender and age

Country General Return (census of all slaves) Increase or Decrease return (eg births, deaths, purchases etc) Index to owner Index to slaves Surname Colour Country of birth Occupation Family group Mother Other family
Anguilla 1827, 1835 1833, 1834 Y Y Y Y
Antigua 1817, 1821, 1824, 1828, 1832 Y Y
Bahamas 1822, 1825, 1828, 1831, 1834 Y S Y A/C Y
Barbados 1817, 1820, 1834 1823, 1826, 1829, 1832 Y Y Y Y
Berbice 1817, 1819 1822, 1825, 1828, 1831, 1834 Y Y Y Y Y S
Bermuda 1821, 1827, 1830, 1833 N S Y Y Y
British Honduras 1834 Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
British Virgin Islands 1818 1822, 1825, 1828, 1831, 1834 Y Y Y
Cayman Islands 1834 Y Y
Demerara & Essequibo 1817, 1820, 1823, 1826, 1829, 1832 N Y Y Y Y
Dominica 1817 1820, 1823, 1826, 1829, 1832 Y Y A/C Y Y
Grenada 1817, 1821, 1825, 1829, 1833, 1834 Annual 1817-1834 Y Y Y Y S
Jamaica 1817 1820, 1823, 1826, 1829, 1832 S S Y A/C S
Nevis 1817 1822, 1825, 1828, 1831, 1834 Y Y A/C S
Montserrat 1817, 1821, 1824, 1828, 1831 Y Y Y
St Kitts 1817 1822, 1825, 1828, 1831, 1834 Y Y Y Y
St Lucia 1815 1819, 1822, 1825, 1828, 1831, 1834 S 1815 rtn Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
St Vincent 1817, 1834 1822, 1825, 1828, 1831, 1834 (note 8) Y 1817 rtn Y Y Y S
Tobago 1819 Annual 1820-1834 Y Y Y Y
Trinidad (note 9) 1813 1815, 1816, 1819, 1822, 1825, 1828, 1831, 1834 Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y

Where there are no indexes the returns tend to be organised by parish and then by initial letter of owner, or person making the return.


  • Y = Yes
  • S = Sometimes
  • A/C = African or Creole
  • N/A = not applicable – Cayman Islands and British Honduras (Belize) made only one return (1834)

Summary analysis of the slave registers: Slave owners

Country Index to owner Index to estate Indication if owner signed the declaration (or made their mark) Parish Estate or town Ethnicity (non-white) Name of purchaser, seller etc
Anguilla Y Y
Antigua Y Y S Y S
Bahamas S Y Y S Y
Barbados Y Y Y Y Y
Berbice Y Y Y S Y Y Y
Bermuda S
British Honduras Y N/A
British Virgin Islands Y Y Y Y Y
Cayman Islands Y Y S N/A
Demerara & Essequibo Y Y Y Y Y S
Dominica Y Y Y S Y
Grenada Y Y Y Y Y
Jamaica S Y Y Y S Y
Montserrat Y Y Y Y Y
Nevis Y Y Y Y Y Y
St Kitts Y Y Y Y Y
St Lucia S S Y Y S S
St Vincent Y Y Y Y Y
Tobago Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Trinidad Y Y Y Y Y

In some instances the person making the return recorded in the index or on the individual return is not the owner. Also, occasionally plantations are not indexed under the owner’s name (or the name of the person making the return) and in these instances you need to know the name of the plantation. Where there are no indexes the returns tend to be organised by parish and then by initial letter of owner, or person making the return.


  • Y = Yes
  • S = Sometimes
  • N/A = not applicable – Cayman Islands and British Honduras (Belize) made only one return (1834)


Because the returns were established separately and under different legislation the arrangement and content varies significantly between each colony and occasionally between the first and subsequent returns.

In general terms the registers are organised firstly by parish, either by separate volumes or internally within each volume, and then usually arranged alphabetically by the initial letter of the surname of the owner, or person making the return or the name of the estate. Most registers have indexes to owners and estates; occasionally the person making the return is indexed instead of the owner. In most cases if someone else made the return the relationship is given, for example the return of Sarah Jones, deceased, by Richard Jones, executor, or the return of John Smith (a minor), by Mary Smith his mother.

Two types of return were compiled: general registers listing all slaves and increase/decrease returns showing changes in the slave populations.

Usually only the first return is a general register with complete lists all slaves. Thereafter, most returns were carried out every three years and only list increases and decreases in the slave populations. For example, these latter returns will only list births, deaths, purchases, sales, manumissions (grants of freedom), imports, exports, bequests, inheritances, runaways and gifts. It is likely that there will be under recording of births of children and possibly of newly received slaves if they died before the next return.

However, some countries had triennial general registers (Grenada, Demerara and Essequibo, Montserrat, Bermuda and Bahamas) and a few had ad hoc censuses (Berbice, St Vincent and Barbados). Most increases and decrease returns were made every three years but Grenada and Tobago has annual returns.


The content varies significantly between countries and between returns:

The most basic returns contain the following:

  • Index to owners
  • Name of owner or person making the return
  • Name of slave
  • Sex of slave
  • Reputed age of slave

More detailed returns may contain the following:

  • Index to owners
  • Index to slaves
  • Name of owner or person making the return (often with the name of the owner)
  • Status of owner, eg deceased, minor, infant, executor etc
  • Parish (or island) of owner
  • Colour of owner
  • Signature or mark of owner
  • Name of the estate
  • Crops grown
  • Name of slave
  • Family name (occasionally baptismal name)
  • Reputed age of slave (occasionally with date of birth)
  • Country of birth (often only Creole or African but more usually the country, eg Creole of Barbados or African ethnic group such as Mandingo)
  • Colour of slave (often Negro or Black or Coloured, but occasionally other descriptions indicating decrees African or European)
  • Mother’s name (very occasionally the father)
  • Occupation
  • Location of slave (if not resident with the owner, for example the slave may be hired out or working on different island)
  • Remarks (eg country marks, tattoos or disability)

The triennial returns will update this information especially for slaves born, died, imported, exported, purchased, sold, inherited, bequeathed, gifted, executed and freed etc and may give the date of the event and the name of the former and new owner.

The registers, with the exception of St Lucia and Mauritius, are in English. The St Lucia and Mauritius returns are in French and some research will be needed to fully understand the relationships between slaves, their occupations and colour.

Some of the information about the owner or the slave may come from the declarations at the end of each return rather than the actual return.

Non-register material

The registers were established to record the ownership of slaves but several of the returns contain additional information. For example the returns for the Bahamas include names of slaves imported and exported, the final return for Anguilla lists apprentices and Cape Colony has returns of mortgaged slaves.

Means of access and research techniques

The way into the registers is difficult especially if researchers are looking for particular slaves. Most registers, especially the general registers, have indexes to slave owners and estates and give the name of the parish or district. Difficulties can arise if the indexes only include the name of the person making the return rather than the owner or if there are joint owners and where estates are not given – in these cases the returns may not always give the owner and the researcher needs additional information to find the relevant return.

For people looking for particular slaves they need the name of the owner, even in the few colonies where slaves have surnames and are indexed there may be several people of that name.

Additionally, most countries have a single general register of all slaves as the first return, and thereafter only increases, decreases and transfers are recorded. This can make researching individual slaves extremely difficult as one will need to search for the first return where the person appears and then track forward to see if the person is transferred to another owner or freed or dies. Usually the registers will either name the person who receives the slave or give a cross-reference to the new owner’s return. There are occasions, however, where this is not straightforward. For example, the new owner has purchased the slave with the sole intent to free the slave – if the owner is not resident in the country where the purchase took place there may not be a reciprocal return showing the slave being manumitted. Another example is where a slave is transferred twice: Return of owner A shows William being transferred to owner B, return of owner C shows William being transferred from owner B, however, owner B does not show either transfer and therefore the link from A to C is not demonstrated.

Online and other sources

Some indexing and digitising has been carried out or proposed by other archives, for example the Mauritius certificates have been partially indexed, and a dataset of the Mauritius 1835 certificates of claims held at the Mauritius Archives can be downloaded from the South African Data Archive; there is a proposal to index the archives of the Registrar and Guardian of Slaves in Cape Town.

The universities of the Western Cape and Cape Town are running a project to index and digitise the records of slavery held at the Cape Town Archives (see press release in Cape Argos 2 December 2004). has made available online digitised and indexed copies of most of the slave registers. Researchers can search the database and access the images for free but you need to register first. See the article How to use the slave registers on Ancestry for more information on this database.

Related Material

There are many other records that compliment information contained in the registers and associated returns, for example the returns do not show the names of slave emancipated under the abolition act in 1834 and 1835. Unfortunately, most of the related information is not held in a structured manner and will require in-depth research to identify and extract information relevant to the entries in the registers.

The most important records are:

  • Records of the Slave Compensation Commissioners
    • Original claims and compensation certificates (T 71/943-1173). These are in claim number order, which can be obtained from the indexed to claims (T 71/915-942), giving the name of the owner, parish and may include the names of slaves omitted from the last return or born since, usually with the mother’s name. It may include deaths, manumissions and changes of ownership since the last return but I have not see evidence for this. The Cape Colony returns do not give additional slave information.
    • Counter claims (T 71/1174-1293). These are in claim number order and contain papers used as evidence to show ownership in contested claims. This can include information on family relationships of slave owners.
      • Researchers who have access to online British Parliamentary Papers may be able to use the search function to find particular claimants to obtain their claim number. The claims were published in session 1837-38 (215) volume XLVIII. A database to Barbados and Antigua claims is available at
    • Exhibits and sales of slaves (T 71/1525-1561). These record the sales of slaves and their values which were used by the Commissions to assess the value of slaves. They can be useful for finding family groups in cases where the registers only list slaves according to gender or age.
  • Amelioration returns and other statistics (Colonial Office records). Between 1821 and 1830 the Colonial Office regularly asked for information on the slave populations. Most of the returns were statistical but some were nominal. The more useful complimentary sources include
    • Manumission returns (grants of freedom), 1808-1830
    • Slaves imported and exported, 1808-1830
    • Slave marriages, 1808-1830
    • Slaves and free people committed to workhouses or gaols as runaways, 1808-1830
    • Slaves escheated to the Crown, 1808-1830
    • Slaves taken or sold for debt, 1818-1830
  • Reports of Protectors of Slaves. The protectors or guardians of slaves were established to look after the welfare of slaves. There are reports for Guyana (CO 116), St Lucia (CO 258), Trinidad (CO 300), Cape Colony (CO 53) and Mauritius (CO 172) and cover the period 1826-1934 although those form Trinidad start in 1824. The information includes, punishments, criminal cases, marriages, baptisms and manumissions.


  1. The slave registers held by The National Archives and several Caribbean archives were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme register in 2009 as recognition of their importance; the Bermuda slave registers were appended to this submission in 2011.
  2. Barry W Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834 (1984, reprinted by University of the West Indies, 1997) says that complete sets of returns survive in Jamaica, Bahamas and Belize and incomplete sets in Grenada, Tobago, Dominica and St Kitts. Barbara Valentine, The Dark Soul of the People. Slaves in Mauritius (South Africa Data Archive, 2001 at, suggests that the Mauritius Archives holds an incomplete return of the 1826 registers; a report by the Mauritius Research Council suggests that Mauritius archives holds the 1823 return. The Cape Town Archives holds a complete return of the slave registers and other material – see
  3. "An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade", 25 March 1807, 47 Geo 3, session 1, c36
  4. "An Act for rendering more effectual an Act made in the Forty seventh year of His Majesty’s Reign, intituled, An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade", 14 May 1811, 51 Geo 3, c23.
  5. There is a summary of the registration laws in A Review of the Colonial Slave Registration Acts in a report of a committee of the Board of Directors of the African Institution, 22 February 1820 (London, 1820) on Google Books, retrieved 6 July 2009.
  6. An Act for establishing a Registry of Colonial Slaves in Great Britain, and for making further provision with respect to the removal of slaves from British colonies, 12 July 1819, 59 Geo 3, c120.
  7. An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies and for promoting the industry of the manumitted slaves; and for compensating the persons hitherto entitled to the services of such slaves, 28 August 1833, 3 & 4 Will 4, c73
  8. <The 1834 amended returns for St Vincent occuring between 31 May (the date of the full return) and 1 August 1834 (date of emancipation). These amendments occur towards the end of T 71/500 (p289, fo 147) and on Ancestry from path: St Vincent>Unknown>image 2971.
  9. For a detailed analysis of the 1813-1816 returns for Trinidad see: A Meredith John, The Plantation Slaves of Trinidad, 1783-1816: A Mathematical and Demographic Enquiry (Cambridge University Press, 1989).