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|Tracing Caribbean Roots|
Tracing Caribbean Roots
Land and Property
"West Indians: Out of Many, One People"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
Why not read a story, contributed by Ruth Crook, which may give you some insight into how best to start your family history research.
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.
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.
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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