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Tracing Caribbean Roots
Land and Property
African slaves made up the majority of populations in most West Indian countries. Slavery became an established form of labour from the 1640s when Dutch merchants from Brazil introduced sugar into Barbados.
Sugar farming was physically demanding and it was soon apparent that white indentured servants were not suitable for this form of agriculture. Instead planters sought cheaper and more robust labourers, and African labourers who were used to tropical climates, diseases and food were considered more suitable.
Slaves were personal property who could be bought, sold, gifted, inherited and bequeathed according to the whims of their owner. Personal records of slaves are limited; they could not possess property and in some colonies were discouraged from attending church. Most records relating to slaves are to be found among records relating to their owners.
However, if you have African forebears you cannot assume that they had been slaves: many Africans freely migrated to the West Indies from the 1830s:
The slave trade was essentially a triangular trade in which merchants traded goods for slaves from the trading settlements and forts on the West Coast of Africa. These slaves were then sold or traded for goods, such as sugar, tobacco, rum, molasses, and cotton in America and the West Indies. These goods were then sold in the European markets.
Before 1698 the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading with Africa, and its successors, monopolised the British slave trade. The various African companies administered British possessions on the West Coast of Africa until 1833 when the British government bought the company and its forts and settlements.
Its records have been transferred to the National Archives in series T 70. These records include:
Until 1808 there are no lists of slaves transported from Africa to the West Indies and any that occur after that date relate to slave ships that had been captured for illegally transporting slaves, known as Liberated Africans.
Until the establishment of the slave registries around 1814 most records relating to slaves, their lives and births and deaths, are to be found among the personal records of their owner.
In order to trace any surviving records for slaves you need to identify the owner and search for their records. Without this information it will be very difficult to trace African forebears earlier than the 1830s unless they had been:
If this occurred then the name of the owner would usually be given.
It is commonly believed that slaves took the surnames of their owners. Although this did occur it was not always the case and, therefore, you cannot assume that the surname of your slave ancestors was the name of their owner.
The most useful sources relating to slaves include:
Creators: Guy Grannum
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