Enslaved ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2009

Piecemeal records and inconsistent naming systems make tracing your enslaved ancestors a challenging experience. But it can also be hugely rewarding, says Guy Grannum.

Ainsley Harriott’s ancestors were among the estimated 1.6 million people who were transported from Africa to be enslaved and work on the plantations and households in the British Caribbean colonies. Slavery ended on 1 August 1834 and about 670,000 people were freed. Unfortunately, most people were apprenticed to their former masters for a further 4 years, and therefore for most people 'slavery' did not end until 1 August 1838.

Capture, transportation and enslavement meant that people were separated from their families, language, culture and heritage. Slaves had few rights: they were the legal property of their owner, and could be sold, bequeathed, and gifted as the owner saw fit.

Slaves were usually denied an education and prevented from attending church, and were rarely recorded by local authorities. This loss of individual and family identity and lack of official records means than enslaved people are not often found in the usual genealogical sources.

It is not easy researching enslaved ancestors. It can be very emotional, and at times you may be frustrated by the lack of records, and may become angry or distressed as you find out more about the conditions in which your family lived.

Photo © Hulton Archive Getty Images

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