Background

This guide was last updated in 2011

The West Indies held out the promise of freedom, of opportunities for social mobility unknown in Europe. But it was an immensely brave decision to undergo the dangerous adventure of emigration.

The barbarously sticky heat, teeming insects and the region’s vulnerability to earthquakes and hurricanes added to the dangers. Worst of all, though, were the unfamiliar diseases against which newcomers had no resistance. Something like a third of all white arrivals in the West Indies were dead within three years. Your emigrant ancestor would have had to have been either very courageous, or very desperate.

Some would have been from reasonably well-off backgrounds, second or third sons of minor gentry who otherwise would have expected to end up in the army or the church. During the second half of the English Civil War, a significant number of rich Cavaliers turned up in Barbados. But the majority was from the rural poor, particularly from the West Country and East Anglia. In fact about half of the emigrants during the early period were indentured servants.

However lowly his beginnings, your West Indian ancestor could still make it big in the West Indies. The key to this wealth was sugar. However, when the mood in England turned against African slavery, the sugar money that had never smelt quite right now started to stink, and with the abolition of slavery in 1834, this shameful chapter of our history, which contributed so greatly to our national wealth and power, and which involved so many of our ancestors, came at last to an end.

 

West Indies ancestors
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