West Indies ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2011

There can be few British families without at least one ancestor connected to the empire in the West Indies, says Matthew Parker.

Many researchers will have found an ancestor on a passenger list travelling to Jamaica, or turned up a census reference listing a Caribbean island as their place of birth. By the end of the 18th century, more than half a million people had left the British Isles to try their luck in one of the sugar colonies, the majority to Jamaica and Barbados. The aim of most was to make a quick fortune and return home as quickly as possible.

What sort of person would your emigrant ancestor have been? The account of a journalist, Ned Ward, who travelled to Jamaica as the 18th century began, gives us a useful, if somewhat cynical snapshot of British emigrants to the West Indies. On his ship was a timeless array of the hopeful, disappointed and desperate. There was a salesman, recently fired; ‘three Broken Tradesmen, who had lost their Credit’; ‘two Parsons, who had lost their Livings; and several, like me,’ wrote Ward, ‘who had lost their Wits.’ The three women on board consisted of a widow, another women in pursuit of an errant husband and a ‘maid’ who, ‘I fear, had Lost her self.’

The small party of passengers also included a decrepit ship’s captain, an agricultural labourer deported for being caught up in a recent rebellion, and a young Irishman who had been got drunk and then tricked into servitude on the plantations. All were going, wrote Ward, ‘with one Design, to patch up their Decay’d Fortune.’

This step-by-step guide will take you through the experiences that you ancestors may have had in the West Indies, plus tips on how to learn more about their lives.

Matthew Parker is the author of The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War, published by Hutchinson. For more information, see www.matthewparker.co.uk

Image credit: Fotolia.co.uk


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