“Caribbean, Births and Baptisms, 1590-1928,” index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/XLG4-WZ3 : accessed 14 May 2013), Georgiana Ward, 10 Jun 1852.

Vital Records are critical for the family history researcher.  In colonial Barbados, these records were the responsibility of the parish church and administration of such was guided by the Church of England aka the Anglican Church. A source for these records is familysearch.org, search, catalog, Barbados, scroll, select the year you want to search and a digital copy of the actual record will pop up.

Naming conventions were also ordered by the church and the plantation, as were the ceremonies. Anglican, Wesleyan, Moravian, Catholic and other churches performed and recorded baptisms, marriages and burials rites for Barbadians. Documents such as these exist for families in Barbados from as early as the 17th century.  For Black families, these records are occasionally found in the 17th and 18th centuries, and more likely, after the 1807 ban of the African Slave Trade or what historians call, the amelioration period

Baptism and Marriage Records

Vital records from the slavery period have evidence showing that with few exceptions, surnames and church baptisms were denied to enslaved persons. In the years before emancipation, more than two-thirds of enslaved persons had no surnames.  Most had a single first name or sometimes two.  Some had an alias.  Historians are still unsure how these first names were chosen, whether by the enslaved or the enslavers.  There is evidence that Moravian church changed the names of some formerly enslaved persons during baptism or marriage.  This was an attempt to formalize a name where for example, Betty might appear in the new record as Elizabeth.

I learned from baptism records that the firstborn in several generations in my own Afro-Barbados ancestry were born to parents who were not legally married, and there are good reasons for this.

Talk to an elderly Barbadian about when or where a family member was born and you will likely hear, at some point, that a relative was “unlawful” or “illegitimate”.  As one 83 yrs old lady put it, “when me muddah dead, nuhbody din own she, she did a bastard”.  This was not said with shame so much as to a point of fact, at least according the rules and rites of the Christian tradition and specifically, that Anglican Church recorded only the mother’s name on the record if the parents were not legally married. 

In 1824, when The Church of England assigned a new bishop to Barbados. Bishop Coleridge Hart began requiring the Anglican parish churches begin to enter baptism, marriages, and death of the enslaved into the church registers rather than showing enslaved persons with the names of a master, not the name of a mother or father.n 1824, when The Church of England assigned a new bishop to Barbados, Bishop Coleridge Hart began requiring the Anglican parish churches to enter baptism, marriages, and death of the enslaved into the church registers. 

Enslaved persons also appeared in the records usually with the names of a master, not the name of a mother or father

In the months immediately after emancipation, many of the newly freed were baptized for the first time, as adults.  These records often indicate the names of their parents and their residence.  These records are a great cross-reference to the 1817-1834 slave register and other documents related to plantation and its owner(s).

Many researchers regard the issues that surround slave-naming and absent parent information as a game stopper. Let me be clear, careful work in the records that were created after emancipation can lead to the discovery of ancestors in records from the slavery period, even when no surname exists in the baptism or marriage records.


Legal marriage was also denied to enslaved persons in Barbados. It may explain the existence of a popular saying in Barbados, that “a gud live-wid bettuh dan a bad marriage”, so entrenched was the alternative tradition of common-law unions. The parents of a former Barbados classmate married recently, and this is after nearly six decades of living together and raising a family. 

In the months immediately following emancipation, there are many formerly enslaved persons who married. Before marriage, many would also have had their first church baptism, as adults.  In the early years of freedom, the parish registers show the names of the bride and groom and witnesses to the marriage.  In later years, a father’s name and occupation, and place of residence may also be indicated for some.

Many children in Barbados were produced from sexual relations between a married person and a single person. This tradition can create complications for the family researcher, as the father’s name is rarely given in the baptism record for a child of this type of union.  Barbadians refer to these as “outside children”. It also creates nice surprises, in that unexpected family members are sometimes added to the family tree.

The challenge of absent names can be surmounted in a number of ways. Foremost is through oral traditions and a thorough search of vital records that were created post-emancipation.  If you can identify the plantation or owner, it may also be possible to locate the enslaved in plantation business records.

In the decade immediately after emancipation, there were many formerly enslaved persons who married. Some of their records provide places of residence and witnesses. Later documents may reveal the fathers of the bride and groom. Children of formerly enslaved who were baptized and married post-emancipation may have acquired surnames. here persons had surnames, and the name of the father was a requirement on the marriage record, providing the parents were married at the time of the bride or groom’s birth.

Death records for children of formerly enslaved will sometimes indicate the names of their parents, even when the slave baptism did not.  For example, Thomas  Henry Taitt, born 1829, dies 1914.  1829 he is baptized a slave without a last name.  In 1914, he dies and his parents’ names are indicated on the death record along with his place of birth.

The Barbados National Archives at Black Rock, St. Michael is home to Parish Church Registers from the mid-1600s to about 1885. You may view them there at no cost. You may also access many of these records at https://familysearch.org/

The Barbados Department of Registration is home to records dated later than 1885 and there is a modest fee to search records there. Certified copies of these records can also be obtained here.

The information captured in vital records vary from time to time as the forms changed. It is particularly important to learn the MAIDEN NAMES of all women in the family, without which, research is made difficult. Learning the maiden and married names of SIBLINGS is also critical.  Eventually, you will find every bit of information useful.

There is a very high incidence of first-born Barbados ancestors baptized in their mother’s maiden.  Siblings born after the parents marry carry the surname of the father. Some who were baptized with the surname of the mother often adopted the surname of the father in adulthood. This means that a surname on an ancestor’s death or marriage record may be different than what was shown on the baptism record or on their siblings’ records. If all maternal ancestors are born to unwed mothers, check death and sibling records to see if you can discover the maiden names for these women.

Case in Point. Georgiana Olton was her parent’s second born in 1852 but she was baptized in her mother’s maiden name. She married in 1884 using her father’s surname Olton. Her 1927 death record showed her mother’s maiden name was Warde.

Sometimes oral tradition is the key to discovering data. This statement below from Georgianna’s Olton’s granddaughter spanned a few generations.

When I was a Girl gyhne school at Clifton Hill, me mudduh nuses to come and cah we fuh lunch down at she great aunt Ms. Weekes in Walke Spring.

Ms. Weekes’, 1879 marriage record, revealed her maiden name and led to the discovery of several other records in this family.  Vital records provide other critical data such as place names, churches, witnesses, etc.



10 thoughts on “Vital Records – Unlawful and Otherwise

  1. I am trying to trace details of my grand-father Archibald Reid husband of Josephine Reid. Archibald was a Goldsmith and migrated to Panama to work on the Panama Canal late 1906 or early 1907 because when my father Lionel Reid was born on April 16, 1907, his father was already in Panama. Lionel was baptized at St. Leonard’s Church.
    Can u assist me with this search?

  2. I am Looking For birth certificate for Anthony chesterfield Griffith, born 10-12-1949 he is 67 yr of age, he was baptized at cealer methodist church in St lucys, Barbados w.i. mother name Caretta Griffith, u can reach me at 8437097229 sarah jackson

    1. Oh boy, Sarah. So sorry for the very late response. I am a wordpress novice here. I see you may be in my favorite state of South Carolina. Ok, 1949 baptisms reside at the Barbados Registry. If you have not gotten it by now, let me know.


    1. Hi there. So sorry. I am just seeing this note as I am new to the idea that I get notes. The Barbados Registration Department has your birth records. I can access earlier records 1700-1930

  3. Yes thank you. I still have not turned up any further information on my Grandfather Archibald Reid. I would very much like to find out whether he died in Panama or if he was one of those Barbadians who eventually left Panama and settled either in Jamaica or the United States.


    1. There is an Archibald Reece, age 20 who left Barbados for Panama December 17, 1906. He noted that his Mother was Anna Johnson. His address was Pie Corner, St. Lucy. Could this be a type on the last name?

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