1. Limited Research

The net result of the thinking as mentioned earlier is that insufficient research has been done relative to genealogy and family history in the Afro Barbados context. In the genealogy collection held by the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, there is the rare published Afro-Barbados family history and in some cases, when the researchers are Black, there may be more emphasis placed on their ancestral ties with those in the colonial elite power structure than with the generations of Black mothers who nurtured them.  Perhaps research focused on Black ancestors will increase once there is more awareness of the resources that are available for the recovery of Afro Barbados family history.

      1. Absence of manuals

Besides the preceding, there is an absence of manuals or guides to facilitate research of Barbados family history. The most cited sources for this vein of history is Geraldine Lane’s, Tracing Your Ancestors in Barbados” and Guy Grannum’s “Finding your West Indian Ancestors.”[ii] While these point to the availability of documentary evidence for the reconstruction of the Barbados family, it is clear that their main audience is researchers of the white colonial family with ties to New England and other parts. Layne’s treatment of the topic of what she calls “slave records,” happens as a small section near the end of the book, when in fact, this data is central to the discovery of Afro Barbados ancestry.[iii] As compensation for this void, the suggestion is often made to supplement with manuals for African American family history research, which are available in greater quantities.[iv] While the slavery experience was similar in many ways in the North American colonies and in Barbados, researchers would need to understand the differences in the legal and social history, i.e., the influence of the Anglican Church in Barbados and absence of early church records for Blacks in the North American colonies.

      1. General lack of curiosity

Layne and Grannum may have targeted a white audience in their manuals 1) because they are of that background and 2) They may have recognized that there was a general lack of curiosity about Black ancestry in Barbados at that time. It should be noted that there has been a marked increase in the number of persons visiting the Barbados Department of Archives (BDA) to conduct Afro-Barbados ancestry.  Many of the visitors are members of the Barbados Diaspora.[v]  Locals visiting the BDA are generally concerned with records relating to current issues, especially probate. As a general field observation, Afro Barbadians are a practical people who sometimes have difficulty with the proposition that what happened in the past deserve their time and focus. This can be seen in family dynamics that have an element of unconcern for the extended family. While Barbadians may identify members of the family for the younger generation, they often struggle to explain how the party is related if beyond one or two generations in another branch of the family. The consequence of this practice is that there is little curiosity about extended family. On the other hand, contact in the field with older Barbadians like 98-year-old Eleanor Rochester will reveal that there is an eagerness on the part of the elderly to pass on family oral traditions to later generations.

      1. Family history as conducted in the BMHS Journal

Family history research is not new to Barbados. In fact, in 1933, a group led by William Eustace Shilstone gained support from the Barbados Legislature for the establishment of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society (BMHS). The mission at that time was to “study and put on permanent record the history of the island, its leading families and public men, old buildings and other matters of interest to antiquarians in Barbados and overseas.”[vi] Under Shilstone’s leadership, the BHMS produced genealogies in keeping with their agreement with the Legislature and published a great number of family histories about Barbados’ elite, minority, white families in the Barbados Museum and Historical Society Journal. Many of these genealogies are available in a condensed form in Genealogies of Barbados Families: From Caribbeana and The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society.[vii] As pointed out by historian Sir. Woodville Marshall, in 1936, when the Society sent members its first list of research project priorities,

“…there is nothing on the slave trade, slavery, Emancipation, the African connection; nothing on tenantries and other villages; nothing on social protest movements like slave revolts and riots; nothing on the emergence of grassroots political activity; nothing on the development of social services; nothing on emigration.”[viii]

This newly minted history institution had yet to explore any history of Barbados that included the majority, and African descended population, not even genealogies.  This remained elusive for the next thirty years and beyond.

Though the mission of the BMHS has changed, local historian Hilary Beckles is able to warn the public that “we must be careful of histories published during the colonial era because they are fraught with racist and often slanted perspectives of the majority of Barbadians” [ix].

Today the Barbados Museum and Historical Society has a mission to collect, document and conserve the culture and heritage of Barbadians.[x] This new mission opens the door to recovery, interpretation, publishing, and dissemination of historical evidence relating to the lives of the country’s free black majority.  Collecting genealogies and family histories is among the museum’s various objectives. A recent edition of the museum’s journal featured a rare family history article relating to the lives of an Afro Barbados family. The author’s main point was that the Smithwick surname would have disappeared from the island except that a Black, formerly enslaved ancestor Jack adopted it from his slave owner, saving it from extinction after that slave owner died. In this case, the author chose to include a full genealogy of the European descended Ince family in Barbados. [xi] Afro Barbadian family history, if researched, is rarely submitted for publication in the BMHS Journal, making it difficult to estimate the number being done. The majority of genealogies featured in the journal, such as the Smithwicks and the Incas of Barbados, continue the publication’s long tradition of documenting the “English origins” of Barbadians.[xii]

      1. Tracing Your Ancestors in Barbados, A critical review

The limited research on Afro Barbados Family History may be a consequence of the lack of manuals and guides to facilitate this undertaking. “Tracing your Ancestors in Barbados” is a guide written by Geraldine Lane.  Lane established the background in genealogical research in her native England.  She used these skills while she lived in Barbados, to respond to requests for family history research from a primarily overseas audience. This led to her decision to write and publish a guide for tracing ancestors in Barbados.  Lane’s guide has received full attention and can be found in libraries around the world. While Lane developed expertise in navigating the tremendous amount of historical documentary evidence that resides at the Barbados Department of Archives, the Barbados Museum and other repositories of Barbados history, she admits that there is little offered in the way of research methodology. The result is, that Afro Barbadians, the majority of the island’s population, and their descendants in the Diaspora will find little to help problem solve questions unique to Afro Barbados ancestry.

As discussed earlier, and this guide is no exception, there is an early disclaimer that “it can be tough to trace descendants of slaves in the period before emancipation in 1834”[xiii].  The section for vital records, including the section entitled “possible problems”[xiv], makes no mention of the absence of surnames on records of enslaved ancestors, a common research dilemma for Afro Barbados ancestry.  Contrast this with James Rose’s genealogy manual “Black Genesis,” who challenged those who “thought that the primary sources available for white family research were not available for researching black family ancestry…” saying, “Nothing can be further from the truth.”[xv] Rose, like Lane spent almost the entire manual highlighted record collections and offered little in the way of research methodology. Rose’s’ book was published in 1979 when it was still commonplace to refer to black ancestors by the title “slave”[xvi].  Lane continued this tradition in her book, rather than the use of the term “enslaved,” emphasizing the humanity of black ancestors.  Also absent from Lane’s book is an emphasis on the legacy of oral tradition brought over from Africa and nurtured in Barbados by Black ancestors, something that cannot be underestimated.

To the book’s credit, there is recognition of the importance of history in interpreting primary sources. Lane proposed a high-quality selection of literature on the history of Barbados. Lane’s claim that her audience for the manual is “early white settlers and their descendants”…and “those formerly held in slavery”[xvii], has two problems.  First, it discounted any eventual interest in genealogy by local Barbadians and secondly, the placement of the section entitled “slave records” in second to the last chapter of the book has implications for those users who might justifiably conclude that Lane’s book was never intended to facilitate research for Black roots.

Oral Tradition

Much of what is known about Afro-Barbados family history comes from informal settings and from stories told by elders. Sunday afternoons were a favorite time when the family from distant parts would visit their relatives. During these visits, children might overhear the adults call the names of long-gone family members and the place names of the plantations and villages from which they “arrived.”  They might hear “who got the worst end of a  marriage settlement, and who and who don’t mix with us because “we are poor and we are black.” There might also be stories about hard work planting cane holes or walking to town to go to market with bread baskets or provisions on their heads, about meeting turns and Lodges, or about who and who in the family made it to some esteemed position. There might even be a ghost (duppy) story or two sprinkled in. Contact with elderly Barbadians reveals that the passing of oral tradition is still very much in practice.

A threat to this tradition is the change in the family dynamic and in village life.  Elderly relatives who carry oral traditions are increasingly living alone or in nursing home care. Younger generations are having far less contact with their elderly relatives than Barbadians in past times.

Shame about the past

There was a time in Barbados when many in society lived under the false notion of the inferiority of the Black race.  To the extent that this lingers, it can cause some people to have shame about slavery and their family history. Those born in the colonial era when Barbados’ economic, social and political systems rewarded lighter skin and taught in very tangible ways that Black ancestry was inferior may be so inclined.  Unfortunately, shame about the history of enslavement and denigration may also mean burying critical information about the Afro Barbados family experience to the grave.  For some, it may mean favoring kinship to white ancestors.  Barbadians have to be mindful to reject centuries of institutional racism that conditioned society to “denounce anything African.”[i]

[i] Hilary Beckles,, A History of Barbados: From Amerindian Settlement to Nation-State, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[i] Geoffrey, Rudder. “Genealogy.com.” Last modified 4 11, 2007. Accessed April 25, 2013. http://www.genealogy.com/genealogy/users/r/u/d/Geoffrey-M-Rudder/index.html.

[ii] Guy Grannum, Tracing Your West Indian Ancestors, (Kew, Richmond, Surrey: Public Record Office), 2002.

[iii] Geraldine Lane, Tracing your Ancestors in Barbados, (Baltimore Md: Genealogical Publishing Co.,), 2006.

[iv] Guy Grannum, BBC, Researching African-Carribean Family History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/next_steps/genealogy_article_01.shtml (Accessed December 2012).

[v] Conversation with Sir. Woodville Marshall, Chair, Barbados Department of Archives

[vi] Barbados Museum and Historical Society, “Barbados Museum and Historical Society,” Accessed September 9, 2012, http://www.barbmuse.org.bb/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=22: our-history&catid=25:history&itemid=65

[vii] James Brandow, Genealogies of Barbados Families: From Caribbeana and the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1983).

[viii] Woodville Marshall, Publications and Intellectual Creations, Journal of the BMHS, 54 (2008): 10-26.

[ix] Hillary Beckles, Barbadian Historic Struggle for Citizenship and Nationhood, (Bridgetown: Barbados Government Information Service), 1998.

[x] Barbados Museum and Historical Society, “Barbados Museum and Historical Society,” Accessed September 9, 2012, http://www.barbmuse.org.bb/index.php?option=com_contact_enhanced&view= categories&Itemid=67

[xi] Martin Cox, “Smithwick Settlers and the Emancipated,” Barbados Museum and Historical Society, LW (2009).

[xii] Bernard Ince, “The Inces of Barbados: Their Identity, Diversity & Origins,” The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, LV (2009): 207-230,

[xiii] Lane, Introduction

[xiv] Lane, 36-37

[xv] James M. Rose and Elide Eichholz, PhD., CG, Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African American Genealogy, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2003), vii.

[xvi] Rose,

[xvii] Lane, Intro

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s