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Letter: Vincentians seeking their historical past
Published on August 7, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

Dear Sir:

Researching family history can be quite challenging for African-Caribbean people because the dispossession caused by the slave trade means that ancestral links have been lost.

Most Caribbean people have African ancestors. It has been estimated that more than 1.6 million people were transported between Africa and the Caribbean between 1640 and 1807. Once in the Caribbean, these people were enslaved and forced to toil on the plantations and in households. Although the British slave trade from Africa was abolished in 1807, emancipation of the people did not occur until 1 August 1834.

St Vincent was quite different to many other Caribbean islands inasmuch as it was more of a melting pot, a big mixture and interbreeding with other nationalities. There was the early crossbreeding of African blacks with the Caribs and later crossbreeding of ex-slaves, or the offspring of slaves with the African Kru who came as free men to work in St Vincent. The Kru came without any women and many were therefore absorbed into our society. The Kru bred with emancipated ex-slave women and their offspring, the ex-slave men had left the islands in large numbers to work in Trinidad after they were enticed there by agents for Trinidadian plantations, never to return. The Kru found themselves in the fortunate position of finding villages with very few men.

It is quite difficult for any man or woman in St Vincent to claim pure lineage to any particular breed mix. First came the Spanish, who perhaps mixed with the Caribs. Then came the French, who mixed with the Caribs and their slaves. During this time there was an almost daily arrival of escaped African slaves. Then came the British, who also mixed with whomever they found receptive. Then the Scots, the Portuguese and East Indians, and more recently all other nationalities, including Chinese and Syrian.

During the early times, escaped slaves, mainly from Barbados, but also other islands, came to St Vincent and mixed with the island Caribs. After some time they became a race that some believe was a distinct race, a hybrid race -- the Garifuna or Black Carib. I have some sincere doubts even about that hybridisation. Escaped black slaves arrived daily from other islands. Some believe the start of the Black Caribs was from slave carrier ships that sank in and around St Vincent and Bequia. We know that, in fact, at least three such ships sank, but there is no evidence that slaves escaped their chains during the sinking.

Because of the mix of escaped African slaves arriving daily in St Vincent, I do not believe that a long time interbreeding of two people to produce a hybrid, or a separate race, actually took place. What we have, like it or like it not, is a mongrel race of people, not a hybrid race. Now I fully well know to some people that may sound offensive, it’s not meant to be, it’s something that history has failed to tell because we all want to hear the niceties, which more than often are not the truth. Time and again over the years, I have said that anyone who wants to be known as a Garifuna should join a group and form a gene bank; let the truth be told by your genes.

To breed a so called new pure breed of any animal species, including that of man, takes the coming together of two groups of people, the same species, but of different breed. For simplification, if several African man have offspring with several Carib woman. The offspring then breeds within that group, and their offspring do the same, without the introduction of any substantive stock of people. Within a period of time, many, many years, that group of people will become known as a distinct race or breed. The rarely occasional introduction of an outside the group person would be considered an advantage as it stops the dangers that inbreeding can bring.

Where you have a mixture of people whose gene line is constantly changing or being added to, such as early St Vincent, they cannot be a distinct breed, they must be a mongrel group, known as people of mixed descent.

Now I am aware that may be offensive to many people who want to be known as Garifuna or Black Caribs. Also to people who have spent their lives believing they are a specific breed of person. I am sorry and I do not mean to be offensive, or disrespectful. All of us are what we are; we had no choice in who our ancestors bred with.

There are also people currently in St Vincent that think that because they had a Carib granny or grandfather and an African grandfather or granny, and they commingled, that they as offspring are Garifuna, they are not. They are mixed race.

Large scale slavery was far less on St Vincent than, say, in Barbados, where the first slaves were white Irish Catholics and Scots -- 50,000 white slaves -- check it out on the internet. For a number of years only a few blacks could be found, almost all white slaves. Later the African slave trade became the main supplier to the Barbados ravenous use of slaves.

The eventual almost total loss of true Caribs in St Vincent was not the fault of invading peoples such as the French or English. They were almost wiped out by the Africans. The arriving escaped slaves were almost all males, so they invaded the Caribs and stole their women. In early days the Caribs could absorb and control the black escapees but, as they began arriving in hordes, they lost control and became the suffering minority party, almost but not quite conquered and destroyed by the African accumulation.

Until emancipation, African slaves were considered to be the property of their owners. This meant that they were subject to the whims of their owner and local slave laws. For example, families could be split up; people could be sold, gifted and inherited as property. The enslaved people migrated with their owners to other countries, and were often denied an education and not allowed to attend church. Therefore, enslaved African-Caribbeans are not listed in the usual records used by family historians.

To research ex-African slaves who were freed before and after emancipation, the usual sources such as church registers, employment records, poor law records and wills, etc. can be used -- most of which will be held in Caribbean archives and libraries, although copies are sometimes available in the UK. General guidance on building family trees is available at ‘Family History‘.

Using these sources it is often possible for people to trace their families back to the 1840s. Going back earlier into the period of slavery is more challenging because African-slaves were viewed as property, so the name of at least one owner is very useful to narrow down the options for your particular ancestor.

There is also a source that most people just haven’t heard of. Some of us can search to a certain point [more recent history] for our ancestors in the vast free genealogy resources of the Mormon Latter Day Saints [LDS] Church. In recent years, the Mormon genealogy web site known as ‘FamilySearch’ has made huge improvements by giving free online access to copies of original records.

In the past, the Mormon genealogy records consisted of extracted data and member submissions (the IGI, Ancestral File, and Pedigree Resource File), but the new 'Family Search' site offers rich international collections of historical records that consist of vital records, census records, and military records. Many of the record collections have online images that can be downloaded for free. New databases are being added at a quick pace and are browseable until the indexes are completed.

I do not know what they hold on SVG but it’s worth taking a look. I doubt if there is anything going back to slave ancestry, or details of slave families or names.
You may have to create and sign into a Family Search account, but it is always free.

Peter Binose
Reads: 5648

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