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African and Caribbean ancestry

The challenges of researching Black family history in Britain

The Findmypast team
1 October 2020

Why is it so tricky to trace Black British ancestors? Lucy Daish examines the confronting reasons and why they're important to highlight.

When we take time to look at ourselves, both individually and as part of the bigger picture, it's important to address the position genealogy and Findmypast takes within Black and non-white history.

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I am a white person writing this article and if you're a white person reading it, it's not a coincidence. Genealogy is a whitewashed industry, as a result of both overt and covert racism that occurred over centuries. Being able to tell somebody the exact percentage of Italian, French and Swedish we are,  to be able to proudly show our ancestors' work certificates and newspaper cuttings and to know exactly where our surname comes from, is a privilege we do not even consider as we log on to Findmypast.

There is no inherent worry or expectation that a white person's great-great-grandparents experienced hostility or abuse. There are no complications into pinpointing the town and country where they were born. That is not to assume that every white family had an easy life but their race was not something that compromised it.

How slavery affected Black genealogy

It is no secret that the slave trade is a large factor in the difficulties Black people will have in tracing their ancestors. There was no documentation, and millions of displaced people and communities meant that families, cultures and traditions were lost. However, it is more nuanced than simply lost or non-existent records. 

The slave trade altered and changed family trees, by pregnancy from rape, the buying of Black people as domestic servants, and the loss of identity and culture. This is an example of how racist systems can trickle down into modern-day, unassuming activities. Whilst history cannot be changed, it can be acknowledged.

Slave names

The names that enslaved workers were given often related to the plantation they were on or the name of its owner. Because of this, there will be little information to trace further back, and the mixing of African communities meant that in many cases, tradition was lost. This is reflected in the lack of naming patterns. The grouping together of hundreds of people under the same surname means that searching beyond this is near impossible, as the descendant tree records begin to overlap and entangle.

slave records

This 1765 baptism record includes minimal information and a note that the father was an 'Adult Negro Servant'. View the full record.

When landowners bought Black servants, they often had them baptised as adults. Usually taking place upon arrival to the UK, these baptisms would rarely provide any information on their history or identity and in many cases would be a tool to provide new names and state their relationship to the landowner.

Where multiple Black people from the same plantation were bought as servants and given new names, it proves increasingly difficult to follow who went where. This lack of information is also present in clandestine marriage records.  Due to their discretionary nature, little questions were asked and only the bare minimum of information was provided. In many cases, Black migrants did not know the details of their past.

This makes researching complex and, in some cases, never fully verified. 

Examples of Black family research challenges

John Juba, born in 1710, in Suffolk, has little documentation on himself or his ancestors. However, looking from a wider perspective, we know that Sir Robert Davers owned property in the area and, upon his death in 1679, granted Black servants, brought over from his Barbados plantation to his wife and daughter. This could have resulted in the birth of John Juba or perhaps it is a coincidence. Either way, it is easy to speculate when the research does not directly link to race.

Dido Belle, an infamous black socialite, was born from an interracial affair between a white officer and a Black slave. The identity and life of Dido’s mother is a source of debate among largely white academics, with many theorising that sources from the time may be incorrect.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

A portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, circa. 1778.

The process of discovering these stories and making these guesses can be uncomfortable or traumatic for a BAME descendant. Suddenly, tracing family lineage is not a fun hobby anymore.

Names, places and gender

More recently, in 19th and 20th-century records, lazy clerks often did not listen to the names of BAME migrants, resulting in poor spellings, mixed-up forenames and surnames and inaccurate birthplace assumptions. Because of this, you'll find new surname variations occurring in each new generation of a family or even from document to document.

The previously-mentioned Juba family vary between ‘Juba’, ‘Jabee,’ and ‘Juby’ in records. As you can imagine, this makes them exceedingly difficult to trace back to a single line, especially in poor or multicultural areas, where many families lived in close proximity to each other.

Surnames changing in Black family records

In many cases, the individual chose to Anglicise their name to avoid problems and to stay inconspicuous. For example, the African surname ‘Kwasi’ is often Anglicised as ‘Quossey’. When a surname relates to a plantation owner's English name, like ‘John Cranbrook’, and the name is an assumed ‘white’ and common name, it can be difficult to pinpoint the right person and the records needed. Kingston, Jamaica may be easily interpreted as Kingston, London when there are no mentions of ethnicity in records.

Whilst following the family line of Black men is difficult, researching Black women is considerably harder due to the inherent sexism and ideologies of the past. Rape was common, which not only resulted in pregnancies and children but also created a high risk of disease and early death, particularly in poorer communities.

In some cases, burial records offer little to no information on these women. Black domestic servants entered on census records by the head of the house often provide minimal or incorrect information and the rise in clandestine marriages meant that surnames could be easily and discreetly changed. This is rarely an issue in white genealogy.

Burial records - Black family history

This 1772 London burial record includes no surname and just a note, 'black girl'. View the full record.

Throughout history, the White Man is the storyteller. We know that places like Liverpool, for example, was and still is home to large BAME communities. However, systemic racism and the poverty it produced meant that most of the city's Black men and women were denied an education. For those who were not able to write their own evidence, or could not find a scribe, their stories remained untold or immortalised through a biased filter in newspapers or political memoirs.

We can acknowledge that for these reasons, alongside many more, genealogy is built to accommodate the white family. The difficulties raised here are a few amongst countless more. We cannot change the past and we cannot discover records and sources that do not exist. However, there are thousands of untold Black stories out there. Now it is our time, platform and responsibility to make them known.