Jamaica is a multi- racial society, though African ancestry occurs in eighty-five percent of the population, there are a large number of persons who also have European ancestry, East Indian Ancestry, Chinese ancestry, Jewish Ancestry and Middle-Eastern Ancestry.
The first mistake made when starting to do Jamaican ancestry is forgetting this fact, that Jamaicans are ‘out of many, one people’ which incidentally is the coat of arms motto of the country.
The History of Jamaica
The first inhabitants of the island were in fact the Pre-Columbian peoples, they settled the island in 670 AD and 800 AD respectively in two different waves, culminating in a culture which is called Taino by academics today. The Taino were the people who greeted Christopher Columbus in 1494, when he first came to the island of Jamaica. However, the Spanish colonization of the island had a devastating effect on the Indian population, through disease and harsh treatment they were brought to the brink of extinction, however a few survived with there being descendants of those first Jamaicans today still living on the island. The Spanish ruled the island for 145 years, which ended with the invasion in 1655 by the English. By 1660 the English were victorious and civil administration under the British was established, with this came the division of the island into Parishes, with each parish having a Parish Church centered in a Parish capital. Each parish churches Rector was charged with the task of recording all baptism/births, marriages and burials in his parish. As the population grew there were more churches added and an Island Curate appointed to supervise the growing responsibility of record keeping. All records were kept with handwritten duplicates, the original Registers and their companion Copy Registers. These were housed in separate locations to protect the information as best as possible. The Anglican Church was the official church of the colony and the only church whose records were officially recognized until, this was changed with the passing of a new set of laws in 1870, which herald the fledgling beginnings of Civil Registration, which was originally called Law 6 Registration which crossed all religious denominations and religions in general, allowing not only Anglican records to be consider official state record keeping, but instead all citizens to be registered. However, before this law had been passed, an attempt at inclusion was done after the emancipation of slavery in 1838, with the addition of the Dissenter records for marriages which were officially collected by the Anglican Church, however the Dissenter baptism records were omitted and could only be found scattered all over the island held by each individual church house. Dissenter faiths were all other denominations which were not recognized as official by the state, namely the Baptist, Methodist, Moravian and Presbyterian faiths.
Also started in 1659 with the establishment of Island Secretary’s Office was the collection of Colonial administration for all parishes and general record keeping, State Papers, Patents of Land Grants, Wills and their accompanying Inventories of Estates, Crop Accounts, Deeds of Transactions, which could include slaves’ sales and purchases, land or dowries or sundry other legal disputes. Slave Returns were kept to record the rise and decline of Estate slave populations through Births, deaths and absconding or running away. Cadastral and Estate maps were drawn up and lodged with the relevant offices. Laws and Private Acts were recorded, these too are useful for the genealogist, as Private Acts deal with specific families being granted specific rights and freedoms or rights to dispose of large estate holdings. There are many more records to be found, but those named are the most relevant for genealogical purposes.
Where to get started?
The most common question any genealogist will ask, is where do I get started, and the answer depends on what do you wish to accomplish with your research. The following locations now hold the resources needed to track down your genealogy in Jamaica.
The Jamaica Archives and Records Department which originally evolved out of the old Secretary’s office and was established in 1955 as a division of the new records keeping arm of the Colonial government as the Island Records office, with the appointment of a Government Archivist, the division however became an autonomous department in 1982 in and of itself with the passage of the Archives law in 1982. Here you will find, Patents, Government and Colonial State Papers, Ship Manifests, Inventories of Estate Probates, Manumissions of Slaves, Crop Accounts, Historic Naturalization's, and Slave Returns, to name just a few, they also house the unindexed Baptism, Marriage and Burial Original Parish Records for the I.R.O.
The next place which every genealogist should be aware of is the Registrar General’s Department of Jamaica which also encompasses the Island Records Office. The RGD as its more commonly called contains the right to collect and store all records associated with Civil Registration, hence continuing the role of the I.R.O and the earlier Secretary’s Offices, still has the rights to house the Historical Records associated with Baptism/Births, Marriages and Deaths. So it’s here the researcher must come also to find Wills and Transactional Deeds, also housed are the original Law books from 1659 though those are no longer available for use. Also housed there are the Deed Poll Ledgers and a number of other records which may or may not be helpful to genealogical research, but are not available for viewing by visitors to the R.G.D.
Your next and final stop is the National Reference Library of Jamaica, a compendium of rare books, cadastral maps, Estate maps, original illustrations, photographs of various places and people, newspaper publications all oriented around Jamaica and to some extent the wider Caribbean. Biographical information on individuals of note and lodged collections of manuscripts dating from the Spanish era through to English colonization into the independence era of the island. Here the genealogical researcher’s first stop should be the Fuertado manuscripts collection of notable luminaries, military and civil administrative and elected representatives of the Houses of Assembly and the Council, are arranged easily in alphabetical order. The researcher can also consult the indexed many defunct and active newspaper publications to acquire primary data about the life and times events which would have influenced their ancestors lives. Also recommended is the consultation of the Jamaica Almanac collection for information on military placements, property ownership listed by the parish in which the properties were located, then the researcher can look up for that estates original map, to see its boundaries and property features, like the placement of planting fields, where the estate factory was located if it was a sugar plantation, where warehouses were placed and last but not least where the Great House, which was the name used in reference to the property owners house on a plantation, which was oftentimes the grandest structure on the estate apart from the factory facilities and also where the slave quarters were located.
Now Happy Hunting to all my fellow genealogists whether professional or a family research enthusiast.
By Dianne T. Golding Frankson
Chief Genealogical Researcher