Updated: Aug 24
Many British people, black and white, have ancestors who were black slaves in the Caribbean. As such, transported slaves, slave registers and details of those slaves freed when slavery was abolished.
Britain was one of the main colonial powers in the Caribbean, holding(at various times): Antigua; the Bahamas; Barbados; Bermuda; Cayman Islands; Cuba; Dominica; Grenada; Guadeloupe; Haiti; Jamaica; Monserrat; Nevis; St Kitts (St Christopher); St Lucia; Tobago and Trinidad; Turks and Caicos Islands; British Virgin Islands; and also, on the South American mainland, Guyana (formerly British Guiana) and Belize (British Honduras). Bear in mind that many islands changed hands due to wars, and therefore Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and French influences (and blood) are often very significant in these places’ past.
Jamaica's original inhabitants, who greeted Columbus when he stepped ashore in 1494, were Arawak Indians. Spain began colonising the island in 1509 and held it until it was captured by Admiral Penn in 1655. The island's climate was found to be perfect for growing sugar, but cultivating it was extremely labour-intensive. At first, it was grown and harvested by indentured white labour, but before long vast numbers of black slaves started to be imported from the west coast of Africa, the ships then proceeding to England laden with sugar and then returning to Africa to start slave-trading again. In total, some 1.5 million black people are thought to have been carried to the Caribbean.
The 18th century saw a succession of earthquakes, hurricanes and slave revolts in Jamaica. Many escaped slaves, called Maroons, set up villages of their own in the more mountainous parts of the island, successfully evading recapture and, in some cases, becoming slave owners themselves. In the end, it was political pressure from Britain that resulted first in a ban on the import of new slaves and finally the complete abolition of slavery in 1833.
After the abolition of slavery, and especially after the obligatory four-year‘ apprenticeship’ period that ensued, many ex-slaves marched off the plantations where they had once been held in shackles. To replace them, the plantation owners recruited large numbers of indentured labourers from China and India. There are some records of these new immigrants in the NA's Colonial Office papers and in island record offices, especially Trinidad.
Following an uprising of the now free blacks in Jamaica in 1865, a Crown government was established and social and economic reforms instituted. Jamaica became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth in 1962. After the Second World War, many Jamaicans were encouraged to settle in Britain, originally to provide cheap labour. Having largely overcome several decades of racial prejudice they have become an important and vibrant part of British society.
During slavery, it was routine practice for white, male slave owners and overseers to have sexual relations with their female black slaves. Some relationships were based on violence and others on love and respect but the results were the same many children of mixed race, some of whom were freed by their fathers but most of whom lived as slaves, either on their paternal plantations or simply sold as chattels.
Most black Jamaicans, therefore, can trace their lines of ancestry back to Arawak Indians, African slaves, maybe some East Indians and Chinese, and very often to white slave owners. Indeed, because many slave owners had aristocratic connections, many modern Jamaicans are probably more closely related to British nobility than the majority of white Britons. One mixed-race Jamaican immigrant to Oldham whom I researched turned out to be a direct cousin of the Queen herself.
Author: Navin Kumar Jaggi
Co-Author: Gurmeet Singh Jaggi