Surprises – Good and Bad!

October 6, 201712:02 amLeave a Comment

Ancestry.com. Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.
Original data: The National Archives of the UK (TNA)

I must be a relatively hard-hearted individual as I’ve never been able to weep copiously over an ancestor who died over 200 years ago. Sure, I’m sympathetic to the plight of a mother who lost her baby to influenza or a young man dying of TB at only 20, but these things happened a very long time ago to family I never even knew until I started my family history. I can be moved by a story but never thought I would identify with any of my ancestors enough to experience their emotions.  Until recently.

I mentioned before that I was beginning to study the Scottish side of my family history in preparation for some ancestral tourism next year. My ancestors north of the border seemed to be heavily involved in trade (and the law!) which took them mainly backwards and forwards to Northern Ireland.

I was having one of those ‘Let’s stick the name into Ancestry and see what comes up’ moments and was terribly excited to find that a distant ancestral cousin had produced a child born in Jamaica in 1809. This seemed to be a very exotic location and I wondered what this branch of the family might have been doing there. After rummaging around on Ancestry for a while, to my horror I found that he farmed (sugar presumably) and owned over 40 slaves. I went cold and truly felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe that someone I was related to was involved in this unspeakable trade, even if it was only a 5 x great uncle.

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, a former Zanzibar slave who lived in Guildford from the 1870s(Ref/1714/1)

Perhaps it wasn’t simply knowing that he owned slaves that was upsetting; it was the casual matter of fact way in which it was recorded. If you look at the Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834 on Ancestry, you can see people treated just like assets, being listed just as now we might list laptops and cameras on our insurance policies. Did they really not see them as people?

I’ve rationalised it now. While it shocks me that anyone could be involved in this type of thing, the more sensible part of me has reconciled myself to the fact that it was another time, another place, another country – and of course, another set of ideals as to right and wrong. It won’t stop me being uncomfortable with the issue, but don’t worry, I won’t be breaking down and sobbing in anyone’s presence – at least not just now. However, it just goes to show, you may not always find out nice things in your family history and you have to be prepared to take the bad with the good.

My genealogical findings almost coincided with the beginning of Black History Month at Surrey History Centre and I was interested to see that a number of the Great and the Good in Surrey also owned slaves throughout the West Indies. Do have a look at the excellent Black History Month page on our website.  Also, if you’re tracing black ancestry why not take a look at our online guide and bibliography.

On a more cheerful note, similar research did result in a stroke of good fortune! I’ve been using the amazing Scotland’s People website and have been somewhat parsimonious with pulling up images of original documents in order to save my pennies. Imagine my delight when I found one page in the baptism register which listed all 8 children baptised on the same day! Perhaps my Scottish forebears were as tight with spending out money as I am and they managed to get a special rate for a ‘job lot’! It’s moments like these which give us genealogists a little glow of happiness!!

Happy Researching!

PS:  Anyone with Derbyshire ancestors might like to know that Ancestry have just added Derbyshire Church of England parish registers to their collections and Find My Past have been adding parish register transcriptions for various counties practically every week!  It never hurts to keep an eye on what’s happening on these sites and don’t forget you can access them both Free of Charge here at Surrey History Centre!

If you’re interested in seeing more of my musings click this link to see all my Seeking Surrey Ancestors blog posts.

Written by Jane Lewis - Modified by ESP Admin

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