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Although the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act came into force in 1807, slaves in British colonies weren’t freed and ownership wasn’t outlawed. The act merely prohibited the transportation of slaves from Africa to dependencies such as those in the Caribbean. Pressure from the abolitionist movement did result in stricter regulation of slave ownership and gradually each colony was forced to keep registers of slaves, and update them every three years.
The fact that there was slavery at all marks a very sorry chapter in the history of the British Empire, but if you have Afro-Caribbean roots, the registers, first recorded in some colonies as early as 1812, might help you find a little more about your forebears. Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1812-1834 is a collection that includes nearly 3 million records from 17 different colonies including Jamaica, Antigua and Berbice (Guyana) in the Caribbean, as well as Sri Lanka and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
Searching for a particular person can be difficult because many slaves were only given one name and although it’s said that slaves often took their owner’s surname, this isn’t regularly reflected in the registers. Some slaves had demeaning names like ‘Mistake’ or strange ones such as ‘Lemon’. Others had descriptive names like Old Tom Boy, Big Robert and Little George. However, many were baptised and, where this was so, the registers often record their slave name and their actual name.
The registers record quite a bit of further information. The date and location (island and parish) are at the top of the page, and you’ll find each slave’s name, skin colour (usually African or Creole), and a remark – this could be a comment on their health such as ‘infirm’ or ‘sickly’, but frequently it tells you who the person’s mother was, especially in the case of children. For some dependencies, the work the slave did is even recorded – it could say ‘field negro’, ‘cooper’ or ‘watchman’.
The pages are divided into sections for each slave owner, who swears at the bottom to be giving a true account. Some had just one or two slaves, others had hundreds. While it’s not likely many of the slaves could write, surprisingly most of the owners simply left an X as their mark, so it appears they too were illiterate.
All the books date from between 1812 and 1834, but the date of the earliest register from each island varies. Many resisted keeping registers until they were forced to by law. The first register for each island is often the most comprehensive, as it usually lists all the slaves owned. For subsequent registers, there are columns for increase and decrease.
Finding the person you’re looking for may rely on other sources. If you know the island and parish your forebear came from, but searching by name isn’t working, you can browse the records. Use the pulldown menu which lists each dependency and each parish on the right-hand side of the screen.
When slavery was properly abolished in 1833, slaves over the age of six became bound apprenticed labourers and were meant to remain on their estate until 1 August 1840, after which time owners were given compensation. The authorities in the colonies used the register books to determine the value each owner would be paid.