*From the archives. This article first appeared in MARITimes 2017 Vol 30. No. 2
While traveling a few years ago, I was asked: “What do you know about your West Indian heritage?” in more than one form. The first to ask was an eminent Caribbean historian who discounted my being Bermudian as an answer. So I told him about the islands from which three of my paternal great-grandparents had originated: Montserrat, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent. “Well,” he said, “you are indeed a Caribbean person!”
The second to ask was the woman who ran the guesthouse where I stayed in St. Lucia. Due to our location, I started by telling her about my great grandmother Candice who, along with her sister Laura, had been taken from St. Lucia by their Bermudian father when they were teenagers.
But that wasn’t the heritage she was interested in. “I’m from St. Vincent and my maiden name is Warren,” she interjected. I told her that my Warren ancestor had also come from St. Vincent. “We must be related,” she suggested, adding: “You look like the Warrens in St. Vincent.” At that moment I wanted to believe her and it wasn’t a stretch to consider it a possibility, as there aren’t many Warrens in the region.
However, there was no possible way to investigate her account further while in St. Lucia, so I shifted my attention back to looking for records in the archives concerning my St. Lucian great grandmother Candice Elizabeth Warren (née Simmons). I stood on the other side of the counter as the archive assistant looked for her name. Initially, she came up empty-handed. She then asked: “Were they Catholic?” The assistant had been searching in records of the Catholic Church, as that is the most common denomination in St. Lucia. I told her they were probably Anglican, as their father was from Bermuda and that was the most common denomination there.
She dug out the Anglican records and it wasn’t long before I heard: “I found her!” She found her! There was her name, misspelled by the scribe as Candis. Most importantly, also written were the names of her parents, which I learned for the first time: Augustus and Caroline Simmons. It confirmed that her parents were married when she was born and that she, therefore, had her father’s name from birth.
Her father was listed in the records as a sailor, confirming what we had already learned from relatives in Bermuda.
Several years ago, Laura’s daughter, who we called Aunt Gladys, had written a letter outlining what she knew. In it she noted that her grandfather had traded in spices between the islands; however, she couldn’t remember his name. She also noted that when Laura and Candice arrived in Bermuda they spoke the French-based patois that is spoken in St. Lucia.
The St. Lucian records provided more details about the sisters showing that Candice had been baptised into the Wesleyan church in 1875 and that her older sister Laura had been christened in an Anglican church in 1874. A key piece of information was missing from the documents–their mother’s maiden name. This was the link I needed in order to learn more about my family’s St. Lucian line. So, I needed to find the registration of their parent’s marriage, which would have Caroline’s maiden name along with her father’s name.
I’d hoped to find that on my next trip to the archives, but there was no marriage record found as the Anglican wedding records of that time had not survived. No death record for Caroline was discovered either. So what her maiden name was, and all the family history connected with that name remains unknown.
Fortunately, we did find a death notice and burial record for Augustus in 1888. This disturbed what I thought I knew. As I’d been told he’d taken his daughters to Bermuda, I’d always assumed that he’d died there. This showed that he returned to St. Lucia. Was he planning to eventually return to Bermuda, but didn’t make it? Where was his wife? She didn’t appear to have made the journey to Bermuda.
Two burial records gave him different ages: 53 and 57 respectively. This would put his birth either just before or just after Emancipation. So, it was possible that I had made it back to an enslaved ancestor on my father’s side. It also struck me that there are likely to be other Bermudian seaman buried across the Caribbean islands with nuggets about their lives stored away in an archive.
At that point, I still couldn’t confirm where in Bermuda Augustus was born, or when, or who his parents were. But I had learned a bit more about my Caribbean ancestors and had gained vital information to help with the rest of my search.
For those wanting to dig into their Caribbean family history, the first step is to start with what you know and work backward. In my case, the initial information I obtained came from my father and Aunt Gladys (Cann), who was by that time quite elderly. Sometimes older relatives may not have the “facts” you’re looking for but they can provide important information about what they were like as a person.
The internet also offers a wealth of resources. A great online resource for starting Bermuda family research is the National Museum of Bermuda’s Tracing Our Roots/Routes program, a year-long programme of online presentations, workshops, and resources.
Information for Caribbean family history research can also be found on BBC’s Researching African-Caribbean Family History page.
Dr. Kristy Warren researches the socio-political history of British colonialism in Bermuda and the wider Caribbean along with the lingering legacies of this past in the region and wider diaspora. She is interested in exploring how colonialism continues to inform current institutional processes and the role Caribbean people have played and continue to play in bringing about systemic change.