Why Barbados? Digitising Cemeteries for Global Genealogy

As an archaeologist and historian, I get asked one question more than any others: Why did I choose Barbados? Why did I choose to record funerary monuments in Bajan churches and churchyards? Since launching this site, the question has transformed to: why did MAP choose to launch with pilot data from Barbados?

The simple answer is: it was there. I had the data in front of me, and it was reasonably complete, and I had the permissions that I needed to make it freely accessible.

But the real answer is more important, and (in my opinion) more interesting.

The monuments in Barbados, and what first attracted me to them, is the connection of this place to the rest of the world. It is the case point that exemplifies why digital records and open access genealogy resources are relevant. And it is at the core of why these resources are also of value to historical and archaeological research of the past +400 years.

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Most people think of this when I say I do research in Barbados.

In many minds today, Barbados is a far off paradise island – a blend of beaches, resort vacations and exoticism. For others, it is home, a place they and their families have lived, some for decades, others for centuries.

In the past, it was also known as a golden sugar island, “Little England”, and the place to make it, or to risk losing it all. It was a place that many people were forcibly relocated to, transformed by the transatlantic slave trade, and later histories of rebellion, abolition and emancipation.

Throughout this history, the island was an important destination and its residents created, transformed and moved through the complex networks linking the British Atlantic, and the wider colonial world.

The cemeteries capture the breadth of narratives of British and British-descendant families; individual lives are stories of exploration, conflict, community and memory. Although initially barred from baptism, and therefore burial on consecrated ground, changing laws and social dynamics mean these cemeteries also tell the stories of enslaved Africans and their descendants, who fought for freedom, equality, and social recognition.

Made up of African- and British-Barbadians, and others hailing from all corners of the world, these histories are important to many equally disparate communities today.

Digital genealogical resources have provided the opportunity for people all over the world to trace and retrieve their family histories. MAP is an extra tool in that endeavour.

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St. Michael’s churchyard, Bridgetown, Barbados.

The experience that highlighted the value of digital, open access monument records took place one of our last days doing fieldwork in Barbados. We had spent the entire day baking in the hot, humid churchyard that surrounds St. Michael’s Cathedral. We had recorded hundreds of monuments, and the end was in sight.

Blinders on, we didn’t notice a couple approaching us. Seemingly out of nowhere, we were asked, “Parlez-vous francais?”

The couple lived in French Guiana, but the gentleman’s ancestors had lived and died in Barbados, and he had been told they were buried in St. Michael’s churchyard. They weren’t sure if there was a monument or not, but if there was one, they were hoping to locate it.

We told them that we hadn’t recorded any monuments so far with the name they mentioned, and then explained the project that we were doing. All in French, which is one of my greatest achievements given the long days we’d spent working in the sun.

I was well aware of the history of diaspora from post-emancipation Barbados. Nevertheless, before that conversation, I had not fully felt the global interest in these records. I had considered archiving my records with the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, and with the Anglican diocese of Barbados, but that wasn’t enough to make it accessible to a truly diverse and global community that traces their history to this beautiful Caribbean island.

So, the short answer to why MAP has launched with records from Barbados is because it was there; the long answer is because it is needed.

 

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