Royal York Crescent Clifton, Bristol*
This last week has been a busy one, taken up with a variety of activities and so by way of catching up this week’s blog piece is a bit of a patchwork, piecing together some of the scraps of information recently acquired.
Part of the week was spent stitching together a family tree for a friend of a friend who will probably be as surprised as I was to discover in it a Jamaican connection. In his case this was a young soldier who joined up at the age of seventeen in the first half of the nineteenth century and served with his Regiment, the 33rd Foot the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, in the West Indies, among other places.
Yesterday I spent in Bristol at a conference on Jamaica and the Caribbean: Beyond the Boundary. It took place in the Watershed, a converted dockside warehouse, now an arts centre and cinema, and was part of a three-day event to “reflect on the sometimes difficult political, economic and social development of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago since independence 50 years ago, and also the significant impact these countries have had on the Caribbean community in Bristol and the UK.”
The wealth of Bristol, a significant seaport for centuries, was in many ways derived from slavery, the slave trade, and the income from the products of slavery particularly sugar. Although it was a much smaller city than London, perhaps 20,000 people in the first part of the 18th-century, by the end of the century it had become one of the most favoured retirement spots for members of the Plantocracy returning home, especially in the area of Clifton. The names of streets today reflect this, Royal York Crescent, Regent Street, Merchants Road – in the fresh air high above the river Avon and the Avon Gorge with easy access to the city of Bristol and its trading connections, but set apart in genteel Georgian splendour.
Much of the conference was concerned with the modern Caribbean and the Afro-Caribbean migrants to Britain, Bristol in particular. It began, however, with a historical introduction to Bristol and Jamaica by Professor Madge Dresser of the University of the West of England. She outlined a little of the early history of Jamaica and the connections with the island of Bristol families such as the Penns and the Swymmers. Elizabeth Swymmer is one of the few women whose direct connections to the slave trade can be tracked. She mentioned the records of the Bybrook Plantation held at the Bristol record office, and the often chance distribution of Jamaican and Plantation records to other record offices around the country. Talking of the distribution of records she mentioned the use of the slave ownership compensation records compiled in 1833 for tracking both slave owners and enslaved people. Just as I have discussed here previously the way in which the mixed race Jamaican descendants blended into English society, so the profits derived from Jamaica were often used to build the great 18th-century British country houses, with the origins of the funds subsequently suppressed or forgotten.
The second speaker, Adrian Stone, was a hugely enthusiastic speaker about his own genealogical researches which had taken him from 21st-century Bristol to 18th-century Jamaica. A self-taught researcher he had begun by interviewing close family members and then more distant cousins about their origins in Jamaica and the complex interrelationships of a large family. Living now in London he had discovered cousins he did not know existed and had explored their joint history using resources such as the Mormon family history Centre in Exhibition Road, and the National Archives at Kew. He had found that many people asked if he was able to traces family origins back to Africa and demonstrated how the slave returns for Jamaica, which I discussed last week, could sometimes be used through the names of women such as ‘Ebo Venus’ to relate their origins to specific tribes and regions in Africa.
This brings me to another of this week’s bits and pieces, for I came across some material relating to slave names. I will cover it in more detail another time but, briefly, enslaved Africans in the early eighteenth century were often given names of classical origin such as Venus, Phoebe or Chloe. Christian baptism frequently over wrote such names with English ones. But throughout it all names of African origin persisted, for example, Cudjoe the leader of the Maroons during the war of the 1730s whose name from the Guinea Coast indicates he was born on a Monday. Where these names exist in the slave records they can be used, together with some tribal references which remain, to establish areas of origin in Africa.
My final fragment for this week concerns the sort of correction a genealogist sometimes has to make (but hopefully not too often). In dealing with partial records of baptisms marriages and deaths and information derived from Wills, we reconstruct family trees and sometimes we get it wrong!
When I was working some time ago on the Aikenhead family, three of whose daughters were prominent among the Wills I transcribed, I had attached them to Archibald Aikenhead of Stirling Castle, well aware that this involved a certain amount of guesswork. I now know that some of my guesses were wrong, for I recently acquired, courtesy of Dianne Golding-Frankson, the Wills of two men both called William Aikenhead. Doctor William Aikenhead, who died about 1762, left no direct heirs and made his uncle Archibald Aikenhead his residuary legatee. The other William Aikenhead who died about 1760, referred specifically to four children – his son John Lawrence Aikenhead, and his daughters Elizabeth, Margret Helen, and Milborough Aikenhead. By the time he wrote his Will his daughter Elizabeth was married to Gilbert Ford, and Milborough to John Harvie. Margret Helen, who I take to be Margaret Eleanor Aikenhead, brought her inheritance as dowry to her marriage with Samuel Alpress about a year after the death of her father. All this means not only that more of Archibald Aikenhead’s children had died in infancy than I had previously suspected, but also that Archibald and William must have had another brother, the father of Doctor William Aikenhead. Whether this brother had a presence in Jamaica or had remained in Scotland I don’t know.
So continuing the patchwork metaphor with which I began, the work of the historian and the genealogist is to attempt to make a pleasing (and it is to be hoped truthful) pattern from the scraps and pieces of information that have been left to us. Sometimes it is necessary to unpick a piece of work and re-make it in an attempt to produce a more accurate reconstruction of our past.
* Photograph of Royal York Crescent from lizzieparker.wordpress.com where you can find a whole treasure trove of photographs and information about Bristol and Clifton.