I should declare an interest from the start – I love maps! I can look at them for hours.
If a picture is worth a thousand words so too can a map be.
Most people start investigating their family history through photographs, family stories and whatever documents have been kept, moving on to look at old census records and obtain birth, marriage and death certificates.
But when you have these don’t underestimate the usefulness of looking at a map to see where your ancestors lived. Sometimes you will find that two addresses in the same town were just around the corner from each other, or that granny had married the boy next door. Sometimes changes in county boundaries mean that people who appeared to live in different counties were actually quite close. Birmingham is an example, since the Warwickshire village at its core was surrounded by others in Staffordshire and Worcestershire meaning you may have to visit three different county record offices or look at a selection of maps covering the area that now makes up the West Midlands.
When our ancestors adventured abroad they always took a little bit of home with them. Sometimes it was in the form of habits that did not translate well to the new country. Early settlers in New Zealand built their houses facing south as they had done in England. But of course they were now in the southern hemisphere and soon realised that the sunny side was to the north!
In Jamaica, the early settlers often named their houses and plantations after the homes they had left. So the Rose family of Mickleton in Gloucestershire established a plantation called Mickleton, and another called Rose Hall – near Linstead, and not to be confused with the great house now associated with the supposed witch. If you saw a place called Stirling Castle you could be pretty sure the person naming it was a Scot – in this case Archibald Aikenhead who was probably born in Lanarkshire. Lluidas Vale and Landovery had Welsh origins. Other names were simply aspirational – Paradise or Arcadia. An eighteenth century street map of Kingston reveals the names of its most prominent citizens – Beckford, Bernard, Beeston and Lawes among them.
To think yourself back into the early history of Jamaica you also need to consider the terrain faced by the early settlers and how they travelled about. Here the maps in Michael Morrissey’s book Our Island, Jamaica are really useful. The first and most essential element for settlement is the availability of fresh water, then the availability of land for growing food and cash crops and the materials for building houses, barns and other outbuildings. Once you start to think along these lines you may be able to understand why your ancestors settled where they did. Look too at transport links remembering that in the earliest days it may have been easier to travel by sea than over land, even between places that are now quite close by road. Apart from a few Taino tracks there were no roads for the early settlers.
High rainfall and mountainous terrain often made travel in Jamaica hazardous. The flat bridge in Bog Walk has remained without any railing after repeated floods washed them away. Fording rivers in flood led to the deaths by drowning of more than one early settler. Even after a hundred and fifty years of British settlement, Lady Nugent recorded in her journal the difficult state of the roads as she travelled around with her husband the newly appointed Governor, and she described the loss of a kittareen down a precipice – the officer driving it jumped clear but she didn’t mention the fate of the horse or mule which presumably perished.
After the improved roads, came the railway making more places accessible and in the twentieth century air travel brought more changes to the map of Jamaica.
One of the most useful modern maps available online is the Esso Jamaica road map made in 1967, shown above, and published on the Jamaican Caves website which shows not only the modern road system but many of the names of places and plantations established by the early settlers. A number of places on this map have clickable areas which give even greater detail.
A search online for old maps of Jamaica reveals a wide selection. You can also find some on the Jamaican Family Search subscription website and on the Facebook Group Jamaican Colonial Heritage Society which is a treasure trove of images and information about Jamaica’s past.
So next time you look at the history of your family, take a look on a map at where they lived and work out why they were there rather than somewhere else. I guarantee you will learn something new.