How to Find Indian Indentured Ancestors that went to Guyana and Trinidad

Indian indentured servants in Guyana
Indian indentured servants in Guyana

This post is about how to find Indian indentured ancestors that went to Trinidad and Guyana.

Brief Overview of Indian Indentured Servitude

The history of Indian indentured laborers in Trinidad, Guyana, and the Caribbean is a tale of resilience, struggle, and cultural preservation. I've been researching my family history over the last 7 years and learned so much about Indian indentureship, and the harsh reality of colonial rule by the British government.

Following abolition, the British Empire sought to address labor shortages in its colonies and turned to countries like India as a source of cheap labor. Through the indenture system, thousands of East Indian immigrants were "recruited" and transported to various British colonies in South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, and the West Indies (including British Guiana, Trinidad & Tobago, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and French Guiana). A smaller population of Indians were also indentured in French colonies. 

Between 1834 and the end of the system in 1920, it's estimated that over one million Indians were transported across the oceans under the indenture system to toil on sugar, cotton, and rubber plantations. The system, while touted as an ‘opportunity’ for the impoverished from the Indian subcontinent, often involved kidnapping, exploitative contracts, and harsh living conditions that were akin to a new form of slavery.

You can read more about Indian Indentured Servitude in the Caribbean by clicking here.

Can you find your Indian ancestry?

The short answer is that it depends. There are certain records like ship registries and emigration passes with background information. 

However, these records are not available online. Many are not digitized. For Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, you need to go in person to view the records.

You must know the approximate year or range in which your ancestors came to the Caribbean.

There are certain ways you can find out like speaking with elders and checking other records.

Speaking with Elders

Ask your elders about your family history. I know that this may be taboo in our community. However, it is an important step that you should attempt.

Here are some questions you can ask your grandparents/elders:

  1. Where were you born?
    1. When were you born?
    2. What is your favorite food?
    3. What is your favorite song?
    4. What was your favorite place to visit?
    5. What is your favorite memory growing up?
  2. What were your parents’ names?
    1. Where were they born?
    2. When were they born?
    3. What do you remember most about them?
  3. What were your grandparents’ names?
    1. Where were they born?
    2. When were they born?
    3. What do you remember most about them?
  4. Do you have any birth/death/marriage certificates?
    1. Do you know anyone in the family who does?
  5. Did anyone tell you about which grandparent came from India?
  6. Did anyone you know speak Hindi/another language?
  7. Where did you live growing up?
    1. Did you have family in other parts of the country?
      1. If so, how did they get there?

I’d suggest asking questions about your grandparents, their parents, and so forth until you have no further information. That can indicate which generation first arrived in the Caribbean. 

You can use this year, or a small window of years around this time, to estimate when your ancestors came to the Caribbean. 

Finally, you can search the corresponding ship and emigration records at the archives offices for those years.

If you do not have access to any relatives, you can ask elders who live or lived in the same Caribbean village as your family. I learned that some Guyanese villages were composed of individuals who traveled to Guyana on the same ship from India. Sometimes a majority of the passengers on the ship came from the same village in India.

Checking Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificates

Birth, marriage, and death records can also be helpful for finding out which ancestors came from India. 

The method is similar to the above.

First, check your birth certificate to find out your parents’ names. Get the records associated with your parents’ names to find out your grandparents’ names.

Keep repeating these steps until you cannot find any more records in the Caribbean. 

That will indicate a potential window of years in which your ancestors came to the Caribbean. Search the corresponding ship and emigration records at the archives offices for those years.

Check with the local records offices for more on how to access these records. You may be able to order Trinidadian records remotely for a fee.

These websites may provide you with further information:

Land and tax records might also be checked in a similar manner if you hit a roadblock using birth/marriage/death records.

Checking the Ship Records

The main records are emigration passes and ship registers.

The emigration passes contain information about a specific person. This can include the following:

  • Name
  • Parent’s names
  • Village
  • Height
  • Birthmarks

The ship registers are large books that list all of the passengers on a particular voyage.

There are about 534 ships registers relating to Guyana and 327 relating to Trinidad & Tobago.

These ship registers are available for viewing in person in Trinidad and Guyana. Suriname has digitized their records, and people can view the records online. Henry W. Jaghai's book Journey From India to Jamaica contains a list of all ships that went to Jamaica. 

You can check with the archives offices in a specific country for more information on how you can access the records.

Facebook Genealogy Groups

Facebook genealogy groups also contain very helpful information about finding Indian ancestors.

Here are a few groups:

Further Information

This post was about how to find Indian indentured ancestors that went to Trinidad and Guyana.

By Melissa Ramnauth, Esq. | This content is copyright of West Indian Diplomacy, LLC and may not be reproduced without permission.

She runs West Indian Diplomacy, a Caribbean blog aimed at promoting West Indian history and business in the global marketplace. Melissa has been an attorney for over 10 years. She currently focuses on trademark registration, trademark searches, and office actions. She also has extensive legal experience in the areas of trademarks, copyrights, contracts, and business formations. She owns her own Trademark Law Firm that is virtually based out of Fort Lauderdale.

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