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Hidden story of slavery finally uncovered by internet age

A "secret history" of Britain"s slavery era is only now coming to light two hundred years after the trade was abolished, thanks to the advances of the Internet age.

On the eve of the bicentenary of the Parliamentary Act to abolish the British slave trade, the UK"s largest genealogy website Genes Reunited reports that Web users are flocking to its pages to find their own links with the era.

It has also issued a call for wider involvement in family history among black Britons, which has been backed by experts in black history.

As light is finally thrown on a subject formerly kept under wraps, thousands of people who would class themselves as white Europeans are discovering to their surprise that they are actually of African descent.

One such member said that they were "honoured" to find they had a slave as an ancestor, while another is planning to have a DNA test to confirm whether their researches are correct.

Consultant genealogist Anthony Adolph said that when it comes to researching black ancestors, "A combination of illiteracy, poverty, reliance on oral history and very poor survival of records means that virtually no written records exist. Oral history is a great substitute for written records, but the problem for migrants and their descendants is finding the people who know the oral history.

"It is therefore essential that all families be encouraged to record their pedigrees both privately and also using contact websites. If everyone with immigrant ancestry entered their own oral history on Genes Reunited, then the site would become a vast database of African genealogical knowledge."

Patrick Vernon, founder of the black history website, said, "There is now a sense of urgency to record the oral history of the older generations in the UK, the "Windrush Generation" and people who lived in Africa and Caribbean during the British colonial era, to collect their experiences to share with a new generation of young people around the world.

"There is still a "hidden history" of the role and recognition of black ancestors in white UK families who made a contribution to the local community, nationally and internationally.

"The transatlantic slave trade and its aftermath have disconnected the family history of Black British and Caribbean communities to Africa. With the rise of the internet and the development of a number of genealogy and community websites people of African descent can now reconnect by collecting and sharing their stories and family history online.

"The role of family history and genealogy provides a useful way of our people reclaiming and defining our identity, and a platform to understand and develop our own solutions in tackling inequality and racism."

Genes Reunited does not operate like a conventional genealogy site with the emphasis on ancient census and records books. Instead it encourages people to post what they know of their family tree - however little - on its pages. A computer then automatically reveals possible common ancestors within other members" trees.

Members can then contact each other securely, and exchange photographs and other details. So far nearly 7 million people have registered with the site, recording the details of around 100 million ancestors.

Martine Parnell hopes this focus on memories, oral history and fostering community between people will make it attractive to people who are descended from slaves.

She said, "By talking to each other and sharing memories, photos and knowledge of our own roots, we can gradually all piece together a bigger picture of the part the nation played in slavery and its destruction

"It"s when everybody can find out what their own links with that time were that we can all learn the lessons from the past. The one thing the current interest in slavery shows us is that many more families have been touched by this issue than you would think."

Some of the astonishing stories unearthed by Genes Reunited members include:

Lisa Stringer - it was while flicking through a US Air Force flight safety magazine that Lisa chanced upon a picture of a colonel with the same surname as her late grandfather (Jewell Hicks). He was clearly of African descent, though her family is white. As her family roots lie not far from the slaving port of Bristol, she is using Genes Reunited to find out if there is a link. "I"m not too sure what my grandfather, a committed humanitarian & socialist would have made of it!" she says.

Margaret Moses - she married a man from Jamaica whose surname was McLennon, whose mixed-race father was born in St. Elizabeth and whose grandfather had been a surveyor. His mother used to say that the family came from the "Inekin" tribe, noted for their physical strength, though Margaret cannot find any more details about that. She is now writing a children"s story in which some modern-day boys and girls travel back in time to meet their slave-era relatives.

Jane Pickernell - a portrait of the Munro family of Abolitionists has been treasured by Jane"s family for years. She is intrigued enough by the links between the Munros and her own family enough to pay a visit a statue of Munro in Bardados with her sister this summer.

David Reade - a copy of the will of his 4x great-uncle, Samuel Sandbach, who held sugar plantations in Grenada, bequeaths his slaves. He also left £100 per year plus a plot of land to "Roze Catherine Sandbach, my daughter, a free mulatess". That is about £5000 in today"s money"

John Poustie - his namesake was a tailor from Edinburgh who joined the Jacobite Rebellion and was captured. Shackled and with an iron ring around his neck, he was deported to Antigua and sold off to work on the plantations.

Dick Venning says, "since last year I have been building my family tree with Genes Reunited and have almost certainly confirmed what was a suspicion for a long time. My grandfather Joseph Charles Cork, born in Cawsand in 1874, was always thought to be rather dark and as a child I never met anyone from his side of the family. I have now found out that he was brought up as a child by a Sarah Hooper nee Cork born 1843 who on the 1851 census is shown as his aunt, but from stories that I have dug up in the family it would appear that she was in fact his mother. Her father William Cork was a West Indian born 1779 which brings us into this terrible period of our history when we bought and sold these poor souls in slavery."

Tom Tribe says, "My great great grandfather, was Joseph Gibson who, we can surmise, was affected by the abolition of slavery. I have no knowledge of whether or not he was a slave owner or whether he approved or disapproved of slavery (hopefully the latter) but the records suggest that his circumstances declined over the abolition period. The church register stated that at the time of his marriage in 1830 he was a sugar planter at Welches in Barbados - but when his first child was born in 1835 he was said to be a blacksmith, and then when his daughter married he had become a carpenter and was living in Bridgetown."

Steph Kirkup - in a recently received letter from her grandmother, Steph was told that it would be difficult to trace her step-grandfather"s history because of the slave trade. His father came from Tobago and his mother from French/Spanish African stock. She is now planning a visit to them to find out more.

Fiona Redmond - a set of correspondence which came to light revealed that Fiona"s 2nd cousin 8 times removed, Robert Blachford, was a slave trader born in 1699. His family were from the Isle of Wight and later generations sold Osborne House to Queen Victoria. Fiona said, "I certainly had no idea that any of my relatives were involved in the slave trade until I started to research my family history."

Marie Andrews - she found out that her husband"s 2x great-grandfather was the cousin of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay who signed the anti-slavery Bill with William Wilberforce at Rothley, the Thomas home in Leicestershire.

Cathie Tully says, "My grandfather Tom Tully was a slave, in Virginia, taken from Africa. I believe we got our surname from the farmer who owned my grandfather"s family."

John Martin - the many dark skinned members of his mother"s family often led to speculation over the family history, but now John has found that brothers Floyer and Bertram Fryer were taken into the Royal Navy from Jamaica, where they were slaves on the sugar plantations. They were brought to England where one stayed with the Navy, while the other became a house painter. They settled in an area of Southampton where they married into the Martin family. John"s younger sister suffered a kind of stroke which is very common in black people yet very uncommon in the white population.

Hints and tips for tracing African ancestry on Genes Reunited

  1. Start by adding all the details of you and your immediate family to your family tree. Adding as many details as possible now will make it easier to check dates and information later and brings your family tree to life.
  2. Talk to family members to find out dates of births, marriages and deaths of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. It"s useful to collect as many photos, family bibles and especially stories and memories from older members of your family. Remember family history isn"t just about collecting dates and going back as far as you can. It"s just as important to record in your family tree all the stories, traditions and details which make your family unique.
  3. Try and work out from relatives when your family came to Britain and where from. If you think you have Caribbean roots in your family, try our quick tips for Caribbean history. Although a large portion of migration into the UK from African nations happened in the 20th Century, black people have been living in Britain for hundreds of years.
  4. You can search the Birth, Marriage and Death records in England and Wales on Genes Reunited to work back to the first record of your family in the UK. Marriage and birth certificates hold useful information like names and occupations of fathers as well as mothers" maiden names - helping to grow your tree.
  5. If you think part of your family was in the UK from 1900, try searching the 1901 census for details of them.
  6. If you know what part of Africa your family came from, try and find out as many details of what town/village they came from by asking family members. Any details of religion or ethnic group will make it easier to trace people.
  7. If you do not know for sure what country your family came from, then the clues could lie in everyday conversations and objects in your home. Think about family traditions, saying, stories and even recipes that have been passed down. Pet names, or words you use everyday with your own parents and children could have roots in African languages and traditions.
  8. If you do trace your ancestors back to a country or locality in Africa, official records may not be much help. A combination of poor survival of records and less documentation of dates may mean that there are few documents to consult and these are rarely available online. It might be worth checking with local churches where your ancestors lived as they might have baptism records which could be useful.
  9. Don"t let this stop you! While European countries tend to rely on documented records held by the government, many African traditions have developed much richer oral histories which preserve not only family trees but also details of how people lived. The Ethiopian royal family could trace its roots back to 1268.
  10. Don"t forget to add all the information you collect to your family tree on Genes Reunited. By regularly searching for your relatives names on Genes Reunited, you can discover matches with other family trees. This enables you to contact other Genes Reunited members who share your ancestry. As well as finding cousins and relations you didn"t know you had, you can share information which will lead you to your family history.

The more people who add their family trees to Genes Reunited, the easier it is for everyone to discover their family history - creating a resource future generations.

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Notes to the Editor - About Genes Reunited

Genes Reunited was launched in 2002 as a sister-site to the Internet phenomenon Friends Reunited. Since then it has grown to become the UK's largest genealogy website.

It marked a revolution in genealogy and ancestry by combining them with Internet social-networking. Members are able to build their family tree by posting it on the site and investigating which ancestors they share with other members. They can also search historical records such as census, birth, death, marriage and military records.

It currently has over 11 million members and over 750 million names listed. One new name is added to the site every single second.