How to look for records of... Caribbean ancestors – an overview

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This guide provides a brief overview of resources at The National Archives that can help you to trace your family history from the Caribbean, predominantly after immigration to the UK but, to a lesser extent, after emigration or forced movement to the Caribbean.  It is an introduction to the sorts of records we hold, with links to guides providing more detailed advice on how to find the records in our collection.

The records held at The National Archives

As with all documents held here, the records we hold related to people from the Caribbean are historical records of the UK central government. Most of these records relate to the British Caribbean, encompassing the British colonial territories in the Caribbean before and following their independence.

In general, we do not hold the internal administrative records from the Caribbean, such as registers of births, marriages and deaths or land ownership, which would have remained in place after independence. However, this guide does provide some advice on where to find these records.

Quite often record titles, descriptions and the documents themselves use language that is now out of date and sometimes offensive, but once records are transferred to us, we don’t alter them. The terminology used by the people that created the records is part of the story they tell.

How to get a search for records started

Before you begin a search, you should see if there is a guide to the records you are looking for. This guide is designed to help you do that. Throughout this guide you will find links to the more detailed advice you will need to search a specific set of records.

Records are arranged by the government department that created them, then by the type of record, such as passenger lists or military service records, and by date.

There are no ‘case files’ containing all the information about a single person. For any individual, there may be several different types of records which relate to them, each of which will have to be searched for separately.

The documents themselves may be in different formats, from handwritten registers, printed lists, or large sheets of parchment, each representing one aspect of a distinct set of records.

How to view records

This guide provides links to many other guides. Each of these guides will indicate whether the records they cover have been made available online (charges usually apply). The online copies are accessed either directly from our website or from the websites of our commercial partners, including Ancestry and Findmypast.

Many records have no online version and to see these you will need to consult them at our building in Kew or pay for copies to be made and sent to you. The search for records held at Kew begins by using keywords and dates to search our online catalogue. The catalogue contains short descriptions of the records and a document reference for each – you will need the document reference to see the record itself or to request copies.

For more guidance on searching or browsing our catalogue, visit our Discovery help pages.

Records of arrival in the UK

The records most likely to have been created and kept to reflect a person’s migration from any other country to the UK are those documenting their arrival.

The majority of people arriving in the UK from the Caribbean, or from anywhere else, up until the 1960s arrived by ship. Passenger lists, recording all travellers on any inter-continental ship voyages, are therefore the most widespread records of arrival. We hold incoming passenger lists for 1878-1960, including lists for the Empire Windrush. Anyone who travelled from the Caribbean and first arrived in a European port before onward travel to the UK will not be listed in these passenger lists.

Outside of these years there is much less chance of there being an archived record of arrival, though documents known as ‘certificates of arrival’ were issued during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when immigrant numbers from the Caribbean were much lower than they became.

Consult our guide to immigration and immigrants for advice on finding passenger lists and the small number of other records of arrival kept at The National Archives.

See our Windrush 75 portal for some context on the people travelling from the Caribbean who became know as the Windrush generation and learn more about Empire Windrush passenger lists.

Records of UK citizenship

Up until 1949 citizens of any colony or dominion in the British Empire, including those in the Caribbean, were automatically considered British subjects but this changed with the British Nationality Act 1948. After the Act, people in the British Commonwealth could register their British citizenship to remain British citizens, whether or not they actually moved to the UK, though those who did move to the UK were more likely to register than those who didn’t. Anyone who moved from the British Caribbean to the UK after 1949 may have registered their citizenship.

For advice on how to find records of registration, and other records of British citizenship, consult our guide to naturalisation, registration and British citizenship.

Records of births, marriages, deaths and relatives in the UK

Births, marriages and deaths in the UK are usually recorded in one or two ways: on registers and on certificates. At The National Archives we do not hold any certificates and only a few registers. You are usually better off searching for a birth, marriage or death record elsewhere. There are details of where you should start your search in our guides to births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales and births, marriages and deaths in Scotland and Ireland.

Census records

The most popular source for tracing relatives at The National Archives are the census records. The census is a head count of everyone in the country on a given day. We hold the censuses for England and Wales from 1841-1921. Most censuses include details of family relationships, marital status of individuals as well as their age, address and where they were born.

In the 1921 census, the most recent census held here, there were 9054 people recorded as born in the West Indies.

For advice on how to search in the available censuses and more about them, read our guide to census records.


You may find details of an individual in a will if they were the testator (the person who made the will), the executor (the person/s who carries out the testator’s wishes, usually a relative, friend or close associate) or a beneficiary but also, in the case of enslaved people, who were regarded as the property of slave owners, as part of the estate. The wealthier the individual, the more likely it was that they left a will.

At The National Archives we only hold wills proved before 1858. However, you cannot search for wills with any name other than that of the testator. Our guide to wills before 1858 contains the details.

We also publish guidance on where to go for wills since 1858.

Records of NHS and railway workers

The National Archives is not the best place to find information about the careers and employment of individuals, however we do hold some records for a very small number of professions.

Many Caribbean workers came to the UK in the 1940s and 1950s as part of the Windrush generation. Many of those arrivals came to work for the newly established National Health Service (NHS). For advice on the limited number of NHS personnel records we hold, none more recent than 1984, and for advice on where else you can look for career records of individuals, consult our guide to doctors and nurses.

In the 1950s and 1960s, London Transport operated a scheme to recruit employees directly from the Caribbean. Use our guide to railway workers for advice on locating records of staff who worked for the railways in the UK, though almost all of our records are for people who worked for private railway companies that ran the networks before nationalisation in 1947.

Military and maritime records, 17th to 20th centuries

Pre-20th century military and maritime records

The British Army and the Royal Navy had a substantial presence in the Caribbean from the 16th century onwards, creating and defending the territories colonised by the British, and British merchant ships. Troops from the Caribbean, including the West India Regiment were also deployed in other colonial conflicts, particularly in Africa. Both armed forces used enslaved Africans as labour but also as combatants. The British Army presence included troops recruited in Britain, and local ‘militia’ that were recruited in the Caribbean. The Royal Navy recruited from around the world, including the Caribbean.

To begin searching for individuals who worked for the Royal Navy before the First World War see our guide to Royal Navy ratings up to 1913 and our guide to Royal Naval dockyard staff.

Finding individuals who served as soldiers in the Caribbean before the 20th century is easier if you can identify whether they served in a local ‘militia’ or as part of the British Army. Our guide to British Army soldiers before 1913, lays out the key records for that group. We have some, but far fewer records on the history and the personnel of the militia – see our guide to Militia. Some militia records were retained in the Caribbean. For a more detailed history of the army and militia in the Caribbean please see Guy Grannum’s book, Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors.

We have records relating to those who worked on commercial ships, known as the Merchant Navy, in the 19th century, including those who joined those ships in the Caribbean. See our guide to Merchant seamen in service before 1914.

Twentieth-century military and maritime records

Inhabitants of the Caribbean were enlisted into British and allied armed forces through a variety of routes. Some enlisted in the Caribbean itself in the local militia (see above), others travelled to the UK, or the US or Canada, and enlisted there. For the first half of the 20th century only white men (of ‘European descent’) were eligible to take combatant roles or become officers in the British armed forces. There were notable exceptions to this during the First and Second World Wars.

If you know that an individual served in the British or allied armed forces in the First or Second World War but don’t know more details about their military service, it may be helpful to consult online ‘roll of honour’ compilations before beginning more detailed searches in our records. See, for example, the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War database or the Caribbean Roll of Honour website.

The following guides offer advice on finding military and maritime service records of individuals:

Many individuals from the Caribbean worked on British-registered commercial ships, as part of the Merchant Navy. We have a number of guides to searching the records of the Merchant Navy. This includes guides to those doing regular work on merchant ships and those who were involved in the war efforts during the First and Second World War. A good place to start is our guide to merchant seamen serving since 1918.

Records of migration to the Caribbean, 16th to 20th centuries

There are records of British migration to the Caribbean from as early as 1573 up to 1960. These include outgoing passenger lists for the period 1890-1960. However, in general, there are not many records of emigrants beyond passenger lists and it can be difficult to locate individuals in those few other records that exist. You are more likely to find a record of an emigrant in the destination country. Use our guide to emigration and emigrants for more detailed advice.

After the abolition of slavery in 1834, indentured labourers were sent to the Caribbean, many from India and China and sometimes in large numbers, to plantation colonies producing high value crops such as sugar. Consult our guide to Indian indentured labourers for advice on finding records. This guide does not cover Chinese indentured labourers but provides some advice on how to locate these records within our collection.

From the 17th century onwards British armed forces, including the Army and the Royal Navy were stationed across the Caribbean. For records related to the careers and movement of these individuals please see the section above on military and maritime records.

The National Archives holds some records which relate to colonial interaction with the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean but they are dispersed across a variety of collections and are very difficult to search within so are not a very practical resource for tracing individuals.

Enslaved people and slave owners, 16th to 19th centuries

Use our guide to slavery and the British transatlantic slave trade for an overview of records held at The National Archives that shed light on the slave trade, slavery and unfree labour in the British Caribbean. These are administrative records which span the 16th to 19th centuries. The subject matter includes the transportation of enslaved people and campaigns for the abolition of the slave trade and there are also records of related court cases.

Consult our guide to enslaved people and slave owners for advice on how to find a record of an enslaved individual using the ‘slave registers’, which span the years 1813 to 1834. These records typically list the enslaved person’s name, year of birth, owner’s name, colony and sometimes parish where resident.

Use the Legacies of British slave-ownership website to search for the name of a slave-owner, estate or firm.

Records of births, marriages and deaths in the Caribbean, 16th to 20th centuries

Baptisms, marriages, and burials for the British Caribbean were generally carried out by the local Christian church until the advent of civil registration. The original parish records will usually be held by the respective Caribbean country.

You can, however, search for some records online through subscription services such as and (charges apply). Many of the Caribbean’s parish records have been digitised by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and are available at FamilySearch.

Similarly, civil registration records, including those of birth, marriage and death, of people living in former overseas territories are still held in the respective country. The National Archives holds a few registers of British citizens who were born, married or died in Caribbean islands, listed in our guide Births, marriages, and deaths at sea or abroad.

Pre-independence Caribbean censuses, 17th to 20th centuries

The National Archives holds copies of all surviving British Caribbean censuses up to the 20th century. These records provide an overview of populations in the British Caribbean, sometimes broken down into categories of age, gender, race and status (whether free or enslaved) but are not the equivalents of modern censuses in the UK and details of individuals are usually scant or absent altogether.

There are, however, some census-type lists from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries which detail the names of individuals (most often the heads of households), held within our Colonial Office collections. For more information about locating Caribbean census records, please refer to Guy Grannum’s Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors.

Wills proved in the Caribbean, 15th to 20th centuries

Wills record how a deceased person wishes their possessions to be distributed. Since enslaved people were regarded as the property of a slave owner, they may also be named in a will.

While a part of the British Empire, most wills were proved locally in the respective country, but some residents sent their wills to England or Scotland to be proved. For wills proved locally, you will need to contact the respective Caribbean archive for advice on how to locate these records.

Records of land ownership in the Caribbean, 15th to 20th centuries

In general, we do not hold records of land ownership. You will need to contact archives in the respective countries for advice on how to locate these records.

The National Archives holds some documents and correspondence which mention land owners in the West Indies. See our guides to American and West Indian colonies before 1782 and Colonies and dependencies from 1782 for further advice.

Further reading