Redemption song: the transformative nature of Caribbean genealogy


24 August 2021
Kyle's 2xgt grandmother Virginia Elizabeth Springer (1879-1966) with her grandfather Manoel Gonsalves and grandmother Patricia de Oliveira Goncalves, taken 1886 in Funchal, Madeira
It was the gaps in his story that sparked Kyle Ring's research into the lives of his ancestors. Read on to discover why he treasures the stories of resilience and strength evident generation after generation.

Researching Caribbean ancestry can be complex. I discovered this very early on. I was first interested in learning more about my family history when I was eleven years old. 

My parents were born in the UK but my maternal grandparents were from Trinidad and had arrived in the UK in 1961 as part of the Windrush generation.

My aim when I first started my research was to trace all of these lines to their countries of origin and understand more about how and why they came to the Caribbean. Many people in the Caribbean have mixed ancestry; some have a deep knowledge of this history whilst others know very little.

My great-great-grandmother's story

Virginia, known affectionately by all as Gammy, was the matriarch of our family. She was kind and compassionate and well known in the community. Her background however was always more mysterious. 

Virginia was born in 1879 to Joseph Watson Springer and Maria Gonsalves. Joseph was from Barbados where he was already married in 1876. His father James Barry Springer (1822-1880) was unwell with some form of oral cancer and had come to Trinidad to seek medical treatment at the Colonial Hospital. It seems that Joseph, as the eldest son, accompanied his father to Trinidad. They were staying in Lord Street, San Fernando which I confirmed from copies of the Trinidad Royal Gazette held at the National Archives in Kew. Joseph was a shoemaker whilst James Barry worked as a land surveyor.

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However James’ grandfather owned a plantation in Saint Lucy Parish, Barbados known as Gay’s Cove. In 1834, the year that slavery was officially abolished, there were forty-two enslaved people on the plantation. The British government actually compensated slave owners for their loss of “property” following abolition. Those who had been enslaved received nothing. The government took out a £20million loan which was only finally paid off in 2015 by British taxpayers. My ancestor was compensated an amount that would be equivalent to around £50,000 in today’s money. This uncomfortable truth is only tempered by the fact that I know that this material wealth did not make its way into our line of descent. However it puts into perspective some of the elements of pride that many members of my family have in our “white” ancestry, highlighting the fact that it may be misplaced.

Breaking the chains

This is not a unique story but it is certainly one that is not spoken about. It is a history that highlights the resilience of my family line and our ability to thrive in difficult circumstances. I am proud of certain stories such as that of my Gammy taking a stand against her upper-class racist family in the 19th century and getting married to an East Indian labourer, and the story of their two daughters utilising the ancient sou-sou system to acquire land which became a home to their hundreds of descendants.

But most of all I am proud of my mother, she embodies the history and experiences of all of the women before her, yet she provided a loving and healthy home for myself and my brother so that we had the stability that she and others before her did not. My mother broke the chain of dysfunctional family patterns that had haunted our family for generations.

Despite the sadness of the past, researching my family history has helped me to appreciate my situation and the opportunities that I now have thanks to my ancestors. And I hold my head high with pride. As Bob Marley sings in his ‘Redemption Song’, “We [move] forward in this generation. Triumphantly”

Read Kyle Ring's full story in the October issue of Family Tree magazine.

Text and image courtesy of Kyle Ring.

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