Chief Archivist with the Barbados Archives Department Ingrid Thompson showing the original Independence Documents, signed by Queen Elizabeth. (Picture by Christoff Griffith.)
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For the last 32 years Ingrid Thompson has been learning about the history of Barbados. She spends her days perusing dusty files, heavy bond volumes and checking and rechecking facts.
Thompson is the Chief Archivist with the Barbados Archives Department and her job allows a rare view of the history of Barbados that dates back to less than ten years after the island was settled in 1627.
In her research she has seen that Barbadians are resilient: “There are periods where everything was going fine where Barbados was the jewel in the crown for England with its sugar, and then had periods of turmoil such as the 1876 Confederation riots and the 1937 riots suffering of the black population,” she told EASY magazine.
Thompson has also gained an appreciation for how education has helped Barbadians of African descent and said, “That is why it upsets me sometimes when young people do not take the opportunity in relation to getting the free education. If they only knew what their foreparents had to go through not being able to get a simple education certificate,” she said.
And speaking of education, Ingrid, a past student of Alexandra School, did not set out to work in that field. In fact, when she finished school she was a substitute at the Barbados Archives Department for someone who was on vacation leave (subbing was very prevalent in those days). When the person left the post she was asked to take up the role. It is the only job she has had in her entire working life.
To her, the department is very important to the existence of Barbados.
“This department is actually critical. Even in terms of fostering identity and getting persons to understand where we came from and where we are. It documents events from years before that are impacting on us today: the 1937 riots, the development of the trade unions, records from the land registration department.”
One of her memorable moments in the job was connecting two different people, one from Barbados, the other from the United States, who came searching for the same person. Thompson was able to connect the two, who actually had the same grandfather, had not known each other.
She also fondly remembers when actress Gwyneth Paltrow came to the island to search for her roots.
At the department, located at Lazaretto House, can be found the original Independence instruments that bear the signature of Queen Elizabeth. There are also documents showing wills, baptisms, burials, deeds, private collections of Grantley Adams and Frank Collymore. In addition there are records of businesses, such as the former Cottle Catford.
There are also original deeds which are rarely seen around the world.
“These volumes start from very early in the 17th century and we have up to 1949 and you would find all types of information in deeds, conveyances, sales of slaves. Since Barbados was a colony certain information had to be sent to Great Britain but in terms of that grouping of records they are only available here,” she said.
There are also original birth registers, censuses, the earliest 1679, also the 1715 but the census was of white people because slaves were considered property. There is also the 1970 census.
Thompson said some people see the value of documenting and also entrust the department with private manuscripts. In the last two years they received minutes books from BICO which were found in an old warehouse dating back to the 1900s. These documents contain the lists of boards of directors for the early Ice Factory before it became BICO.
“We have House of Assembly records and minutes of meetings, assembly debates going back to the 18th and 17th century and the earliest baptism record from 1637 which is pretty good considering that Barbados was settled in 1627,” she said.
They have the Official Gazette from 1871 and the oldest original document is a 1647 deeds register.
For that reason the department sees about 700 visits per month but the majority are non-Barbadian. But Thompson informed EASY that more Barbadians are showing interest in genealogy and the department receives hundreds of emails from all over the world from academics who are doing research on Barbados and the region.
To get more Barbadians using the department, Thompson said it is to be rebranded to make it more suited to the 21st century, with online access.
Thompson also spoke to the value of documents, including books, that are out of print and can be very expensive.
“There is a monetary value but there is also a value to a person or country’s memory. You would find sometimes that when there is war people always go and destroy the records, you are trying to get at that person’s identity and so keeping records intact is valuable,” Thompson said.
Thompson is working on a project to see more Caribbean people using the department and is working with the Barbados Tourism Product Authority to promote genealogy tourism.
She said long ago most ships passing through the region had to pass Barbados, and on any given day there would be 500 ships at Carlisle Bay and the military was based here: “We have a lot of connections with other countries in the Caribbean so we encourage people to come here do their family history,” Thompson said.
The work continues to ensure that the documents are still in good physical condition and fit for use. There is currently a maintenance programme through which the records are being continuously cleaned and kept at temperature between 19 and 21 degrees Celsius. The in-house conservation department is to be expanded; there have been instances of damage to the documents and Thompson said the expanded department would enhance the conservation effort. The staff is also being trained to get them up to date with the latest techniques. More equipment is being acquired and the buildings are being restored.
“We must document and keep records. We have the history now, but what we do today will be history tomorrow,” Thompson said. (LK)