DNA Travel: Tracing My Family Tree From The Caribbean Island Of Montserrat Back To Africa

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After attending Saint Patrick’s Festival in Montserrat last year, I decided to restart genealogy project to trace my family tree back to Africa. I had started the genealogy project nearly two decades earlier after my mother’s death, and with assistance from family members, I was able to put together a detailed family tree starting with my great-grandparents, William Henry Barzey born in 1882 and Anne Francis Boatswain Barzey born in 1886. I also know the names of their parents and siblings but not much else as records in Montserrat which had its first European settlers starting in 1632 is somewhat limited. Now with results from two different DNA tests, I’ve made progress with tracing my family tree from the Caribbean island of Montserrat back to Africa. This is all part of my quest to experience more ancestral tourism and DNA travel.

Barzey Family Reunion in Montserat: Dorothy "Nenen" Allen & Ursula Petula Barzey With my 99-year-old great-aunt Dorothy “Nenen” Allen Barzey one of seven children from William Henry Barzey and Anne Francis Boatswain Barzey.

The growing myth about the Black Irish of Montserrat

Before I can discuss my DNA test results,  it is important to highlight both my family history and the growing myth about the black Irish of Montserrat.   To start, both maternal and paternal lines of my family are from Montserrat, and we are descendants of West African slaves. My mother’s side is from the north, and my father’s side is from the south of Montserrat. Growing up, whether in Montserrat or Boston Massachusetts (one of the most Irish cities in America), there was never any talk about our family being Irish, not even a whisper! However, in recent years, I’ve been frequently asked if my family is part of the black Irish of Montserrat.

You see, before West African slaves were brought to the island to work the sugar and tobacco plantations starting in the 1650s, many of the early settlers on Montserrat were Irish. They were sent there by Oliver Cromwell who used the 39 square miles Caribbean island as a penal colony, and at the peak, the Irish population was around 10,000. Many became wealthy as the production of sugar and tobacco increased but eventually left the island as the industries retracted when slavery ended throughout the British Empire with the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

Now 250+ years after the planned slave rebellion with Saint Patrick’s Festival in Montserrat attracting an international audience, the story of the black Irish of Montserrat keeps growing. Much of this is misguided marketing hype by private event organizers as while there are people and places on Montserrat with Irish names, the cultural legacy of the Irish on the island is limited. Also, as Montserrat was a slave-colony, the relationship between British plantation owners along with Irish supervisors and enforcers and West African slaves was quite adversarial due to inhuman conditions.

These deplorable conditions led to a slave rebellion being planned for March 17th, 1768 when the Irish would be distracted with their Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. The rebellion never happened as the plot was discovered but it was significant as it inspired others across the Caribbean region which ultimately brought about the end of slavery. It is for this reason why Saint Patrick’s Day became a national holiday in 1985.  It is to commemorate the freedom fighters now considered national heroes who lost their lives after the discovery of the planned Saint Patrick’s Day slave rebellion.  It is not about celebrating St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t black people with Irish genes on Montserrat. As was common throughout slavery, many black women were taken advantage of and this resulted in some black Irish on Montserrat.   However, the black Irish is not the majority of the population. As for the many Irish surnames, this is because former slaves took the last name of their masters. So the narrative of the black Irish of Montserrat is embellished. Plus the majority of cultural traditions on Montserrat including the national dish of goat water and masquerade dancing popular at festivals is from our West African ancestors, not Ireland. Finally, until many became aware of what happened on Montserrat around March 17th, 1768, St Patrick’s Day celebrations on Montserrat was just another village fete, similar to St John’s Day in another part of the island.

Montserrat: St Patrick's Festival - Representation of freedom fighters on map of Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

St Patrick’s Festival in Montserrat – Representation of freedom fighters on a map of Montserrat.

AncestryDNA Test & Results

Experiencing first hand the current day Saint Patrick’s Festival in Montserrat which is less about heritage/culture and more about revelry increased my desire to confirm my genetic genealogy and so I took the autosomal DNA test from AncestryDNA who have over 10 million people in their database. This required me to order a DNA kit, return a small saliva sample and then wait about six weeks for results. After comparing my saliva sample with 16,000 reference samples from 500+ possible regions, AncestryDNA advised that my ethnic makeup is Benin/Togo – 44%, Cameroon, Congo, and Southern Bantu Peoples – 33%, Ivory Coast/Ghana – 10%, Nigeria – 6%, Ireland and Scotland – 5% and Mali – 2%.

AncestryDNA results AncestryDNA results.

So as I suspected, what little Irish DNA I have is minuscule and most likely the result of one of my maternal ancestors being taken advantage of. My family roots and DNA is West African, 95% West African. That said, the groupings are broad, vague and almost meaningless as AncestryDNA have a small reference sample from Africa. Only nine of their five hundred regions are in Africa and they admit the limitation of their African sample size in their FAQ section:

“The African continent is the ancient birthplace of humanity, and humans there are the most genetically diverse on earth. This makes Africa a tricky place for ethnicity estimation because you need lots of DNA samples to account for all that diversity. We’re working to increase the number of African samples in our reference panel so we can take full advantage of our new methods of analysis and provide even better estimates for Africa.”

One of the other challenges is that presenting their results without properly mentioning African empires or tribes is problematic due to the artificial and political borders imposed on Africa after European colonial powers carved up the continent during the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 often referred to as the Scramble for Africa. At one point in history, most of these African countries linked to my genealogy were part of the same empire, specifically the Mali Empire.

AncestryDNA results: Benin Togo Region.
AncestryDNA results.

African Ancestry DNA Test & Results

With the vagueness of results from AncestryDNA, this led me to take a MatriClan™ DNA test with African Ancestry who focus on “helping people of African descent trace their ancestral roots back to a specific present-day African country and ethnic group.” Compared to AncestryDNA and 23andMe another genetic testing company, the African Ancestry database is much more extensive with 33,000 lineages/reference samples from 40 African countries primarily from Central and West Africa.

African Ancestry Comparison with AncestryDNA and 23andMe. African Ancestry Comparison with AncestryDNA and 23andMe.

Similar to the process with AncestryDNA, I sent in a saliva sample to African Ancestry and waiting around eight weeks for results to confirm my mother’s maternal roots from 500 – 2,000 years ago.  Arriving in certificate form via the mail, African Ancestry advised that via my maternal line which includes my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, my ancestors have high genetic similarities with people from three different African countries and four tribes. Specifically, the Fula and Balanta people living in Guinea-Bissau, the Mende people living in Sierra Leone and Mandinka people living in Senegal.

These results initially left me bewildered as I had anticipated just one or two African tribes and countries. However, after doing some additional research, came to realize that African ethnic groups are formed around social and cultural characteristics, not genetic traits. Thus there are ethnic groups that share the same genetic lineages even though they have different social and cultural characteristics including dialects, beliefs, practices, and religions.

African Ancestry results. African Ancestry results.

Another realization was that having maternal genetic links with four different tribes in three countries is not unusual as the countries are all close and were all part of the Mali Empire. Guinea-Bissau is located between Sierra Leone and Senegal of the West Coast of Africa. Furthermore, the capital cities of Sierra Leone and Senegal are about 500 miles apart which is roughly the same distance as between Atlanta and Washington DC.  So far, but not far at all!

It would be interesting to find out what if any overlap there is with my paternal line, but for now I’m happy to focus on the maternal line where I have the most family tree information. Thus as I begin to research for DNA travel, I have the freedom to explore any or all four tribes and three countries. So far I’ve been focusing on the Mandinka people in Senegal as part of the initial inspiration for starting the genealogy project was the book Roots: The Saga of an American Family written by Alex Haley. The main character in the novel is Kunta Kinte a Mandinka warrior who was sold into slavery and brought to the Americas – interestingly from The Gambia and not Senegal. Globally, there are about 11 million Mandinka people with most residing in West Africa.

Connecting the dots – Tracing My Family Tree from the Caribbean Island of Montserrat Back To Africa for DNA Travel

Having the genetic insight from both AncestryDNA and African Ancestry has reinvigorated my search to dig deeper and trace my family tree from the Caribbean island of Montserrat back to Africa. And while I may not learn all the names since slave records are incomplete, I have enough information that confirms the journey my ancestors made from the West Coast of Africa to the Americas. In time I hope to uncover via Slave Voyages or another source whether they came directly to Montserrat from Africa or via one of the other Caribbean islands.

Transatlantic slave trade routes from 1500 to 1870. Photo Credit: © Pearson Education.
Transatlantic slave trade routes from 1500 to 1870. Photo Credit: © Pearson Education.

Helping to connect the dots is the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database which provides information on all the individuals and corporates compensated after the end of slavery. From this, I learned that the 350 acres Barzey Estate in Montserrat where my ancestors lived and worked was initially owned by British plantation owner Thomas Bouveron Barzey who died in 1766.

Beyond the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database, I’ve also uncovered some information from The National Archives in London and the Montserrat National Trust who are currently in the process of digitizing their records. However, even with this wealth of information, completing my family tree from the 1650s to 1880s will most likely take a few more years or even a decade. Records are just not in the order they should be but I will remain committed to the project as I am a descendant from the Mali Empire in West Africa and for that, I’m proud.

Thus for anyone struggling with their family tree or wanting to travel the world based on genetics, would recommend taking a DNA test.  AncestryDNA is fine for those primarily of European descent or those who wish to confirm if they have any European genes.  For those looking to get more accurate insight about their African roots, would highly recommend taking the African Ancestry DNA test.

Both AncestryDNA and African Ancestry continue to increase their reference sample databases and so results will become even more insightful and help to separate fact from fiction whether told by family members or misguided historians and event promoters.  In the case of AncestryDNA who provide online access to their global database, I may even be able to connect with distant cousins in Africa at some point in the future.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to research my family tree and be thankful that modern science has made it possible to confirm that my maternal ancestors share DNA genetics with the people of Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. I can’t wait to visit. So three cheers for modern science and making DNA travel possible.

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Find out how while tracing my family tree, AncestryDNA helped me confirm whether I had any Irish genes and AfricanAncestry.com helped me uncover that I am a descendant from the Mali Empire with maternal roots in Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. #FamilyTree #Genealogy #DNA #DNATravel

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Ursula Petula Barzey

Ursula Petula Barzey

Founder | Digital Content Creator at Caribbean & Co.
Ursula Petula Barzey is a digital marketing professional and Founder of Caribbean & Co. which has allowed her to reconnect with her Montserratian and Caribbean roots!

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