Q & A – Recording Ethnicity in a One-Name Study or in Genealogy

Created by Julie Goucher – Feb 2020 Using Wordclouds.com

A few weeks ago I received an email from a Guild of One-Name Studies member asking me

How do you handle the identification of people of colour (Negro) in your studies?

I must admit I took a while to respond to the email, as I wanted time to think. For me there is more to the question that just the colour of our skin – it is about who we identify with. I do not believe we can put a label on the situation and use that to reflect who we are, either how we see ourselves or how others might see us. As humans I believe we probably care more about the latter than the former, but I stand to be corrected.

There is also the question of, does it matter what colour your skin is, in relation to a surname study? If I record 100 people with a particular surname into our databases, the only deciding factor is likely to be the surname. In the case of the Orlando study – the colour of skin is irrelevant, as long as you (or the name of one of your parent) is Orlando, your are in! However, the context of how and why you took the name is important.

For example, the National Archives at Kew has Examination of Invalid Soldiers in record class WO 23. Contained within the set is a record of Roland Orlando, he is aged 38 years in 1860 and had served in the 1st West India Regiment as a private. His character is recorded as good, with four good conduct badges. His initial trade was that of a labourer. The regimental surgeon reported him as “rheumatism and worn out”. His hair, eyes and complexion are all recorded as black. His place of residence is Jamaica and his place of birth is Africa.

In order to answer the question put to me, I recorded the facts of Roland Orlando, each fact is an entry within the Roland Orlando’s record in my database, with the source of that information as the Examination of Invalid Soldiers WO23/157 and the date of 24 Jan 1860. In my software, which is Family Historian, I use the class of physical attributes to record any characteristics that exist within the document.

But is that it? Is that sufficient? In the case of Roland, there are some curious issues and questions that come to mind. Did he think of himself as African? Jamaican? He was employed by the British Army, so did he think of himself as British? The reality was probably very, very different. Why though do I think that?

Looking at the range of information just from this document provided some clues and they became plausible when I thought of the clues, plus with the history of the region.

  • The climate in the Caribbean was not perhaps a natural environment if you were not born there, or from a climate that was much cooler. Many British soldiers fell ill, a mixture of temperature and disease. The decision was taken that those more accustomed to the weather might be more suitable.
  • The place of birth recorded as Africa, coupled with residence in Jamaica, suggested that perhaps this was not just a working transaction.
  • The Regiment is a further clue – The 1st West India Regiment was raised in 1795 though the merging of two units that were formed by the British between 1775 and 1783. One of the units included personnel that were recruited on Martinique.
  • By 1795, many of the soldiers in this region were enslaved Africans who had been “purchased” by the British Army, and this was a key feature of the lengthening of the slave trade until 1807.
  • The service of Roland was recorded as good with four good conduct badges, yet he remained a private – those who were black were not able to progress through the ranks with the ease of white soldiers.
  • His name is curious – Orlando is the Italian form of Roland. The name Roland has old German origins, so it is similar to having someone with the surname James and being called James.

I find the concept of people being purchased as distasteful, and appalling. Sadly, that was the way of the world during this period, and as such I have recognised that. I want to see if I can establish how Roland was recruited, amongst other things.

I do have a few more snippets of information about Roland Orlando and hope to share them in a follow up post.


About Julie Goucher

Genealogist, Author, Presenter, native Guildfordian, avid note taker and journal writer. Lover of Books, Stationery & History; Surnames, Butcher & Orlando One-Name Studies. Pharos Tutor for all One-Name Studies/surname courses as well as Researching Ancestors from Continental Europe.
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