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Tracing the South Africa Immigrant Ancestor: Emigration Records in the United Kingdom and Netherlands

Researcher: Jacqueline Du Plessis

(advised by Professor George Ryskamp, History)

This summer I traveled to the United Kingdom and Europe on a quest: to find emigration records that would assist those researching their South African Immigrant Ancestors to progress in their research. Those familiar with family history and genealogy are aware how difficult research can become once you reach your Immigrant Ancestor. Often this is where research comes to a sudden halt. This is because many emigration records do not list sufficient information with regards to the residence or location of a person. Port and ship lists often only list a country of origin or a port of departure. This is a large stumbling block for researchers. However there are certain documents and records that do list more specific details with regards to residences and it was the aim of this project to identify such records. Thereby assisting those interested in South African family history and genealogy.

In the United Kingdom, I spent two weeks in The National Archives in London with other BYU students. We were part of the BYU Family History Internship and Field Study group. In The National Archives I spent the majority of my time searching the Foreign Office, Dominion Office and Colonial Office collections. South Africa had for a time been a British colony and therefore there were many records pertaining to activities in South Africa. I spent many hours searching in the correspondence series; however my goal was not as easy as I had first thought. Mostly, I found random, scattered references to South African emigrants and those I did find often had little reference with regards to their residences. Therefore I was unable to make any sort of hypothesis or deduction on a pattern of reoccurrences; nevertheless I persisted in my quest.

Over the next five weeks I traveled to four county archives in England and two in Scotland. I persisted in my search for substantial emigration records to South Africa. In the counties of Derbyshire and Nottingham I hit the jackpot: Derbyshire held a collection of female applications for emigration to South Africa. The documents were extensive and many applications included letters of correspondence between Britain and South Africa, including letters from the applicants once they were in South Africa. In Nottinghamshire I discovered records on the organized emigration of the 1820 British Settlers of South Africa. These records were extremely detailed and were exactly what I was looking for. I did however discover that a large part of these documents had already been extracted and to some extent published. This is because like the French Huguenots that immigrated to South Africa, the British Settlers are a group of immigrants that had been extensively researched.

Nevertheless, the records I did copy and acquired were sent to BYU’s Immigrant Ancestors Project. This project works with faculty, students and world-wide volunteers to extract emigration documents. An index of the data is then created and made available on a free searchable database to the public. Once information is extracted it is searchable at http://immigrants.byu.edu.

Another place I searched was the British Library. It has an East India Record section. Since the East India Company had a large influence on the development and growth of South Africa, the British Library collection seemed a natural place to search. I was informed about at thesis that detailed the East India Company records that the Library held in particular to reference to Southern Africa. This thesis was of great help. However because of cataloguing “hiccups” and the volume of records available, it would have taken many weeks, if not months for me to become familiar with the documents. As a result, I did not discover anything new or particularly useful with regards to the South African Immigrant Ancestor at the British library. However, I do feel that the India Office Records has many unknown and undiscovered emigration records that could be of great help to future researchers and is an area that needs to be further researched.

After researching in the United Kingdom I traveled to the Netherlands. I some spent time researching in the VOC (Dutch East India Company) records in Den Haag. I also spent 10 days researching with my mentor and other students in Dutch records and archives in Groningen and Friesland. There I gained invaluable skills and knowledge on Dutch research, and I am in conjunction with The Center for Family History and Genealogy, co-creating a website on Dutch Family History research. However, because of copyright limitations, this site is not yet available to the public; however it will become available in early 2007 at http://familyhistory.byu.edu.

The most valuable records pertaining to South African research and that would assist those “stuck” with their Immigrant Ancestor would be company records, such as the East India Company and Dutch East India Company records. Furthermore, organized emigration schemes such as the British Settlers or Colonist are a further record source with sufficient information. It must be noted however, that most of these valuable records are found at the County Record Office level. The best way I have found to search the County Record Office catalogues are by using a website called Access to Archives: http://www.a2a.pro.gov.uk. If you then discover a record or collection that looks promising, correspondence with the archive is recommended first. However if extensive collection and records are discovered it may be financially better to personally travel to these applicable archives and offices to do the research ones self.

I presented these findings at the annual BYU Genealogy and Family History Conference in the summer of 2006. I spoke on the history of South Africa and its relationship to the UK as well as records that would be useful to researchers, particularly those searching their Immigrant Ancestors.

I also began a blog: http://southafricanfamilyhistory.com, where I specifically focused on South Africa Family History and Genealogy. I linked to many common and helpful South African family history research websites and South African archives. I posted tips on doing family history research, including things I learned in my own research and travels. I hope one day, to develop this site into a full website with more extensive content.

While my quest was for helping others, was not as easy as I thought, I was able to discover new records and the experience and learning I acquired is one I will never forget.