My husband’s paternal family tree comes from St. Kitts, a beautiful island in the Caribbean that was a British territory until its independence in 1983. His Kittitian ancestors are an interesting blend of British, French, African, and Madeiran lines. The Madeirans came to St. Kitts and Nevis in the mid-1800s, when a combination of circumstances led to the importation of farm laborers from Madeira to the Caribbean.
Slaves and indentured servants had been used in St. Kitts and Nevis to work the islands’ many sugar cane plantations. Slavery was abolished in the British West Indies in 1834. The slaves, of primarily African descent, were given a four year transition period called an “apprenticeship”, after which full freedom was granted. This presented a labor problem for plantation owners and sugar merchants. An additional reduction of the Kittitian work force resulted from several years of a cholera epidemic, which tended to hit the poorer former slave population.
At about the same time, a series of crises erupted in Madeira, a Portuguese island in the north Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Africa. The Madeirans had experienced a civil war from 1828 to 1834, followed by a devastating potato famine in 1847, known as the “o ana de fome” or “year of hunger”, and finally a series of vine diseases that affected wine production from the 1850s through the 1870s. This led to the emigration of unemployed farm laborers, who looked to the West Indies for employment and a better life.
From 1847 to 1870, about 1,180 Madeirans arrived in St. Kitts. Initially, they did not assimilate with either the white plantation owners or the black laboring class. When their terms of indenture expired however, many remained rather than return to Madeira, often opening small shops in Kittitian towns. They soon became middle class citizens with increased social status.
There are still a number of Madeiran names among the residents of St. Kitts. My husband’s great-great-grandmother was a Cabral, who emigrated to St. Kitts prior to 1868. This Cabral married a planter, and so followed the track of rising status, from hard-working plantation labor to a more privileged and economically comfortable class.
- Caribbean Migrants: Environment and Human Survival on St. Kitts and Nevis, by Bonham C. Richardson (1983) – Google books
- Madeiran Portuguese Migration to Guyana, St. Vincent, Antigua and Trinidad: A Comparative Overview, by Jo-Anne S. Ferreira (2009), Portuguese Studies Review
- The Cabral name and husband’s occupation as planter was found on a microfilm ordered from the Family Search (LDS Church) library: Basseterre (St Kitts) Civil Registration 1859-1932. The information was listed on the 1868 civil birth record for a daughter of Eliza A. Cabral and her husband John Cannonier. The fact that Eliza was from Madeira was passed down to us by her granddaughter (my husband’s grandmother).