First of all, I’m convinced that time in Suriname moves more quickly than it does in other parts of the world. It’s impossible for me to believe or admit that I have already been here for more than three weeks. I don’t know if it’s the busy schedule or the periodic naps/comas that I claim are sun-induced. But whatever the cause, I’ve lost track of time. The fact that I’ve met a ton of incredible people who have been invaluable resources for the projects I’m working on, and the fact that I’m feeling pretty comfortable with my surroundings (with the exception of some transportation woes) may be the best and only evidence to prove to myself that I have, indeed, been here for more than a mere few days.
And today was no exception to my busy schedule. It started with a 9 am workshop (to be honest, this hour and I had lost acquaintance when I was in Amsterdam) that I provided to several members of the Moravian church archives staff on the process of researching and building family trees. I’ve been working with this group quite a bit recently. They have tons of missionary archives that date back to the 17th century, many of which reveal unbelievable details about formerly enslaved Surinamese ancestors. So not only are they a resource for my thesis research, they’ve also become a partner in a family history research project we’ll be launching next month for local young people.
The staff of the archives gets a growing number of requests each week, primarily from people in the Netherlands seeking information about their ancestors. If these people know (or suspect) that their ancestors were members of the Moravian church, they send a note to the archives, requesting someone to comb through the books and any/everything related to the names they provide. They are almost always heavy and challenging requests. And charging no fee, this team always obliges – helping as many people as they possibly can. One of the researchers walked me through her process. And I’m just not sure their work is valued enough – particularly since the majority of the records are written in Gothic German. (Say what?) As a side note, today I witnessed one of the staff members having her Gothic German language lesson over skype with a woman in Germany. (Say who?)
Moravian Catalogs listing details about enslaved ancestors
So anyway, because we’re now best friends, when one of the leaders of the archives asked me to train his staff on how to create family trees, I was happy to share whatever insight he thought I had. The reasoning is that, although the team is pulling the records and sharing them over email, they have not been included in anyone’s process of building a tree. So the logistics of the process were unclear.
I created a little presentation about my process, focusing on my mother’s mother as an example family tree starting point. I wrote down all of the many resources I could remember that have been helpful in my own research process. And I mapped out a process that might be useful for others to remember when establishing the “building blocks” of a family tree. I took the example from my grandmother through four additional generations. In addition to my own tree, I threw in a few Suriname-specific sources that I know factor in to most research processes, such as Suriname’s 1921 census.
Yeah, so it was pretty brilliant. And I think they were interested enough – at least enough to seem engaged and ask questions throughout. But I’m not so sure it was helpful. Here’s why: Suriname is way ahead of the U.S. in terms of available resources for family history researchers. And my complicated, convoluted process seemed almost irrelevant as we talked through their options here. For example, in the U.S., if we want to access the birth, death or marriage records of our ancestors, we first have to solve the mystery of what city/state to go to, which office in that city/state holds the records, how you make the request, if you even can make the request, and finally, how much it’s going to cost. You can use some creative census and city directory information to find people. But once you find one bit of new information, I’m pretty sure you’re also authorized for a private investigator’s license.
But in my training today, they asked, “why couldn’t you just go to your CBB?” The Centraal Bureau voor Burgerzaken (Central Registration Office) is a one-stop shop for recent ancestor research. Not sure of every detail about your great grandparents? Just go to the CBB, give them your information, and they can provide you with your family tree. I hear it may take some days. But still – they provide you with your family tree? A central place where everyone registers – and your family can actually access the information? Imagine that.
And you might not even need the CBB. Because in Suriname, every single family has what they call a “family book.” When children are born, parents receive a family book that lists the names and relevant details of the parents and grandparents. So right there, the children have the starting point of a family tree. And if you can access your grandmother’s family book, you’re golden. Also in today’s training, one of the women pulled from her purse her mother’s family book. Since her mother recently died, she holds it for sentimental reasons. This means she also carries with her the names of her great grandparents – and something they may have also held themselves. Practical and sentimental.
Now, the barriers of the research begin to resemble U.S. barriers once we reach the late 19th century, when records still weren’t kept consistently. And, of course, slavery presents a frustrating challenge for any Black family researcher. But even then, if an enslaved ancestor in Suriname fell in with some Christians, you might learn about him too – as well as that affair he had with the woman from that neighboring plantation.
So sure, it’s great to have a new perspective on approaches to this research in other countries. But I felt a bit silly when describing how complicated and inaccessible information can be in the U.S. And kinda jealous of the practical and sentimental advantages they have here. No, no, make that very jealous.