If there’s one thing that blacks of the diaspora share, it’s that our people’s history is obscure. We know general trends: the regions in Africa from which most slaves were extracted, the busiest slave ship routes, the typical routines on various types of plantations, etc… But we lack specifics. I don’t know from which African nation(s) my ancestors hailed, how my ancestors came to become captives, which routes my ancestors traveled to the Americas, what life was like for my ancestors on the plantation, or how my ancestors ended up with the last name “Goodridge.”
2½ years ago I initiated an investigation into my specifics. 4 months ago, I was lucky enough to go back to Barbados and continue that research with my girlfriend, Priya. The research is far from complete. I have more questions than answers. But that’s a common reality for black folk who try to uncover an intentionally shrouded history. Consider this a status report.
The Goodridge Name
In my last post about my family’s genealogy and slave history, I estimated that John Goodridge (the white patriarch of the slaveholding Goodridges) probably owned between 100 – 400 slaves. Indeed, the white Goodridges were major slaveholders. As of 1834, Sarah and Ann Goodridge (John’s sisters) owned the Mount Brevitor plantation in Saint Peter (which John left them in his will), which spanned 243 acres and included 115 slaves. John’s neice, Mary Ann, had been willed the Trents plantation in Saint Lucy (I misread “Trents” as “Fronts” on my first trip). I’m not sure how many slaves where there but it’s likely that the white Goodridges owned around 150 or more slaves by the time of abolition.
But that alone does not explain why Goodridge is such a common name among black Barbadians. It turns out that in Barbados, most slaves did not have last names. Unlike other slave societies where slaves were branded with their owners’ last names, White Bajans tended to protect their last names and only passed them on to a “privileged” few. In practice, this meant that the semi-illegitimate children of white male slave owners and black female slaves were often among the few who received their owners’ last names. Owners rarely fully acknowledged their mixed race offspring as their children, but they often gave them special treatment or distinction such as their last name, less labor-intensive roles on the plantation, schooling, and even freedom. After abolition, it was this mixed race class of privileged, freed men and women who were best positioned to capitalize on their freedom. Black descendants of less distinguished slaves often sought to marry into these relatively elite families and that, in some cases, led to the proliferation of certain surnames.
So while John Goodridge may not have owned 150 slaves with the last name Goodridge, he did appear to have had at least nine children with a black woman named Jenny (or Jane) Blackett Goodridge. Those children were well positioned to enter Barbados’ black elite. After emancipation, other blacks who were not as privileged likely jockeyed for position to marry into the black Goodridge family. That is likely how the Goodridge name spread among black Barbadians.
The 1832 will of one of John and Jenny’s children, William, supports this. In his will, he indicates that he is some type of medical professional. This suggests that William was free for enough of his life to attain a level of education high enough to reach such a prestigious position. But was he born free? It’s hard to say. He names Jane Blackett Goodridge and John Goodridge as the executors of his will but he explicitly calls Jane his mother without commenting on John. This indicates that there was still some social distance between Blackett and William and John Goodridge. Perhaps Blackett was free when she bore William and he was born a free man but social propriety still induced them all to not quite acknowledge that John Goodridge was William’s father. Or, maybe Blackett was a slave when she gave birth to William and they were both freed later on. I don’t know enough yet to say for sure. In fact, I don’t know if Jenny/Jane Blackett Goodridge was ever a slave. I still suspect that she was John Goodridge’s slave, became his mistress, and then was freed, but it’s impossible to say for sure at this point.
In addition to the archives, Priya and I also visited the area that is still known as Mount Brevitor. The land has been parceled up and sold off. Most of it went to the Skeetes, another prominent white Barbadian family, who recently sold it to a real estate developer. Today, most of Mount Brevitor is taken up by an upscale residential community called “Vuemont.” Wealthy white Americans and Europeans pay large sums of money to lease Vuemont homes where black slaves used to cultivate the white Goodridges’ sugarcane. This is common across the island. Real estate is more profitable than sugarcane so many cane fields are being converted into residential enclaves for wealthy expatriates.
But sugarcane has not lost its hold on the rest of Mount Brevitor. Throughout the area we found 2 overgrown sugar mills, no doubt erected when slaves still cut cane from sunup to sundown. And sugarcane is still grown in parts of Mount Brevitor. We met three women working in the cane fields. They told us that the Barbados Government, now the largest producer of sugar on the island, owned the field that they were working.
Things have changed in Mount Brevitor, but they have also stayed the same. 200 years ago, white Goodridges lounged in the comfort of the big house while their black slaves toiled in cane fields. Today, wealthy whites lounge in Vuemont’s scenic villas while blacks cut cane just down the road. Like the sugar mills peppered across the island of Barbados, the edifices of plantation labor and slave society may be overgrown, but they still stand.
If you’re curious about Barbadian history, genealogy, and slavery please check out Andrea Stuart’s book Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire.