Filling in the missing jigsaw puzzle

2009-08-26 00:00

IF you live in KwaZulu-Natal and you want to trace your family tree your first port of call should be the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository.

“There is a notion that the archives are elitist, but they are accessible to everyone and we can offer a service in the three languages of the province — Zulu, Afrikaans and English,” says Pieter Nel, assistant manager: Repository Management, Department of Arts and Culture at the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository in Pietermaritz Street.

“The majority of our users are people­ who are interested in family history,” says Nel. “Sometimes people think it’s a case of coming in and we can just give them their family history. We can’t, I’m afraid, but we can give them pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.”

You might find several pieces of the jigsaw in the deceased estate files.

“In these you find death notices and these can give you a variety of information — the person’s occupation, the names of spouses, parents, and children. We have these files from 1846 up to 1974. You can search our database on the website to see if we have any records.”

The repository holds these documents thanks to an arrangement with the Master of the High Court, which is the office of origin. A similar arrangement with the Department of Home Affairs sees the repository holding birth, marriage and death registers for certain districts in the province. “These are not on the website so you have to physically go there and do research,” says Nel.

If your ancestor was an immigrant the European Immigration Records can also be of help. “But these are only for people who came on assisted passages. In the 19th century there were several immigration schemes to get people to come to the colony of Natal. We have registers of all those but not of everyone who came to the province. But newspapers such as The Witness have shipping lists of new arrivals.”

Civil registration documents, church and cemetery registers held by the repository can also be useful plus you can obtain a copy of the booklet Leafing Out Your Family Tree compiled by Nel, which provides a step by step guide to tracing your family tree as well as explaining exactly what is in the repository and how you can best access information.

“But you have to do your homework before you come,” cautions Nel. “Have discussions with family members, make sure that names are correct. You won’t get very far with a nickname.”

Over the years there has been an ongoing interest in family history according to Nel.

“But there was a peak several years back when people were trying to find out if they were eligible for United Kingdom ancestral visas — they had to be able to prove that a grandparent was born in the UK.

These days we also get a lot of overseas e-mails from expats trying to trace family origins.”

Nel acknowledges it is “more challenging” for black people to trace family history via written records but there are deceased estate files for blacks. These were compiled by magistrates and Native Affairs Commissioners and predominantly relate to rural people.

“If your relative was a mineworker and that relative died in Johannesburg, the record would come back to the person’s province of origin and be sent to the local magistrate or commissioner,” explains Nel.

The Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository also holds archives of the Indian Immigration Department which include marriage registers (1891 to 1963) and deceased estate files (1900 to 1961).

The registers of Indentured Indian Immigrants (1860 to 1911) are held by the Durban Archives Repository. These archives are often used by Indian South Africans who apply for a Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card, which permits people with Indian ancestry to live and work in India on a permanent basis.

“People like to connect to their roots but it’s also important to see how history can have a practical application,” says Nel.

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