July 2, 2006 — St. Croix-born lawyer/historian Wayne James has uncovered several centuries-old documents establishing his family's direct, unbroken connection to his great-great-great-great-grandmother, Azunta, born in Africa in 1785 and sold on St. Croix in 1798 at the age of 13.
"I am a black man, and, obviously, I know that my ancestry is African, but it is still humbling to actually see and hold the documents which identify the African who establishes a branch of our family in this part of the world," James said. "It is an honor to know that it was our Azunta, my Azunta, a 13-year-old girl, who survived the ravages of the infamous Middle Passage and the horrors of slavery to establish her branch of our family tree in these islands. It is heartwarming to know that she endured so that we could exist and thrive today. Finding her, after all these years, is like unearthing treasure. Her name is once again being called by her offspring, 150 years after her death."
According to the death records of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Frederiksted, Azunta died of old age at Estate Annaly on Aug. 3, 1857, at the age of 72 — nine years after Emancipation. She was buried in the estate's cemetery. But before she died, she bore two daughters: Ancilla Thomas, born in Annaly in 1809; and Christianah Thomas, born in Annaly in 1816. It is via Christianah that the Jameses of Frederiksted descend.
On April 25, 1842, Christianah gave birth to Mary Jane Andrew at Estate Annaly, and just over 20 years later, on Feb. 9, 1863, Mary Jane Andrew bore a daughter named Roxcelina John –Wayne James' great-grandmother — at Estate Annaly.
At age 25, on May 19, 1888, Roxcelina John married Lucas James, a cabinetmaker from Estate Hermitage, at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Frederiksted, and together the young couple bore Isaac Gateword James, Wayne James' paternal grandfather, at Estate Orange Grove in Frederiksted, on April 5, 1893.
Isaac Gateword James was the father of Gustav James, born in the town of Frederiksted in 1919. And Gustav James was the father of Wayne James, born at Charles Harwood Memorial Hospital on St. Croix in 1961.
"Almost all of the research was done at the St. Croix Landmarks Society Library," James said. "Church records, censuses, tax lists, estate inventories. They are all there. And fortunately for us, Azunta and her descendants remained at Estate Annaly for many generations; consequently, tracking her offspring was not as daunting as it would have been had there been much movement between estates.
"What is also very significant to our family is the fact that Azunta kept her African name," James continued. "A team of African linguists is already researching the origins of the name and the regions of Africa, where it was used in the late 1700s. We have also enlisted the services of a Danish-speaking researcher to comb through the Danish maritime archives to uncover the name of the ship that transported Azunta across the Atlantic in 1798, the African port from which she departed, the number of Africans who perished onboard, and other historically significant information.
"Research undertakings of this magnitude often involve many contributors," James said. "It was my cousin and genealogist Veronica Heyliger Phillips, for example, who actually found Azunta on the 1841 census, the entries thereon establishing Azunta's origin as African. Ronnie called me screaming, 'Wayne, I found the African!' And historian George Tyson, who is presently in Copenhagen, was able to search the Copenhagen archives to establish that Azunta arrived on St. Croix in 1798 and was sold to the Ferrall family, then the owners of Estate Annaly."
The Middle Passage and the African ancestors who traversed it have long been part and parcel to Wayne James' life. On July 3, 1999, in celebration of the closing of the 150th anniversary of Emancipation in the Danish West Indies, James lowered the Middle Passage monument onto the floor of the Atlantic Ocean to serve as a gravestone to the estimated millions of Africans who died crossing the Atlantic en route to slavery in the New World between the 15th and 19th centuries. And James has devoted much of the past 20 years to researching and writing on the culture of the Virgin Islands.
"Finding Azunta is, I firmly believe, a gift to me from the ancestors," James said. "I have always acknowledged and respected them. I have long celebrated the role they play in my life. It brings me immeasurable joy to show my appreciation of them and to them by bringing life and meaning to their lives through research," James concluded.
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