Academic journal article History In Africa

Using African Names to Identify the Origins of Captives in the Transatlantic Slave Trade: Crowd-Sourcing and the Registers of Liberated Africans, 1808-1862

Academic journal article History In Africa

Using African Names to Identify the Origins of Captives in the Transatlantic Slave Trade: Crowd-Sourcing and the Registers of Liberated Africans, 1808-1862

Article excerpt

Abstract: Between 1808 and 1862, officers primarily from the British navy liberated approximately 175,000 enslaved Africans from transatlantic slavers. Information on more than half of this group has survived in bound ledger books. Based on the assessment of extant data for more than 92,000 Liberated Africans whose informa- tion was copied in at times duplicate and triplicate form in both London- and Freetown- based registers, this essay explores the pitfalls and possibilities associated with using the Registers for Liberated Africans as sources for historical analysis of the slave trade. The article explains the relationship of multiple copies of the registers to each other, demonstrates the link between the African names they contain and ethnolinguistic identities, argues for crowd-sourcing - drawing on the knowledge of the diasporic public and notjust scholars - and, finally, shows the importance of such an approach for pre-colonial African history.

Résumé: Entre 1808 et 1862, les officiers de la Marine Britannique libérèrent envi- ron 175,000 esclaves africains des négriers transatlantiques. Ils furent amenés par la suite à Freetown, à la Havane, et à d'autres ports où leurs noms et des informations personnelles furent inscrits dans les régistres relies. En se servant des données sur plus de 92,000 de ces Africains libérés, cet article s'interroge sur la possibilité d'utiliser les Registers for Liberated Africans comme sources d'analyse historique de la traite des esclaves. La relation entre les régistres différents mentionnant les mêmes individus est examinée, ainsi que les liens possibles entre noms africains et identités ethnolinguistiques. En proposant comme méthode d'analyse le "crowd-sourcing," à savoir, l'appel aux connaissances des publiques diasporiques au lieu de se limiter au savoir des experts, l'étude montre le besoin d'une telle approche dans l'étude de l'histoire de l'Afrique précoloniale.

Introduction

It now seems that the transatlantic slave trade carried off an estimated 12.5 million captives from Africa, and distributed most of the 10.7 million who survived the voyage over regions in the Americas that stretched from the temperate north (New England) to the temperate south (Rio de la I'lala).1 While the traffic lasted nearly four centuries, over one quarter, or 3.2 million slaves, embarked after 1807 in the so-called "illegal era" or period of the suppression of the slave trade. About 2.8 million survived the voyage of whom 175,000 had been "re-captured" by mainly British naval vessels with orders to intercept slave vessels before they reached their intended destinations in the Americas, or in some cases other parts of Africa such as Säo Tomé.2 Courts around the Atlantic World processed the 175,000 "re-captives" after they disembarked, and formally assigned "Liberated African" status to them, which meant, inter alia, that their personal details - name, sex, estimated age, height, body markings and sometimes country of origin - were recorded in large bound registers. The liberated Africans were assigned a tinplate tag as proof of their status on which was stamped a number corre- sponding to that written into the register where their information was recorded.3 To date it seems that registers containing information on 92,230 individuals have survived in the national archives of Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom, and comprise a record of well over half of all captives removed from slave ships by British patrols in the nineteenth century.

The names in these registers are clearly African in over 99 percent of legible entries. There was no set orthography for the vast majority of the African languages from which the names emerged.4 As a consequence the names entered the written record phonetically - via English-speaking clerks (or "writers" as they were termed) in Freetown, Sierra Leone, or, if the Africans went through the court in Havana, Cuba, by their Spanish- speaking counterparts, aided in both cases by interpreters. …

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