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Where do these data come from?

Historical information in the African-Origins database comes from registers kept by the Havana, Cuba, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, Courts of Mixed (or Joint) Commission and by British Vice-Admiralty Courts and Liberated African Departments in Sierra Leone and St. Helena. The data describe individual Africans who were liberated from slaving vessels in the era of the suppression of the transatlantic slave trade. Personal names and in some cases place of origin was provided by the Africans themselves with the help of a translator. This information together with descriptions was intended to reduce the chances of re-enslavement. For fuller information see Richard Anderson, Alex Borucki, Daniel Domingues da Silva, David Eltis, Paul Lachance, Philip Misevich, Olatunji Ojo, “Using pre- Orthographic African Names to Identify the Origins of Captives in the Transatlantic Slave Trade: The Registers of Liberated Africans, 1808-1862” (forthcoming).

What happened to the people in these records?

Few of these Africans went back to their pre-enslavement existence. Those taken back to Africa were not returned to their place of origin, but were instead disembarked in areas unfamiliar to them, chiefly in the Sierra Leone region. Others landed on the island of St. Helena. Mortality rates both before and after detention of their slave vessel was high.

Some of the detained slave vessels were conducted to ports in the Americas such as Havana, Cuba, or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Courts of Mixed Commission were established. Almost all the Africans on board such vessels eventually became part of the black population of the Americas.

How do I search for a name in the database?

You have the option of searching for a specific name or searching for a name pronounced or spelled similarly to the one you’ve entered. Because these African names were written down by English and Spanish speakers at a time when many of these African languages had no written counterpart, the spelling is a phonetic representation of how the name might be spelled by an English speaker (for Sierra Leone registers) or a Spanish speaker (for Havana registers). By default, the name search locates phonetically similar names among the names recorded in the nineteenth-century Court of Mixed Commission registers. Eventually, as modern counterparts of these names are imputed from public contributions and published, this name search can also be used to search the likely modern spelling of these African names.

To get started, type the name you are seeking in the “Name” box under Search Tools. By default, the search engine will locate names likely to be pronounced similarly to the name you entered. To search only for names spelled exactly the same, check the box next to “Exact match” and then press the “Search” button.

Can I research my family history here?

A continuing challenge to tracing one’s African ancestry is locating records that link a name in a record produced on the American side of the Atlantic with the actual name of the African who made the voyage. In the case of Africans transported in the transatlantic slave trade, names were often changed, especially “Christianized,” once the boat landed and the Africans on board were disembarked and sold into slavery. For this reason, a database such as the African-Origins portal would naturally generate much excitement, since the names of the people on board are, in most cases, clearly African.

There are, however, limits to the usefulness of this database to genealogical research. Because the Africans on board were liberated, and thus never entered into the copious intra-national records of the slave trade, there is less likelihood that they can be connected with, say, an African American’s research into enslaved ancestors. That said, the database still enables the discovery of information that will help to shed light on the ancestry of individuals descended from Africans transported in the trade or members of the African Diaspora. Through public contributions to the language and cultural associations of a name in the register, scholars can estimate or approximate the likely place of origin and ethnic and language group of these individuals, and from this, trace the migration patterns of Africans from the interior of Africa to ports on the African coast. This in turn sheds light on who the people were who traveled from a particular port at a particular time, and this critical piece of information can help genealogists who know their ancestors’ port of entry make better estimates of where their heritage in Africa lies.

How can I contribute to discovering the origins of Africans?

If you are familiar with any African names or naming practices, you will be able to contribute to this project. By suggesting a modern counterpart for an African name recorded in the historical registers, as well as ethno-linguistic groups that use that name, you help to identify the likely linguistic, cultural, and geographic origins of that African.

You can begin by entering an African name you know into the search box on the African-Origins home page. You are encouraged to select a country (if you know what country is associated with the name you entered) and the gender associated with the name (if appropriate). Then click the “Explore” button for a list of exact or similar sounding names from those recorded in the Court of Mixed Commission registers. By clicking on a row in the table of results, you can see all recorded and imputed information for that African, and a link to the form for making a contribution to that African’s identify.

Scholars familiar with African names, naming practices, languages and ethno-linguistic groups will review the cumulative responses for names such as those that you furnished, looking for consensus among respondents like you. It is expected that persons like you and responses like yours will be highly correlated, allowing the editors to determine with degrees of certainty (based on contributions) where certain names likely came from. Since most of the African languages and names are geocentric, the work of contributors like you and the editors will likely result in certain areas on the African continent being highlighted as the geographic origins of the Africans who were enslaved and recaptured, and who ended up on the registers of the Courts of Mixed Commissions.

How does the site treat Arabic or Islamic names?

Many of the Liberated Africans recorded in the data have names that are associated with Islam (as, for example, with Fatima for women or Mohamed for men). While such names are not unique to any particular African language or ethnic groups, they still reveal important clues about the individuals pulled into the Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century. If you find names that are Arabic or likely Islamic in origin, we encourage you to identify them as such. To do so, select the Arabic/Islamic option among the list of language groups when making your contribution. The relationship between Arabic and Islamic names in Africa is complex: names associated with Islam may not, for example, be considered Arabic by the people who use(d) them.


Introduction to the African Origins Project

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DBI W.E.B Du Bois Institute
(Harvard University)
National Endowment for the Humanities National Endowment
for the Humanities
Emory University
African Origins: Portal to Africans Liberated from Transatlantic
Slave Vessels. Copyright 2009 Emory University. All rights reserved.
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