Recent Research on the Atlantic Slave Trade at the University of Worcester

Suzanne Schwarz

My research on the transatlantic slave trade involves reconstructing the names and identities of men, women and children forcibly shipped from Africa in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This research is vital to understanding the human impact of this vast trade, as historians currently know the African names of only a small proportion of the estimated 12.5 million individuals uprooted and displaced between the early sixteenth and the mid nineteenth centuries. Through my work on Sierra Leone, I contribute to a number of international collaborative projects to reconstruct biographical information on the identities, origins and experiences of Africans shipped for the Americas. I am currently part of an international research team, led by Professor Paul E. Lovejoy, working on ‘Documenting Africans in Trans-Atlantic Slavery (DATAS)’. This research project ‘centers on the need to understand the origins and trajectories of people of African descent who populated the trans-Atlantic world in the modern era’.

Reconstructing biographical information on enslaved Africans requires the linkage of fragmentary pieces of evidence dispersed in archives in West Africa, North America, South America, the Caribbean and Europe. The process of tracing names is complicated by the fact that merchants and mariners engaged in the trade had no interest in recording details of the identities of those loaded as ‘cargo’ on their vessels. Records for slaving ventures indicate that mariners typically ascribed numbers to individuals purchased in West Africa. As David Eltis points out, it ‘is difficult to believe in the first decades of the twenty-first century that just over two centuries ago, for those Europeans who thought about the issue, the shipping of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic was morally indistinguishable from shipping textiles, wheat, or even sugar’. This contemporary mind-set is illustrated clearly in the letters of James Irving, a Scottish surgeon and captain employed in the Liverpool slave trade. After a slaving voyage to New Calabar in the Bight of Biafra, he wrote to his wife in November 1786 to inform her that he had arrived safely in Barbados after an Atlantic crossing (or Middle Passage) of 46 days. He explained that the vessel was carrying on to Tobago, where ‘we expect to sell our Cargo’. In a postscript to the letter, he noted that, ‘We [the officers] have been all healthy and buried 48 slaves’. In a letter from Tobago on 2 December 1786, he wrote again to his wife at College Lane in Liverpool to say he was still healthy. He explained that ‘we have … not yet dispos[e]d of any of our very disagreeable Cargo’, but thought it would take place five days later ‘when our Sale Opens’. For further details on Irving’s role in the slave trade see S. Schwarz, ed., Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 84-87.

My research draws on rare and endangered primary sources held in the Sierra Leone Public Archives in Freetown. These sources include a long series of Registers of Liberated Africans, which record the names of tens of thousands of Africans released from slave ships over a period of more than half a century. After the shift in attitudes accompanying the passage of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, Royal Navy vessels were sent to the new British Crown colony at Sierra Leone to intercept illegal slaving ventures. These policies of slave trade suppression led to the release of an estimated 100,000 Africans at Freetown in the nineteenth century, and the names of the Africans forcibly relocated to the Crown colony were recorded in a series of registers. The first ship recorded in the register for 1808-1812 was the Marie Paul, intercepted by HMS Derwent in November 1808. An affidavit sworn by Charles de Bonnay, captain of the Marie Paul, stated that the vessel had sailed from Senegal on 20 August 1808 ‘with a cargo of slaves bound to Cayenne in South America’. The badly damaged register records the names of sixty men, women and children who were disembarked at Freetown. Birum, aged thirty and five feet four inches tall, was among the adult males. The description column in the register included the note that his ‘breast [was] burn[t] severely’, an injury that may have been sustained during his period on the slave ship. Among the women listed was Adam, aged 26, and 5 feet 3 inches tall. She was the mother of an infant girl named Anta, described as a ‘sucking child’.

By using Registers of Liberated Africans and other archival sources in Britain, North America and the Caribbean, I trace what happened to African men, women and children after their disembarkation at Freetown, Sierra Leone. This was the subject of a paper presented at a major international conference on Liberated Africans, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for Canada, at York University in Toronto in 2015. My paper subsequently formed the basis of a chapter in a book published last year, ‘The Impact of Liberated African “Disposal” Policies in Early Nineteenth-Century Sierra Leone’, in Liberated Africans and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807-1896, eds. Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020), chapter 2.

Tracing the lives of Africans transported in the slave trade is a major priority in current research initiatives. The ‘Freedom Narratives’ website includes ‘the testimonies and stories of individuals born in West Africa whose voices have long been silenced’. A related research initiative in which I have taken a leading role is the digitisation of sources containing information on the lives of the Africans released at Sierra Leone. As a result, Registers of Liberated Africans and other related sources in the Sierra Leone Public Archives can be consulted freely across the world by other researchers and by members of the public on the British Library website. A project entitled ‘Nineteenth Century Documents of the Sierra Leone Public Archives’, funded by the British Library Endangered Archives programme, has resulted in the digitisation of 194 volumes, which can be accessed through the British Library catalogue and the British Library Endangered Archives website.

The importance of teaching the history of the transatlantic slave trade has been drawn to public attention in recent months. Since my appointment at the University of Worcester in 2011, I have offered a final year history module on ‘The Atlantic Slave Trade’. This teaching, underpinned by the latest research in the field, places emphasis on tracing the attitudes that sustained the trade in the eighteenth century, as well as the impact of the trade on African lives.

Suzanne Schwarz is Professor of History, University of Worcester.

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