Research based on 19th century material from the Sierra Leone Public Archives

Megane Coulon

In the nineteenth century, Freetown acted as a centre of slave trade suppression in West Africa. My doctoral thesis analyses changes in the make-up of the population and society of this urban centre in the mid to late nineteenth century. It evaluates migration patterns, social and economic stratification, family connections as well as the emergence of professional and business networks. My research draws on the analysis of records available at the Sierra Leone Public Archives, which have been digitised by the British Library.

The British Library Endangered Archives programme has funded the digitisation of over 260 volumes from the Sierra Leone Public Archives through two projects entitled ‘Nineteenth century documents of the Sierra Leone Public Archives (EAP443)’ and ‘Preserving nineteenth-century records in the Sierra Leone Public Archives (EAP782)’. Analysis of the digitised volumes makes it possible to trace the lives of Africans released from slave ships and forcibly relocated to Sierra Leone by cross-referencing information recovered from other sources, including the 1831 census for Freetown. For instance, on 15 April 1827, Argossee, a twenty-four-year old woman, was disembarked from the Portuguese vessel NS da Conceição de Maria (25,444). The Registers of Liberated Africans recorded that she was married in Freetown to Thomas French. By 1831, they both lived at 58 Bathurst Street in Freetown with five other people and her official name had been changed to Mary French.

The digitised materials include police court records, records of the court concerned with the  recovery of small debts, governor’s despatches, birth registers and death registers, among other sources. These documents provide a wide range of evidence from which to understand the nature of the society that emerged in Freetown in the nineteenth century. My research focuses on Freetown between 1819 and 1862, and I use volumes held in the Sierra Leone Public Archives to trace a number of issues. Birth registers recorded the birth of 1,620 children between 1857 and 1862. They contain the name, place of residence, and occupations of the fathers. I analyse these records to understand patterns of social and economic stratification in Freetown by looking at social clusters and household formation. Thousands of cases were registered in the police court records, which provide evidence on the experiences of individuals released in the British Crown colony. The testimonies of women in these records reveal a broader history of African women. On 4 April 1839, Betsy Jarrett charged John French, William Falconer, John Moore, and George Barnes of conspiring to defraud her of her deceased husband’s property. After spending time away from the Colony, she came back and asked to see her husband’s will. A witness, William Simmons, said that her husband had left his property to Barnes and Elizabeth Campbell, a woman who was living with him before he died. Simmons stated that Betsy’s husband had not left any property to her in his will.

Even though Freetown was the headquarters of British slave trade suppression, the court records still contain details of slave sales in and around the colony. The testimonies found in these records bring the voices of enslaved people to light.

Megane Coulon is a History PhD student at the University of Worcester.