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.

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.

International Conferences on Slavery and Race

Professor Suzanne Schwarz presented a paper and was part of a discussion panel at the Maghrib Conference on Race, Gender and Migration, Fes, Morocco between 15 and 17 December 2019. The conference, held in honour of  Catherine Coquery-Vidrovich, Professor Emeritus at the University of Paris-Diderot, was organised by the Center for Maghrib Studies at Arizona State University. It was hosted by Morocco’s International Institute for Languages and Cultures (INLAC), and sponsored by the Centre International de Recherches sur les Esclavages et Post-Esclavages and L’Unité de Recherche Migrations et Société.

Professor Schwarz was part of an international discussion panel on the ARTE film on Les Routes de L’Esclavage (Slavery Routes) with Catherine Coquery-Vidrovich, Klara Boyer-Rossol, Salah Trabelsi (Université Lumière Lyon 2), and Chouki El Hamel (Arizona State University).  Slavery Routes is a documentary in four parts, co-directed by Daniel Cattier, Juan Gélas and Fanny Glissant, with historical advisor Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch. Suzanne Schwarz was interviewed for this series, which has been screened widely, including on Al Jazeera in 2018. She also presented a paper entitled, ‘Reinterpreting Cultural Encounters: European mariners in Morocco in the Late Eighteenth Century’, which analysed the contemporary accounts of a number of European mariners who experienced captivity in the Maghrib.

In March 2020, Professor Schwarz participated in an international online conference. The two-day conference entitled ‘Documenting Africans in Trans-Atlantic Slavery (DATAS)’ was due to be held at the University of Essex, but was moved online. The conference brought together 25 international participants from Canada, North America, Brazil, Costa Rica, France and various other European countries. This was the first in a series of planned conferences for the international research team engaged in the project: ‘Documenting Africans in Trans-Atlantic Slavery (DATAS)’, ( This research team is led by Paul E. Lovejoy, Distinguished Research Professor and Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora Studies at York University, Toronto. After submitting a successful bid for a collaborative research project to the ‘Trans-Atlantic Platform Social Innovation Call’, the team subsequently received funding from the Trans-Atlantic Platform: Social Sciences and Humanities. The DATAS project ‘develops an innovative method to explore African ethnonyms from the era of trans-Atlantic slavery, circa 1500-1867. Ethnonyms index African identities, places and historical events to reconstruct African culture that is linked to a history of slavery, colonialism and racism. The project centres on the need to understand the origins and trajectories of people of African descent who populated the trans-Atlantic world in the modern era. The development of a method for analysing demographic change and confronting social inequalities arising from racism constitutes a social innovation’. Tracing the availability of relevant archival sources about African men, women and children is central to this project, and Professor Schwarz presented a paper entitled ‘Research on Sierra Leone: British Library Endangered Archives Project, Sierra Leone Public Archives’.

A World Increasingly United by Growing Divides – Time for New Partnership Responses?

Gareth Dart

Earlier this semester I attended a conference exploring issues of disability in southern Africa, held at the University of Botswana in the capital, Gaborone. Having spent nearly a decade working in the country but not having revisited for the last eight years I was intrigued to see what might have changed. An issue that was a reinforced through my visit is that it is becoming more and more difficult to talk about differences in wealth and development (and let’s leave aside for now exactly what we mean by that…) in general terms between countries, but rather we need to be far more aware of nuances both between and within.

The new conference centre (complete with soon-to-be-opened hotel) at the University of Botswana makes our conference facilities appear charmingly retro: beautiful main auditorium, lots of well-furnished break out rooms, excellent catering facilities etc. Friends and former colleagues all seemed to be driving cars twice the size and much newer than I could aspire to, sitting in air conditioned comfort in traffic jams twice as long as I recall them being, even though there appear to be twice as many roads as I remember. Presumably all that extra fuel burning up while people get nowhere slowly is doing wonders for the country’s GDP.

Visits to two large villages that I know well provided a counter-story. In one, a friend who is a tailor continues to live a day to day existence in competition with the flood of cheap Chinese imports, sold from small shops run by Chinese migrants. In the other, a College of Education, my former work place, already in decline by the time I left has further decayed in terms of its fabric and role, a stark contrast to the gleaming new buildings popping up all over the University some 50km away. I popped my head into my old office, still the base for the Special Education team, and found an old handout of mine lying on one of the desks. “We have new material too!” the current occupant was keen to point out.

The other evening there was an item on the news about Hartlepool and the impact of the introduction of Universal Credit. What struck me was the paucity of cars in the streets. It looked like photographs that one sees from the 1950s  and is presumably (though any geographer reading this might want to put me right) an indication of poverty rather than an urge to live a greener, more sustainable lifestyle. The richer elements of Botswana are looking very much like our richer elements and the poorer parts of Britain are starting to look more like the poorer parts of Botswana. Though given the respective climates I think I know where I might prefer to lead a life of poverty if I ever have to.

A question for us as academics and practitioners interested in working in partnership in such contexts is what this emerging, more finely nuanced reality might mean for us. I wonder if we need to think about more equal partnerships where we work on mutually compatible problems: let’s explore what poverty means and how we might ameliorate its impact in peri-urban Botswana and Hartlepool: what does a rural Botswanan school’s attitude to including children from the whole village have to say to us in rural Hereford? We are now used to the need to demonstrate ‘impact’ and work ethically. Perhaps both those notions are due for a shift or broadening of focus.


Gareth Dart is Senior Lecturer in Education, University of Worcester.