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.

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’.