Suzanne Schwarz is Professor of History at the University of Worcester specializing in the transatlantic slave trade. In this academic blog, she explains how her research involves tracing the names and identities of men, women and children forcibly shipped from Africa in the transatlantic slave trade in the early nineteenth century. 

The transatlantic slave trade spanned nearly four centuries between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries and led to the forced export from Africa of more than twelve and a half million individuals. Ships of various nations, including those from Portugal, Britain and France, transported African men, women and children to the Americas for use as a slave labour force, especially to cultivate sugar and other cash crops.

Olaudah Equiano
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself (London, 1789). Courtesy of the British Library.

For the vast majority of individuals taken on slave ships, there is no available biographical evidence on their African names and identities, or about their lives and families before they were enslaved. There are, of course, some first-hand narratives written by individuals who had experienced enslavement, and the most well-known of these is by Gustavus Vassa, who is commonly known today by his birth name Olaudah Equiano. His Interesting Narrative was first published in 1789. The challenge for historians, however, is how to retrieve and reconstruct evidence for more than the select few who managed to secure their freedom and write an account of their experiences. 

One of the reasons why so little evidence survives about the identities of Africans carried on board slave ships is linked to how African men, women and children were regarded as cargo by those who financed and carried out the trade. As a result of these contemporary attitudes, enslaved Africans were typically referred to in surviving documentation by the numbers allotted to them after they had been purchased at various ports and forts along the coast of West Africa. This contemporary mind-set is illustrated 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, Irving wrote to his wife from Tobago on 2 December 1786. He explained how ‘we have … not yet dispos[e]d of any of our very disagreeable Cargo’, but he thought it would take place five days later ‘when our Sale Opens’. No records survive of the names of the 572 Africans carried on board the Jane, of whom 48 perished during the voyage from West Africa to the Caribbean; only the numbers were recorded as this influenced the profits generated for officers and investors in the voyage (See Suzanne Schwarz, ed., Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007).

Slave trade poster copy
Image of the Brooks. Courtesy of the British Library

recent report by UNESCO emphasises the dehumanisation which characterised the slave trade and slavery. In this context, retrieving information on African lives is vital to developing a fuller understanding of the human impact of the Atlantic slave trade and its legacies. This approach makes it possible to move beyond the bare statistics and to see the effects of a trade declared by the United Nations in 2010 as a ‘crime against humanity’. The importance of understanding the history, as well as the profound cultural legacies, of this global African displacement, is emphasised not only through Black Lives Matter but also in the UN General Assembly’s proclamation that 2015 marked the beginning of the International Decade for People of African Descent 

Slave Ship
Image of the Brooks. Courtesy of the British Library

In view of all these problems with the surviving evidence, where have historians been able to find personal information on the identities of enslaved Africans? After the passage of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade on 25 March 1807, which outlawed the transportation of enslaved Africans in British vessels, Royal Navy patrols were deployed off the coast of West Africa to intercept slave ships and release the Africans carried on board in different locations. Following their release, biographical information was recorded for tens of thousands of enslaved Africans on ships bound for the Americas, but whose Atlantic crossings were interrupted as a result of international efforts to suppress the slave trade. The latest research indicates that approximately 200,000 individuals were released, which may seem a large number, but in fact was only six percent of a total of 3.2 million individuals shipped from Africa in the nineteenth century.

Abolition of slavery poster

Following the interception of vessels, the Africans carried on board were relocated to a diverse range of settings, including the Cape Colony (in South Africa), Sierra Leone (West Africa), Cuba, Brazil, Angola, the Gambia, St. Helena, as well as various islands in the British Caribbean. Sierra Leone dealt with the largest number of arrivals, and approximately 100,000 Africans were disembarked at Freetown between 1808 and 1863. Detailed lists were made of the African names and physical characteristics of the individuals released and entered in Registers of Liberated Africans. The first register for Sierra Leone lists the names of sixty men, women and children taken off the French schooner, the Marie Paul, in November 1808. Two girls, Secree and Sochra, were both described as ten years old. Sochra was four feet and ten inches in height, and she had a ‘scar on upper lip and forehead’. Anta, aged one, was described as a ‘sucking child … daughter of Adam No. 56’. As the ship had departed Africa in August 1808, she had been taken on board as an infant of less than a year old. An entry was added against her name to indicate that she died within four months of her arrival at Freetown in March 1809. For recent research on Liberated Africans in different settings, see Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy, eds., Liberated Africans and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807-1896 (Rochester: Rochester University Press, 2020).

Registers of Liberated Africans containing information on those released at Freetown are among the most important sources held in the Sierra Leone Public Archives. In collaboration with Paul E. Lovejoy from York University and Albert Moore, Senior Government Archivist in Sierra Leone, I have been leading research funded by the British Library Endangered Archives Programme to digitise rare manuscripts relating to the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants. 

Register of liberated Africans
Register of Liberated Africans, 1808-1812. Courtesy of Sierra Leone Public Archives.

Grants awarded from the British Library Endangered Archives Programme have enabled digital preservation of more than two hundred volumes, comprised of over 75,000 digital images. This evidence is freely available for use on the British Library Endangered Archives website. The programme of digitisation in Sierra Leone is continuing.

The research of Prof Suzanne Schwarz focuses on the transatlantic slave trade and West Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

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