Seeking Rescued Slaves

By Adam Bowles Premium

Not all Africans captured and bound for slavery in the Americas actually were delivered into the harsh life of plantation work. More than 80,000 Africans were rescued from slavery in the early 1800s when the British Navy diverted their ships to foreign ports. Now G. Ugo Nwokeji, an assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut, and his British colleague, David Eltis, are developing a database of the names of these rescued slaves. The information, collected from the British Public Record Office, should lead to new discoveries in African-American genealogy and the slave trade. (Update: You can see data on captured ships on the Web site Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.)

“It’s an unusual document in that slaves are recorded by their African names,” Nwokeji says. “There is nothing like that in the history of the slave trade.”

British clerks recorded the names the way they sounded, and not by correct spellings. So Eltis has had to pronounce the names to Nwokeji, a native of Nigeria, until he recognizes their African spellings and their ethnicity.

Nwokeji says most of the names are easily identified. Others are more difficult to decipher. “Sometimes it would take up to three minutes,” he says. “After that, I would move on and leave it blank.”

Since 1999, the researchers have deciphered 32,000 names.

The research is shedding some light on the ethnic background of the African diaspora. About 80 percent of the slaves in the project came from what is modern-day Benin, Nigeria, Gabon and Cameroon. Depending on where they lived in that area, slaves were either transported to the Caribbean and the Chesapeake Bay or Brazil and Cuba.

“This has established without doubt that the slave trade was not random,” Nwokeji says.

But the database will also prove useful to the few individuals who know the African names of their ancestors. Many of these slaves ended up in the Americas, either because that’s where the closest port to the ships was at the time they were diverted or because they eventually went there as indentured servants.

From the December 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine