Freedom Narratives focuses on the enforced migration of "Atlantic Africans," that is enslaved Africans in the Atlantic world during the era of the slave trade, through an examination of biographical accounts of individuals born in West Africa who were enslaved from the 16th to the 19th century. The focus is on testimony, the voices of individual Africans. The Project uses an online digital repository of autobiographical testimonies and biographical data of Atlantic Africans to analyze patterns in the slave trade of West Africa, specifically in terms of where individuals came from, why they were enslaved, and what happened to them. Freedom Narratives focuses on people born in Africa and hence in most cases had been born free rather than on those who were born into slavery in the Americas or elsewhere. The individuals in this repository include those who travelled within West Africa as well as those who experienced the “Middle Passage,” i.e., the Atlantic crossing, which is often seen as a defining moment in the slavery experience. Sometimes these accounts are referred to as “slave narratives” but in our estimation, such testimonies more accurately reflect "freedom narratives" because in most cases, individuals were born free and subsequently regained their freedom, and the site includes individuals who were never enslaved. Freedom Narratives enables an examination of biographical testimonies as the fundamental units of analysis, whether the primary texts arise from first person memory or survive via amanuensis. Whenever possible, original testimonies are supplemented with biographical details culled from legal, ecclesiastical, and other types of records.
The Project Team is comprised of those individuals who have made a significant contribution to some aspect of the Freedom Narratives database and website. Under the direction of Paul E. Lovejoy, Distinguished Research Professor, York University, Toronto, and Associate Director, Érika Melek Delgado, Leverhulme Fellow, King’s College, London, the Project Team consists of Contributors, the Research Team, and Co-op Student Assistants. Kartikay Chadha is the Technical Coordinator and Leidy Alpízar is Administrative Coordinator. The Project Team also receives Digital Assistance and Research Support from other colleagues. Freedom Narratives identifies the specific support of the individual involvement of the Research Team in the genesis and development of the Project.
Director – Paul E. Lovejoy
Paul E. Lovejoy is Distinguished Research Professor, Department of History, York University is a leading proponent of revisionist interpretations of the history of the African diaspora, he is the founding Director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas, general editor of the Harriet Tubman Series on the African Diaspora with Africa World Press, and co-editor of African Economic History. His theoretical approach places Africa at the centre of intellectual discourse. His contributions to UNESCO include service on the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Resistance, Liberty Heritage (1996-2012), co-editor of the on-line series of essays by committee members, and a co-editor of the UNESCO General History of Africa, vol. 10, on Global Africa.
Associate Director – Érika Melek Delgado
Érika Melek Delgado is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas, York University. She holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Worcester and an M.Phil. in Comparative History from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Her research focuses on Liberated African children and African childhood. She received the Martin Lynn Scholarship from the Royal Historical Society, a grant from the Economic History Society, and a grant from the Emerging Leaders in the Americas Program. She has been involved in the Sierra Leone Public Archives project of the British Library Endangered Archives Programme and is principal investigator of the Historical African Childhoods.
Technical Coordinator – Kartikay Chadha
Kartikay Chadha is a Bioinformation and Human Statistical Geneticist. He holds a Master of Science degree from the University of Toronto. Kartikay is an expert in computer programming, database development and management, and big data quantitative and qualitative analyses. He currently holds appointments at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, OCAD University and York University. Kartikay is the primary developer of The Language of Marks Collaborative Web-portal and is currently assisting Prof Paul Lovejoy’s research group in developing database and front-end visualization tools.
Administrative Coordinator – Leidy Alpízar
Leidy Alpízar is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and Teaching Assistant at York University, Toronto. She is Editorial Assistant for the journal, African Economic History, University of Wisconsin Press, and former Lecturer and Researcher at Universidad de Costa Rica, Centro de Investigación en Identidad y Cultura Latinoamérica (CIICLA) and the Cátedra de Estudios de África y el Caribe (CEAC). She earned an M.A. in History at Universidad de Costa Rica, and her thesis "Shattering the Myth: Social Insertion of Jamaican Immigrants in San Joseregion in the 20th century" is being published by the University of Costa Rica Press.
Sean M. Kelley is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Essex. He received his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and specializes in the history of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. He is the author of Los Brazos de Dios: A Plantation Society in the Texas Borderlands, 1821-1865 (2010) and The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina (2016). He is a founding member of the Freedom Narratives Project.
Suzanne Schwarz is Professor of History at the University of Worcester. Her research examines the development of the Sierra Leone colony and the ways in which abolitionists attempted to undermine the slave trade and reform African economy and society through policies of “Commerce, Civilization and Christianity.” She is Principal Investigator of the British Library Endangered Archives project in the Sierra Leone Public Archives, an Honorary Research Fellow at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, and was an external consultant for the development of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. She is Vice President of the Hakluyt Society.
Jane Landers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of History, Vanderbilt University, and Director of Slave Societies Digital Archive (www.slavesocieties.org) is an historian of Colonial Latin America and the Atlantic World specializing in the history of Africans and their descendants. She has been the United States representative to the UNESCO Slave Route Project and past-president of the Conference on Latin American History, the Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction and the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association.
Richard Anderson received his Ph.D. from Yale University and subsequently held an SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellowship at York University. He is currently a Commonwealth Rutherford Fellow in the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. His current research is funded by a Commonwealth Rutherford Fellowship on "Running into Empire: Abolition and the Fugitive Slave Question in British Colonial Africa, c.1787-1896," which explores how British colonial officials responded to Africans who fled slavery and sought refuge in the British colonies of Sierra Leone, the Gambia, the Gold Coast, and Lagos in the nineteenth century.
Kyle Prochnow earned an M.A. in history at Boston College in 2015 and is a Ph.D. candidate in African diaspora history at York University. His doctoral dissertation examines the origins, forced migrations, and personal experiences of enslaved Africans conscripted to serve in Britain's West India Regiments.
Femi J. Kolapo
Femi J. Kolapo is Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Guelph, co-editor with Kwabena O. Akurang-Parry, African Agency and European Colonialism: Latitudes of Negotiations and Containment (2007), and co-editor with Chima J. Korieh, The Aftermath of Slavery: Transitions and Transformations in Southeastern Nigeria (2007).
Olatunji Ojo is Associate Professor, Department of History, Brock University, and author of over 40 peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters on gender, slavery, and economic history of precolonial and colonial southern Nigeria (Yoruba and Igbo history). He is also the co-editor of Slavery in Africa and the Caribbean (2012) with Nadine Hunt and Ransoming, Captivity, and Piracy in Africa and the Mediterranean (2016) with Jennifer Lofkrantz. He received is B.A and M.A in History from the University of Ibadan (Nigeria) and his Ph.D in African History from York University.
Dr. Nielson Rosa Bezerra is Professor in Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ); Director of Research of Museu Vivo do São Bento; Director of History Department in Faculdade de Belford Roxo - FABEL. He is a Former Banting Fellow at The Harriet Tubman Institute at York University (Y.U). He is a leader for young investigators on African Diaspora in Baixada Fluminense and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Also, he is author of eight books and several articles in Academic Journals.
Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec
Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec est professeur à l’Université de Sherbrooke, spécialiste de l’histoire des États-Unis, d’Haïti et des Amériques noires, il travaille actuellement sur le développement de la plateforme marronnage.info, sur l'historiographie des résistances à l'esclavage en France et sur un nouveau projet de recherche CRSH sur l'histoire méconnue des résistances à l'esclavage à la Nouvelle-Orléans (1811-1836). Ce projet porte en particulier sur les formes culturelles de résistance à l'esclavage, par la danse et la musique notamment. Il s'intéresse aussi à l'histoire d'une pâtisserie, la tête-de-nègre. Le marronnage dans le monde atlantique: sources et trajectoires de vie, Freedom Narratives.
Ian Hood is completing a bachelor's degree in Disaster and Emergency Management at York University and has worked at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston, Ontario. His research on Indigenous Human Rights was presented at the York University Undergraduate Research Fair and was awarded the Dean's Award for Research Excellence (DARE) for his work on Boko Haram, which was presented at the Canadian Risk and Hazard Network Conference in Vancouver in 2018.
Kelsey Patricia Baird is a major in sociology studying health inequality at California State University and holds a Killam Fulbright exchange at York University. She received the Sally Casanova Fellowship for 2018-2019.
Luisa Cruz, from Brasília, Brazil, is a student in Film Production at York University interested in documentary filmmaking, visual anthropology and digital humanities and is a research assistant at the Tubman Institute.
Thomas Garriss is a graduate student in history at the Université de Sherbrooke (Québec). He earned his undergraduate degree in jazz performance, and then decided he wanted to gain a broader perspective of the role of arts in the shaping of Western societies. With a strong focus on music and literature, he has worked primarily on the countercultural movements of the 1960s in the United States. Throughout his studies, he has had the opportunity to work as a research assistant, organize workshops and conferences, and contribute to innovative digital-history research projects.
Thiago Souto Maior
Thiago Souto Maior is a Brazilian undergraduate student who is majoring in History at UFPE (Recife, Brazil). His studies are focused on Modern History, Slavery, Colonial and Imperial Brazilian History. Thiago also worked as a research assistant to Baquaqua Project.
Suad Hassan Ahmed
Co-op Student Assistants
Fernanda Sierra is a major in Culture and Expression with an Environmental Studies minor, has been a research assistant on projects in digital knowledge mobilization and cultural and artistic practices for social and environmental justice. She has served as president of the Culture and Expression Student Association.
Henry B. Lovejoy
Freedom Narratives respects Best Practices as developed in the course of generating the website and database. In addition to the identification of the specific contributions of the Research Team, these Best Practices include a description of the Methodology employed in data management, the Controlled Vocabulary that has been devised to enable the management of clean data for ingestion into the Project, including Definitions of terms and vocabulary, and the suggested format for Citation of the database, website and their constituent parts. Best Practices are described in Paul E. Lovejoy, Érika Melek Delgado and Kartikay Chadha, “Freedom Narratives of West Africans from the Era of Slavery,” which is summarized in the following sections.
The Freedom Narratives website is an open source relational database comprised of original documentation in PDF format with metadata organized into data fields. The database facilitates access to all documentation through this public website. The intention is to enable the analysis of the important historical tragedy and crime against humanity that affected the history of West Africa and was responsible for the demographic, cultural and social transformation of the Americas and elsewhere. The focus on biographical profiles of people in West Africa during the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is an innovative approach to social history. The Project is based on an online digital repository of autobiographical testimonies and biographical data of Atlantic Africans that allow the analysis of patterns in the slave trade, specifically in terms of where individuals came from, why they were enslaved, and what happened to them. Because Freedom Narratives focuses on those born in Africa, in most cases people had been born free and therefore are to be distinguished from those who were born into slavery in the Americas or elsewhere. The important distinction between those born free from those born into conditions of slavery is highlighted by reference to their testimonies as “freedom narratives” rather than as “slave narratives,” the term that is commonly used to categorize the personal accounts that have been recorded in the Americas. In the case of the surviving accounts of those born in West Africa, at least, not only were most individuals born free but were subsequently able to regain their freedom. The experience of slavery was therefore only an aspect, even if an important aspect, of their personal experiences. By contrast, those born into slavery in the Americas and elsewhere were socialized into slave societies from birth, and even if individuals were able to acquire their freedom, their exposure to slavery was different. The accounts that are being labelled “freedom narratives” often recount the hope, sometimes realized, of being reunited with kin or members of natal societies that was more difficult and often impossible in the trans-Atlantic and trans-Saharan diasporas. Individuals who were never enslaved are also included because of the importance of identifying various kinds of relationships, not only those based on kinship and social interactions but also relationships of dependency and subjugation. Freedom Narratives enables an examination of biographical testimonies as the fundamental units of analysis in historical reconstruction, whether the primary texts arise from first person memory or survive via amanuensis. Whenever possible, original testimonies are supplemented with biographical details culled from legal, ecclesiastical, and other types of records. Through its website, the Freedom Narratives project assembles, collates and displays biographical information on individuals who were primarily born in West Africa or returned to West Africa during the centuries of the slave trade as a means of understanding the episodes and trauma of the experience of slavery, whether the enslaved crossed the Atlantic to the Americas, remained in West Africa or were taken across the Sahara.
Freedom Narratives uses the Decoding Origins Web Portal (http://decodingorigins.org), which consists of a backend collaborative database built using Structured Query Language (MySQL) and a user friendly interactive platform employing novel algorithms to collect, analyze and cross reference data. The database is designed to handle multiple types of documents from a variety of sources that often constitute different categories. This web portal employs user-sensitive inclusive design and iterative learning methodologies to improve the data curation process not only for Freedom Narratives but adaptable for other projects and compatible with the Enslaved hub. Because the Decoding Origins web portal provides a project-customized, collaborative environment to collect, organize, meta-tag, visualize and cross-reference data and connect with external collections, the portal can also connect with public websites to enable real time publications of biographies and documents. The Decoding Origins Web Portal allows historians to work in a team-based web-environment that reinforces the rigorous analog best-practices developed by the Freedom Narratives research team. Instead of alteration between documents, the Decoding Origins Web Portal allows researchers to link PDF documentation and corresponding type work with Controlled Vocabularies, simultaneously displayed on one screen. The Source tab of the Decoding Origins Web Portal records the name of the digital files that are being processed. The basic structure of data management is based on four interrelated methods of identification, first establishing the “Person” as a unique individual, then examining the various known “Events” in that person’s life, and the “Places” where such events occurred, the “Sources” on which the data are based. These four dimensions of management are organized digitally as an open source relational database.
The “Person ID” entry is a unique identifier for each case file entered in the Freedom Narratives database. Researchers are assigned a specific range of identifiers, which are called “FN Numbers.” These identifiers follow the same format: FN, followed by six digits (e.g., FN000001, FN001200, …), which allow differentiating one individual from another who might have the same name. Only a project director can create a new person file on the Decoding Origins Web Portal and then a “FN number” is automatically assigned to each case file for a new person. Assigned cases are listed under “My Task” section of the web portal for purposes of work flow.
The “Name” entry records the name of the individual as it is reported in the primary source document. Whenever possible, the African name of the individual is used. If this is not possible, the most common name is used, including every part of the name as it is written in the source: given/first name, surname/last name (e.g., André do Amaral). If the primary sources do not mention the individual’s name, the person is described as Unknown. Sometimes an individual is referred to by more than one name. Such “Alternative Names” can be name variations, nicknames, aliases, married/maiden names, assumed names, variant spellings of African and Christian names, alternative spellings with abbreviations or initials, and a number of other things. A semicolon ( ; ) is used to differentiate multiple entries in various fields of the Web Portal or a multiple select HTML form type field is provided.
The identification of individuals usually includes reference to an ethnonym or language, which for purposes of data entry and analysis is distinguished according to the term(s) that are recorded in the primary documentation and through association with modern terminology as appropriate. The primary sources usually record the “ethnonyms” of an individual as ethnicity, tribe or nation. The assumption that is made for Freedom Narratives is that such references are most likely to the language(s) an individual speaks. An “Ethnonym / Language in Original” entry is recorded exactly as in the primary documents (e.g., Poullar, Fula, etc.). These terms are then sifted through the Controlled Vocabulary, which is an ever-growing list containing terminology derived from Sources and includes variations of ethnonyms in primary sources, modern scholarship and common usage. Ethnonyms are linked to likely region of origin (e.g., Fulbe | Poullar; Pualard; | Upper Guinea Coast or Senegambia), that is the broad area from where an individual originally came. If the primary document does not specify where the individual was born, the “Ethnonym / Language” Controlled Vocabulary can help approximate the location. As an example, if FN00XXXX is identified as Allada, the “Region of Origin” is the Bight of Benin region. Region of origin is determined with reference to the regionalization outlined in Henry B. Lovejoy, Paul E. Lovejoy, Walter Hawthorne, Edward A. Alpers, Mariana Candido, Matthew S. Hopper, “Redefining African Regions for Linking Open-Source Data,” History in Africa 46 (2019), 5-36.
The region of destination records the last location where an individual is noted in the sources, and ultimately, the location where he/she died, if known. For purposes of Freedom Narratives, regions of destination include the following designations: Caribbean, North America, western Europe, Hispanic mainland, Brazil. As an example: the “Region of Destination” for an individual found in the Marronnage documents would often be “Caribbean.” If it is later discovered that a person travelled to, or died in, North America, this new information would replace “Caribbean.”
The biological sex of individuals as listed in the source document(s), often based on observations, is included as female, male, or unknown. All information about the physical appearance of an individual in primary documents are grouped according to characteristics under specific terms (e.g., wound; branding; height). Individual family relationships are considered part of an individual’s identity, and hence parents, children, spouses, and other close family are identified. It is recognized that individuals virtually always understood more than one language, including languages of interrogation or interviews as well as those associated with ethnonyms, and in some cases literacy is indicated, such as when the primary documents state that the individual could write, or if it is possible to conclude that he/she could (e.g., if a document was written by this individual in a certain language).
A basic summary of what is known about an individual is posted on the website for easy reference. The template for summaries includes basic information, including the name of the individual, his/her sex, identification of ethnonym/language, an estimate of the year or range of years in which the person was born, where the individual was born specifically as to place and geographic region. When, where and how an individual was enslaved is noted along with when and where the individual was taken and what happened later, such as emancipation, sale, escape, marriage and any unique details. Finally, the summary includes the year in which the information was recorded, who obtained the information, where this was done, and the final location of the individual if known.
If information is also to be found in a contributing project, such as Slave Voyages, Liberated Africans, Harvard Biographies or Le Marronnage dans le monde atlantique, the ID number that identifies the document/information in that project’s database is noted, which for the Slave Voyages database means the “Voyage ID” number; for Le Marronnage database the ID number for each slave advertisement (at the end of each document’s URL), and for Liberated Africans, the registration number in the original documentation. Similarly, every person contributing to the project receives proper recognition for his/her work, which includes those who provided the data and those who entered the data in the database.
The events of a person’s life are recorded in a similar fashion, following Best Practices and relying on Controlled Vocabularies that have been determined for the project. An “Event Type” is a category or class that captures an event’s overarching impact or purpose, as noted in the primary sources. Some will be obvious since there is an “Information Recorded” event when the document is produced. Others require more reflection; for example, if a runaway African recorded in a Les Affiches Américaines newspaper is referred to by a French name, it can be assumed that there was a “Naming Ceremony” event, including baptism, at some point in the individual’s personal history which had to have taken place before the “Information Recorded” event, and even before the “Resistance” event (when the person ran away from the master). Information is entered chronologically based on the Controlled Vocabulary for “Event Types.”
The social position or status of the individual during each event is determined based on the Controlled Vocabulary (e.g., Free, Enslaved, Liberated, Fugitive). The age of the individual at the time of particular event(s) is recorded as found in the primary document or otherwise imputed or associated with a range of years. Age categories, including child, adult, elder, are determined at the time of a specific event according to the Controlled Vocabulary. The start date and end date for an “Event” (year-month-day) is recorded according to documentation or imputed when the date is not cited in the original source but has been determined by calculation. An example of calculating an imputed date would be finding out the year when the “birth” event took place by subtracting the known or approximate age of an individual from the year the information was recorded or the event occurred. The circa period is clearly noted when the date is an approximation (a range of years). Religious affiliation at the time of the event is noted, including reference to a specific brotherhood, church, ritual society or other association if it can be determined.
The event description is a summary that captures a single event to clarify the purpose of the event or if something particular happened during an event. For example, a “resistance” event could mean the individual ran away from the master, started a rebellion, or refused to work and hence requires clarification. A “birth” event, by itself, is usually clear enough. However, if the primary document states that there were complications during the “birth” event, then details are noted. An event identifier provides a unique reference for each event to recognize connections among more than one person to the same event, making it possible to search a specific event and everyone who is known to have participated on it. Events are connected to specific sources on the portal, as is all other data. The occupation of the person is noted for each event based on the Controlled Vocabulary. If other individuals, not including relatives, are involved in the event, reference is made to them based on the Controlled Vocabulary. For example, for an enslaved African the ship captain in the “Departure” and “Arrival” events can be determined through the Slave Voyages database; ex. Captain | Henry Thorne. Ideally, the precise location where the event took place is noted, if known. If no precise location is given, a specific area (Street, City, District, Country, Region) is noted. The place where an event occurred is referred to according the place type, ranging from streets to regions, with the exact coordinates of the location. Variant spellings of the names of places in primary sources and modern equivalents are noted.
Details on the sources used in reconstructing the known history of individual are standardized so that users can access the exact passages relevant to each individual and the full document, including the complete name and details of the original documentation. If the original source does not have a title, the ID number of the document is entered, the source it was taken from, and the date it was published or otherwise identified. The origin of the digital source is recorded, along with the name of a person or organization that made a significant intellectual contribution to the resource. Also included are the name of the institution that possesses the original collection, the exact date when the original document was created or published, the language in which the original document was written, date at which the digital resource was created, and the type of the resource, such as text, iconography, picture, and the electronic format in which the digital resource is made available (PDF, JPEG). Also entered is information about rights held in and over the resource and a consistent reference to all institutions or administrative unit(s) that contributed to the creation, management, description, and/or dissemination of the digital resource. A general term is used that describes what the original resource is or the format that it takes, such as slave advertisement, newspaper article, book. The number of pages in the document or source is recorded.
Best Practices relies on a methodology that uses Controlled Vocabularies, the fundamental building blocks by which is meant the terms that are used to describe and present data that are carefully defined and applied in the organization of data. Since words and symbols have different meanings in spoken and written language than in a programming language, with particular attention to clear definitions and use vocabularies that are exact and consistent, which are developed as “Controlled Vocabularies.” Otherwise data are not “clean” and cannot be processed by computer algorithms. Controlled Vocabularies are used to enable the development of a database that allows analysis of patterns and facilitates interpretation. In some cases, such as in identifying gender, the Controlled Vocabulary is simple (male, female, unknown). In other cases, the Controlled Vocabulary is relatively straight forward, such as the Controlled Vocabulary for Physical Descriptions (scarification, tattooed, missing limbs, slave branding, yellowish complexion, dark complexion, Poro marks, partially blind, totally blind, smallpox marks, marks of illness). Other Controlled Vocabulary relating to ethnonym, occupation and other details are more complicated and expand as new identifications are found.
The database identifies individuals through a unique identification number FN000000 that allows a potential database of a million people. For purposes of reference, a single name is taken as a primary name, which can be the name as reported in a source, a name that is the result of conversion to Christianity, or a nickname that was used for that person. All alternative names are recorded, so that the database can be searched for any variation. If a name is changed, such as through conversion to Christianity, the change is recorded as an event. Freedom Narratives does not privilege the use of surnames, which is an approach adopted by some databases and the Enslaved hub. We consider the emphasis on surnames to be Eurocentric and reflect a Judeo-Christian tradition and not traditions that derive from the societies of the enslaved themselves. As noted in our distinction between “slave narratives” and “freedom narratives” makes clear, there were two categories of enslaved individuals, first those who were born in Africa and second those who were born in the Americas. Controlled Vocabularies that use a category of identification that is referred to as “surname,” which is most often a Christian nomenclature, and occasionally Jewish, are irrelevant to the vast majority of cases involving enslaved individuals. The identification of surnames may be of use in some cases, admittedly, as in the fact that the enslaved who were able to gain their freedom in the Americas could take the surname of their master/mistress, and in cases of fugitive slaves such reference to individuals through the use of the owner’s name was a means of identification. Baptism in Portuguese and Spanish colonial settings often involved the adoption of surnames, with some variation from practice among the free population. Spanish practice among the free population used the surnames of both the father and mother, with the father’s surname usually coming first. Portuguese nomenclature could refer to other social relationships, not just the preferred surname of the master.
The enslaved who were born in Africa seldom if ever had surnames, at least not before conversion to Christianity. The use of surnames ignores the Muslim component of the enslaved population, wherein Muslims did not use surnames, and it conflates naming practices into an indistinguishable pattern. The insistence on surnames also mistakenly confuses African naming traditions and can incorrectly refer to someone like the individual whose birth name was Olaudah Equiano by the supposed surname, Equiano, when Equiano was not a surname. For Freedom Narratives, the concept of surname is not used. Instead, individuals are identified by a unique identification number (FN000000) and the most common name used in the sources. Variations of names, nicknames, Christian names, variations in spellings are all included under alternate names separated by a semi colon. If the only name that is known is a Christian name, then first and last names are included together, when known, separated by an underscore.
For those who were born into slavery in the Americas or elsewhere other than West Africa, a brief reflection is warranted, even though this is not generally issue for the Freedom Narratives database, unless someone was born outside of West Africa and returned to West Africa and hence comes to the attention of researchers. Individuals in the Americas were given slave names that usually lacked a surname or other designation except in relation to their master/mistress. Such identification is important, of course, and have to be noted, just as Christian names taken at baptism have to.
Names can provide clues to identity when they can be correlated with other factors, such as religion in the case of Muslim names, with days of the week, as in the case of Akan day names, and specific cultures when the meanings of names in a language can be discerned, as in the case of Olaudah Equiano. Attempts to equate names with specific ethnic groups are less certain, despite the attempt of to do so with reference to individuals taken off slave ships by the British Navy in the nineteenth century. With respect to Freedom Narratives, this approach has very limited veracity. Names taken alone can be misleading because of possible similarities in the pronunciation of names that are not otherwise known to be identical in different societies and the uneven filtering of phonetic rendering of names by third parties who do not know the languages and cultural practices of those being attributed with specific origins. The difficulty of relying on names to establish identity is particularly pronounced when a correlation with ethnicity is claimed.
One difficulty of what is known when ethnicity is assumed or assigned relates to the meaning of ethnicity, which in itself is contentious. We argue that references to ethnicity, tribe, etc. usually refer to language. Moreover, even when language is inferred from the reference, it is usually made in a manner that suggests that the individual knew only one language when in fact in most cases we know individuals spoke at least two and often several languages. We lump ethnonyms and language together because it is not usually possible to understand what a source is referring to when ethnicity is claimed. The second problem is that the meaning of ethnicity in the diaspora in the Americas is not equivalent to ethnic designations in Africa. In the Americas, various terms are usually described as “nation” or “country,” whether in Portuguese, Spanish, French or English, which are vague constructs that do not correspond with designations referred to as ethnicity in Africa. Second, “ethnic” terms in the Americas, such as Lucumí in Cuba, Mandingo/Mandinga, Angola, Congo are broad categories that do not correspond to terms in Africa, despite fuzzy links. The possibility exists that individuals were interviewed or responded in Yoruba whether or not they actually also spoke another language and Yoruba was not their mother tongue. When the term is hyphenated with some other designation, such as Hausa, all that can be assumed is that the person so identified spoke at least two languages, Yoruba and Hausa.
Definitions - Regions
As a requirement to linking data of open-source digital projects, it has become necessary to delimit the entire continent of precolonial Africa during the era of the slave trade into broad regions and sub-regions that can allow the grouping of data effectively and meaningfully. The various sub-regions that have been identified apply a template that adheres to Best Practices for the whole African continent which has been published in History in Africa for purposes of promoting scholarly reflection. Freedom Narratives focuses on West Africa, but other regions of Africa are relevant in specific cases. From the perspective of West Africa, the sub-regional designations are identified by a term that can be confused with a modern country or a European colony, and no sub-region has a boundary that is identical to a modern or colonial boundary but to a great extent corresponds to geography and climate. Second, sub-regions have been determined according to historical patterns that characterized the period of the slave trade from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century and reflect political change during these four centuries.
The nine sub-regions that are most relevant to the Freedom Narratives project include the Sahara, the Senegambia basin that extends from the coast where the Senegal and Gambia Rivers enter the Atlantic inland to the source of these rivers in the Fuuta Jalon highlands; the upper Guinea Coast from Casamance to Cape Mount, bound inland by the Fuuta Jallon highlands and the interior of what is now the modern country of Sierra Leone and the headwaters of the Niger River; the Forests of West Africa include the territory inland from what could be called the
Kru coast but stretching from Cape Mount to Grand Bassam and bound in the north by what is referred to as the western savannah, the sub-region that includes the savannah and sahel inland from the Senegambia basin to the middle Niger River basin southwestward from Timbuktu. The Voltaic sub-region incorporates the area east of Grand Bassam to the mouth of the Volta River
and inland to the sources of the two branches of the Volta River. Continuing eastward, the Bight of Benin region includes the area from the Volta River to the eastern Niger River delta and northward to the confluence of the Niger and Benue Rivers and the area east of the Atakora Mountains. The Bight of Biafra hinterland includes the region to the east of the lower Niger
River and south of the Benue River and extending to Cameroon as far as Gabon. Finally, the central savannah sub-region includes the region east of the Niger River below Timbuktu as far as the Lake Chad basin and southward to the Niger-Benue confluence. The fuzziness of some of the boundaries between these sub-regions is an important historical factor. Moreover, movement between and among sub-regions varied and is established in the database through several means, including identification of more specific places, the trade routes that crisscrossed West Africa, and other factors.
Source: Henry B. Lovejoy, Paul E. Lovejoy, Walter Hawthorne, Edward A. Alpers, Mariana Candido, Matthew S. Hopper, “Redefining African Regions for Linking Open-Source Data,” History in Africa 46 (2019), 5-36.
Development of the Project
The project evolved out of several interrelated research agendas that began to collect biographical data from West Africa. The initial inspiration was the collection of essays published by Philip D. Curtin in Africa Remembered: Narratives of West Africans from the Era of Slave Trade (1967).1 Lovejoy’s Ph.D. thesis (1973) was based in part on biographical information on merchants engaged in the long-distance kola nut trade,2 and many of these merchants were of slave descent, although a focus on biography as a source for historical reconstruction in West Africa only attracted Lovejoy’s attention in the mid 1990s.3 Subsequently, several biography projects were undertaken, including studies of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua, Gustavus Vassa (Olaudah Equiano), Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu, Venture Smith, Catherine Mulgrave Zimmermann, and more recently Nicholas Said and Ali Eisami.4 In the course of this growing interest, Lovejoy began to collect biographical accounts, and with the assistance of Silke Strickrodt, Francine Shields, and Femi Kolapo, an extensive amount of material was assembled, although in the era before digitization and databases, the information was arranged in a haphazard fashion.5
The development of Freedom Narratives, therefore, has been a major step forward in the organization of materials for open access and analysis. The database and website include materials that relate to four overlapping categories of sources: 1) scattered materials on individuals from a great variety of sources which are being ingested into the website; 2) Liberated African documentation, especially from the Sierra Leone Public Archives, which has also been shared with the Liberated Africans project, and which includes Registers of Liberated Africans and much other documentation that is mined for incorporation. 3) fugitive slave advertisements, which are housed on a separate website but which are mined for ingestion into www.freedomnarratives.org; and 4) baptismal, marriage and other materials from the Slave Societies Digital Archive. Two of these categories of sources are connected with Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade (www.enslaved.org), which is a linked open data platform for the study and exploration of the historical slave trade centered at the Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University. The material on fugitive slaves will likely be added to this digital hub in the next phase of the Enslaved Project. Hence Freedom Narratives is not only a collaborative project that relies on internal feedback and criticism but is linked to other websites or will be through the Enslaved platform. All materials and metadata in Freedom Narratives are examined by the two directors, and when necessary different opinions and interpretations are discussed more widely to reach consensus.
The Freedom Narratives website initially used Kora, the backend system developed by the Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University. The data were curated using a combination of software including Google Drive, Microsoft Excel, Google Documents and Adobe PDF Pro Reader. Subsequently, Kartikay Chadha developed the Decoding Origins Web Portal (http://decodingorigins.org), which consists of a backend collaborative database built using Structured Query Language (MySQL) and a user friendly interactive platform employing novel algorithms to collect, analyze and cross reference data.
1Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. An early effort to collect biographies of West Africans was Allan D. Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook (New York: Garland, 1984).
2Lovejoy, Caravans of Kola. The Hausa Kola Trade, 1700-1900 (Zaria: Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1980).
3Lovejoy, "Biography as Source Material: Towards a Biographical Archive of Enslaved Africans," in Robin Law (ed.), Source Material for Studying the Slave Trade and the African Diaspora (Stirling: Centre of Commonwealth Studies, University of Stirling, 1997), 119-140; and "Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslim Slaves in Bahia," Slavery and Abolition, 15:2 (1994), 151-80.
4The Biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua: His Passage from Slavery to Freedom in Africa and America (Princeton, Markus Wiener Publisher, 2001), with Robin Law; “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa and the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” Slavery and Abolition, 27:3 (2006), 317-47; “The Arabic Manuscript of Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu of Jamaica, c. 1820,” in Annie Paul, ed., Creole Concerns: Essays in Honour of Kamau Brathwaite (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2007), 313-41, with Yacine Daddi Addoun; “The African Background of Venture Smith,” in James B. Stewart, ed., Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 35-55; “Les origines de Catherine Mulgrave Zimmermann: considérations méthodologiques,” Cahiers des Anneaux de la Mémoire 14 (2011), 247-63; “Mohammed Ali Nicholas Sa’id: From Enslavement to American Civil War Veteran,” Millars (2017), 219-32; “Ali Eisami’s Enslavement and Emancipation: The Trajectory of a Liberated African,” in Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy, eds., Liberated Africans and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807-1896 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2019).
5Silke Strictrodt, “Afro-European Trade Relations on the Western Slave Coast, 16th to 19th Centuries” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Stirling, 2002); Francine Shields, “Palm Oil and Power: Women in an Era of Economic and Social Transition in 19th Century Yorubaland (South-Western Nigeria)” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Stirling, 1997); Femi James Kolapo, “Military Turbulence, Population Displacement and Commerce on a Slaving Frontier of the Sokoto Caliphate: Nupe c.1810-1857 (Ph.D. thesis, York University, 1999).
This page was updated on 06-October-2019
The Freedom Narratives visual-identity is based on 'Redemption Song' by Jamaican artist, Laura Facey, a contemporary sculptor. The figure stands in Emancipation Park in Kingston, Jamaica since it was unveiled on the eve of Emancipation Day, July 31, 2003, The bronze sculpture consists of two nude figures, male and female, who stand in a pool of water, which is part of the monument’s fountain base, and who gaze up to the sky. Facey was inspired by Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" and the lyrics "none but ourselves can free our minds."
Facey outlined her intent in the programme brochure for the unveiling: "My piece is not about ropes, chains or torture; I have gone beyond that. I wanted to create a sculpture that communicates transcendence, reverence, strength and unity through our pro-creators—man and woman—all of which comes when the mind is free".1 The logo was designed by Leonardo Morais. His challenge was to transform Facey's message into a web-graphic format.
Redemption Song, 2003, bronze figures, cast iron dome, 10 & 11 ft. h. Monument at Emancipation Park, Kingston, Jamaica, W.I.Redemption Song, 2003, bronze figures, cast iron dome, 10 & 11 ft. h. Monument at Emancipation Park, Kingston, Jamaica, W.I.
Laura Facey – sculptor
As a sculptor, Laura Facey has worked in bronze, stone and unconventional materials such as Styrofoam, but she is best known for her work in woodcarving. She was one of the first artists in Jamaica to produce assemblage and installation art, often incorporating found objects with carved elements. She was featured in the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Six Options: Gallery Spaces Transformed in 1985, which was the first exhibition of installation art in Jamaica.2 The human body and the land, sea and natural bounty of Jamaica have provided Facey with a range of metaphors to address themes of personal and collective trauma and of spiritual transformation, transcendence and healing.
Facey’s work on the 2003 Emancipation monument marked the start of a sustained thematic interest in the legacy of plantation slavery, as an experience of collective trauma and a defining moment in Jamaican history. Her installation, Their Spirits Gone Before Them (2006), consists of a traditional Jamaican cottonwood dugout canoe resting on a “sea” of sugar cane and in which is mounted 1,357 resin figures (miniatures of the male and female figures of the Redemption Song monument). The work alludes to the Middle Passage as a key moment of trauma and transformation that birthed modern Caribbean society and culture. Their Spirits Gone Before Them was endorsed by UNESCO’s Slave Route Project and has been featured in several exhibitions, such as Facey’s 2014 solo exhibition at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.3
1 National Housing Trust (July 31, 2003). Programme Brochure of Unveiling of Redemption Song.
2 Poupeye, Veerle (1985). "Six Options: Gallery Spaces Transformed". Arts Jamaica. 4: 1&2: 2–8.
3 "The Slave Route". UNESCO. Retrieved April 21, 2018; "Their Spirits". International Slavery Museum. 2014. Retrieved April 21, 2018.
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, Michigan State University
Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and Its Diasporas, York University
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
CERLAC - Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean, York University