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History Professor Creates Database of African Genealogy
(Released: 02/20/01)

By Allison Thompson, Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- "Who am I?" It's a question everyone struggles with and one that can be particularly painful for African-Americans. Many who try to find their ancestors are unable to trace their genealogy beyond America's shores because of the shoddy and often non-existent records that were kept during slavery.

G. Ugo Nwokeji, an assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut, is now attempting to help people of African descent form a more clear picture of their collective past. Nwokeji and a fellow researcher are compiling a database of information about more than 80,000 Africans who were rescued from slavery when the ships carrying them were diverted to foreign ports by the British Navy in the years after the British parliament banned slavery.

Though the people were spared a life of slavery, many of them ultimately came to the Americas as indentured servants, bound by contract to a specific term of unfree labor. Others were settled in Sierra Leone.

"Many of the Africans are the ancestors of peoples of African descent living in the Americas today," he says.

Between 1819 and 1845, the British Admiralty Courts and Mixed Commission Courts in Sierra Leone and Havana processed more than 67,000 people from several hundred vessels which had been intercepted by the British Navy. Each individual was asked to provide their name, age and lace of residence. The court added each person's height, sex and most obvious physical mark to the description, which was recorded in the Registers of Liberated Africans.

"Despite the fact that the practice of recording place of habitation was quickly discontinued, the new data provide a solid basis for identifying ethnicity with minimal non-African mediation between the historical subject and the historian," Nwokeji says.

In "Characteristics of Captives Leaving the Cameroons for the Americas, 1822-1837," which will be published in a future issue of the Journal of African History, Nwokeji and co-author David Eltis examine six slave vessels that left the Cameroons River and Bimbia and were diverted to Sierra Leone. More than 1,000 people were freed from the six ships and recorded in the registers. Of those, Nwokeji and Eltis were able to assign ethnic identification to 987.

In Cameroon, most of the slaves came from the western highlands and the sloping coastal plain running west from the Wouri estuary. Four groups -- Tikari, Douala-Bimbia, Banyangi and Bakossi -- accounted for 62 percent of the people carried out of the River and from Bimbia in these years. The Tikari and Banyangi were the highlands people who lost more of their members to the Atlantic slave trade than other surrounding communities.

"It is immediately apparent that the provenance of the slave trade was highly concentrated," Nwokeji and Eltis write. "All of these peoples lived in a relatively small area of present day Western Cameroon located roughly in the south-western 'bulge' of the country, immediately adjacent to the present border with Nigeria, part forest, part grassland."

Nwokeji and Eltis also found that, on average, each captive's homeland was just under 106 miles from the departure point. The vessels tended to carry fewer males and more children than those leaving other regions, they write.

Though the number of captives Nwokeji and Eltis studied is a fraction of the estimated 12 to 15 million Africans sold to the Americas, learning who they are and where they come from will help researchers and the general public as they continue to sort out what happened during the almost four centuries of the slave trade.

"This work is important because it helps us understand the Atlantic slave trade itself, and because it helps us to better understand the African Diaspora," Nwokeji says.

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