History Professor Creates Database of African Genealogy
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
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
"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
February 2001 Releases