Historian Seeks Recognition of Slaves
as People, Not Numbers
February 21, 2000
Although the long sordid history of slavery has been researched, chronicled, and vilified in America for decades, the story of who the people were, where they came from, their ethnicities and their gender has received far less attention, especially in Africa: many of the people caught up in the slave trade were mere numbers.
A new UConn history professor is working to bridge that gap. Ugo Nwokeji, whose research interests turned to the slave trade while he was studying at the University of Toronto, is helping compile a database of more than 80,000 Africans who were rescued from a life of slavery when the ships carrying them to America were diverted by the British Navy to foreign ports and the people taken to British Admiralty Courts and Mixed Commission Courts, in the years after the English parliament banned slavery.
"We know quite a bit about the Atlantic slave trade - the names of the boats, the captains, their crews - but we know so little about the captives themselves," says Nwokeji. "The information we have on the individuals forced into the slave trade is very hazy."
And, although 80,000 names is only a fraction of the estimated 12-15 million Africans sold as slaves, learning who they were and where they were from will help researchers as they continue to sort out what happened in the 1700s and 1800s, Nwokeji says.
"This work is important first because it helps us understand the Atlantic slave trade itself, and because it helps us gain a better background on the African Diaspora," he says. The work also provides a window to the hinterland of precolonial Africa, about which historians know little due to the paucity of written information.
Nwokeji, who comes from Nigeria, began teaching at UConn in September. He earned his doctorate at the University of Toronto and now holds a joint appointment with the Department of History and the Institute for African American Studies. He is also a research associate at the DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University, where the database is being built.
This semester, he is teaching a freshman course in global history, and an upper level special topics course on the slave trade, the largest forced migration in history. Nwokeji hopes the course will give students a framework for understanding the modern Atlantic world. He also will expose them to recent trends in the relevant research, including issues such as ethnicity, culture formation and gender.
The gender issue in the slave trade - why so many women left from ports in the Bight of Biafra - says Nwokeji, is one of the pieces that piqued his interest in the topic.
Several explanations have been offered in explaining why only one in three Africans sent into slavery in the Americas was female. The explanations rest on the female-oriented trans-Saharan slave trade into North Africa, the middle East, and Asia, and on the purported inclination of indiginous slave holders to prefer females. These pressures are said to have ensured that fewer women were available for the Atlantic market.
More recently, some scholars have argued that the proximity to the ports from which captives were sent to the Americas was critical, and that only a few women and children were able to make the long march to the coast from distant regions.
Nwokeji says, however, that the transportation theory has not taken into account that proximity to the coast did not have the same impact in different regions: in the Bight of Biafra, a much higher proportion of women were sent into Atlantic slavery, while in West-Central Africa, where captives were also drawn from areas close to the coast, there were a higher proportion of children.
Nwokeji also downplays the transportation theory because the Aro, a diverse group of ethnic Africans and the prime traders in Africa, felt no compunction about marching slaves hundreds of miles to get them to the port that could effect the fastest turnaround.
Nwokeji now is focusing on the ethnicities of the people on boats intercepted by the British navy, who were required to register by courts, created by the British, when they landed. Those papers, held by the British Public Records Office, should go a long way toward helping Nwokeji and other researchers better understand the big questions - why and how people were enslaved - and toward giving identities to the people victimized by the slave trade.