Slave names launch journey with new database

Janai’s number was 4390. He was 22 when he was captured, and his body bore no marks.

No. 4391 was 23-year-old Adoo. Tattoos flecked his arms and back. A series of cuts covered the cheeks, back and belly of Kootie, No. 4404. Whether the scars were the result of ritual or battle is unclear.

Remarkably, of the more than 12 million Africans ensnared in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a brutal venture where people lost their birth names and tribal origins in the span of an ocean voyage, these men’s names survive, as do those of almost 70,000 African men, women and children. Scholars believe the names are keys to solving a mystery that has confounded historians and amateur genealogists alike for centuries: Who exactly were all those African slaves who helped transform South, Central and North America and where did they originally come from?

An ambitious international research project based at Emory University is well on its way to solving that puzzle.

The project, which officially launches to the public this month, is called “African Origins.” It is part of a much larger, interactive public database called “Voyages” that tracks close to 35,000 slave ship voyages between the early 1500s and 1866 from African ports to docks throughout the Americas. Using nearly $650,000 in grant money from the National Endowment for the Humanities, researchers have built the database using frail, sepia-toned court documents, ship manifests, diaries, church records, newspaper articles and corporate ledgers.

Until now, most of this data was available only to scholars willing to travel to countries and cities such as Sierra Leone, Cuba, London or Liverpool, where records of the trade are kept.

Its creators call it a “virtual memorial” to those who died on the journey. But they hope it becomes not simply a tool for researchers, but for high school teachers and students, amateur history buffs, even genealogists interested in an event that fundamentally shaped the modern Americas.

“Before we had a limited narrative,” said Jane Landers, a noted scholar on the slave trade and history professor at Vanderbilt University. “This is a big incremental step in terms of making these records available to the public.”

A clue to identities

Within the database is information such as the number of slaves per ship, the names of the actual slave vessels and their captains, as well as the names of ship owners and their companies.

A user can track the flow of ships by century, seeing, for example, that throughout the trade the majority of Africans didn’t land on the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf regions of the United States, but were shipped to the Caribbean, including Cuba and throughout South America, especially Brazil. Or that prior to 1820, for every European woman who crossed the Atlantic to live in the New World, eight or nine African women made the same journey.

“The records for enslaved Africans is actually better than those for Europeans,” said David Eltis, lead researcher and Emory history professor. “The Africans were human commodities and any commodity produces good records.”

What’s missing are the true identities of the human cargo. But several years ago, researchers who would later work together to form the Origins project got their first clue.

In the British National Archives were documents from maritime courts established in the early 1800s after Great Britain abolished its slave trade. Those courts, set up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and other locations, were where outlaw slave ships that flouted the new law were taken by British naval vessels enforcing the abolition order. The would-be slaves were taken off the ship, and their African names, ages and identifying traits were recorded in ledgers before they were released. The hope was that by writing down their names, they would not later be recaptured and placed back into bondage.

Roughly two years ago, companion ledgers were found in Freetown, Eltis said. Scholars gathered more than 67,000 names from those ledgers. They made audio recordings of each and placed them on the Origins website, where a visitor can now click on a name, such as Janai or Adoo, and hear two pronunciations of each name.

A long shot?

Because the website is accessible to the general public, the Origins team is hopeful that people familiar with those names will contact them with any information about the roots of the names. By studying that information, researchers hope to achieve the elusive goal of determining what specific tribes and villages the slaves belonged to before capture. Unlike a crowd-sourcing site like Wikipedia, all contributions will be vetted by a board of academics from around the globe.

Even so, to some that seems the very definition of a long shot.

“It may not be in the realm of the impossible, but this is pretty ambitious because some of it involves guesswork,” said Patricia Williams Lessane, executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. “It’s not simple work. You have to be creative to find these missing pieces about slavery.”

Still, the names are valuable clues, said Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson, a doctoral student at Emory who is part of the Origins team. “For most people, the names in the Origins project are just names on a sheet of paper. But for someone like myself, they spring to life.”

‘Hiding in plain sight’

Though he lives in Buford now with his wife Latrisa, DeGraft-Hanson is originally from Ghana and is part of the Akan ethnic group.

“African names are geocentric, meaning they are tied to a place and most are imbued with meaning,” he said. “For example, if you ask a Nigerian what his name is, he’ll tell you what it means. So those names are coded. It doesn’t matter if the name was given a year ago or 200 years ago, it means the same.”

Which is where the project has the potential to help African-Americans in search of their own African roots. If a person has a name that has been passed down for generations, that could be a starting point. DeGraft-Hanson and his family know this firsthand.

Years ago on a visit to her family home in Bamberg, S.C., Latrisa listened to a great uncle who told a story about his great-grandfather named Cudjoe Kizer. The name Cudjoe struck Kwesi because it is a variation of the name Kojo, an Akan name meaning a male child born on a Monday.

“What that suggests to me is somebody knew what they were doing when he was named,” DeGraft-Hanson said. “Even now, some of the names will survive. A lot of this information is hiding in plain sight.”

The DeGraft-Hansons also named their son, Kojo, who is now 23. It is a name that also appears in various forms on the Origins website. For Latrisa, the name is a first step in a long journey to discover her ancestry.

“Whatever couldn’t be taken was deliberate in usage,” she said. “Our ancestors were trying to give us pieces of the story.”