Africans and Their Descendants in the Americas: Restoring the Links Using Historical Documents and Databases

Powerpoint Presentation of this Lecture


Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, PhD, Professor Emerita, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall:
One thing I have learned is how much we need each other, not just scholars and community, but scholars in various fields. When we reach stumbling blocks, we can look to our colleagues in other fields to help us overcome them. It works from genetics to history and from history to genetics and genealogy, and that's very exciting. Fundamentally, we are, to a great extent, one people, and we want to know who we are, all of us.
I understand the concerns of the gentleman from Nigeria (please ADD his name if possible) who spoke this morning. But I want to give a slightly different emphasis to what he said. He's looking at ethnicity from the point of view of an African who's very much concerned about the sharpening ethnic conflicts in Africa, a result of using constructed ethnicities in Africa to tear the continent apart. Anyone who has followed current events in the last decade or more, can realize what a very moving and vital problem this is. But on the other hand, the thirst of African Americans to know who their ancestors were is very important because everybody longs to know their history. If we don't know our real history, we will create myths about our past. But we simply go beyond the generic African in order to learn who we are, if not genetically, then culturally. And that includes all Americans. From the African side (I note that most of my experience has been in Senegal), there's also a thirst to know where their descendents went and where their descendents are in the Americas.

When I first went to Senegal with my database, there were people there who said, 'but that's my name.' Some of them felt a sense of unity with their descendents and family members who were brought to the Americas in chains. These studies are not going to solve everybody's problems. Nevertheless, the fact that there's so much interest in African American genealogy shows that there is this thirst. It's a good thing that scholarship is trying to satisfy these longings and this can be very useful in many ways, including economics: the question of reparations, for example.
There are many myths. Many people feel we can't know much about the ancestors of African Americans because they were slaves: that there is a blank in the past that other people do not suffer from. The truth is that slaves were probably better documented than free people. There's more detail about slaves listed in documents than about free people. Why is this?

Audience Member:

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall:
Property, yes that's the word, absolutely. When you buy a house, you want to prove that this house belongs to you. When you buy a car, you've got a title to that car. It describes the car, says what kind of car it is, the serial number, and its year. The truth is that slaves were dealt with the same way. When you go back to look at historical documents, you will find extremely detailed descriptions of slaves--their names, their ages, their family relationships, and even their African ethnicity.

I'm going to be showing you the database I developed over 15-years. I became really fascinated by documents I discovered in Louisiana because, first of all, they were not supposed to exist and no one had ever looked at them before. I began to see that when slaves were described in documents, they were sometimes asked, 'What is your nation?' They would reply with various African ethnic designations. I knew some of this material is in Latin American documents but I had never seen anything like that in US documents before. So I got hooked. It was so dense and complicated that I started a database in 1984 at a time when historical databases were not exactly the thing to do.

Let me just show you some pictures. This is me in the St. Charles Parish courthouse in Louisiana. You see the size of these volumes, and you look at the shelves behind me. There are a whole bunch of volumes containing endless information about slaves. When a master died, they would list and describe all of this master's property. They would describe his house, his land, his tools, his furniture and his slaves, one by one. When slaves were sold, either singly or in groups, they would describe the slave, and they would describe a lot of the characteristics of the slave, too. In all of these cases, they would describe not just their origins or where they were born, their ethnicity; they would describe their gender, age, family relationships, prices, skills, illnesses, and their character as perceived by the master, including their propensity to run away. There are hundreds of examples of detailed testimony by recaptured runaways and by people involved in conspiracies and revolts against slavery.

This is a picture of a document about slavery advertised on eBay for an estimated $2000 to $3000 for just a few pages about some slaves. This is how I got the state of Louisiana to be concerned about these documents. They had been sitting in these courthouses for 200 years or more neglected and ignored. In some courthouses, I found them sitting near radiators. After I pointed out how valuable these documents were financially, not just historically, then the state of Louisiana took interest in them. The state archivist got money from the state legislature to microfilm all of them, and hopefully, they'll be doing something to preserve them as well.

This is an inventory of the property of a dead master in St. Charles Parish. It is hand-written in French and is unusually clear and legible. Magdalene is described as a black woman - in French it's negress. This is giving you her racial designation. She would have been described as a mulatress, if she was a mulatto or racially mixed. She was about 30 years old. She was born in Martinique. She is described as a runaway by profession. This description is under character traits. Slaves are often described as runaways, and a lot of women are described as runaways. Most historians will say, the men ran away, but the women very rarely ran - not true. Her price was 300 piastre: about 60% of the normal price for female slaves of her age. That tells us that she was not just a runaway, but she was a very effective runaway because it lowered her estimated price.

This is a listing of a woman named Fannie. She is described as of the Senegal nation, meaning Wolof. She's 24 years old. Her skill is a little bit of a cook. She has a black Creole son named Honoré. This little entry is telling us a lot. It is telling us her ethnicity or her ethnic designation normally identified by the enslaved people themselves, not the master or the slave trader. When slaves were newly sold in Louisiana, their ethnicities were rarely given, but years later, when their masters died, many more ethnicities were identified. I have seen documents that said, 'we don't know her nation because she doesn't know it.' So in other words, they asked her and she didn't know what her nation was. There was one document that said: 'We are selling these two black men. They say they are Bambara,' so the slaves were identifying their own nation. We see that Fannie's son is described as a Creole. This means that he was born in Louisiana. Whenever a slave is described as a Creole, that's what it means, that they were descended from Africans but born in Louisiana. Almost invariably, the word Creole in the 18th century meant black folks or mixed bloods and not whites. So the way the word Creole was used changed over time. Today, many Creoles insist that it means they were mixed-blood former free and that their ancestors were freed under slavery. Some elite whites in Louisiana insist that Creole meant pure white. But that was not how it was used, at least not in the 18th century.

Let's talk about Goton, which has been identified as an African name. There are a great number and variety of African names in this database. This woman was a Louisiana Creole, 40 years old and her skills are described as cook and laundress and her price is very high. Under slavery, a woman who was 40 was considered old and as slaves got to that age, their prices dropped sharply. But in her case, her price is higher than younger women. Why do you suppose that's the case? Skill, and a particular skill - cooking. Louisiana cooking is still famous, right. You start tracing that cooking back, and you'll see that a lot of the cooks under slavery came from the Senegal area, where there were rice and seafood dishes. Take gumbo, for example. Anybody know what gumbo means in Africa? It means okra, in Senegal.

These are some documents I found in France. It's a list of male slaves loaded aboard a ship in Gorée, and it gives you their names, their ages and what they call defects. For this woman, the defect was a nursing child at the breast. You see that most of the defects listed for women are actually those with nursing babies. Let me tell you how much data is in here. Including Atlantic slave-trade voyages, there are well over a hundred thousand descriptions of individual slaves in the Louisiana slave database, and that includes every slave described in every document through 1820. Among these, about 30,000 gave the place of birth of the slave. Most of them were born in Africa and among the Africans, about 9,000 gave identifiable African ethnicities. From this information, I chose the 18 most frequent African ethnicities listed in the Louisiana documents and traced them back to the region of Africa they came from.
Many people think that Africans were deliberately mixed up so they couldn't talk to each other and couldn't conspire to revolt. Many people think that there were so many hundreds and hundreds of ethnicities and languages spoken in Africa that Africans couldn't communicate with each other. They were brought in a random way and they could therefore not bring along with them any elements of language or culture. It's not true. If you look at documents in the Americas, you will see that there were at most 10 African ethnic designations among most of the Africans brought to the Americas over the entire period of slavery. If we include those brought to Spain and Portugal before ending up in the Americas, we are talking about between the 1440s and the 1860's. That is a long time and many places, and this supposed extensive fragmentation does not exist.

Africans were brought to particular places in the Americas in groups who could speak to and communicate with each other. There were various reasons why they were brought in a clustered fashion, rather than a fragmented fashion. One of the reasons has to do with the winds and tides. There was the South Atlantic trade system. Portugal settled Brazil and it was a major slave plantation area, and a lot of the slaves from below the Congo River and all the way through Mozambique in East Africa were brought directly to Brazil--a comparatively short ocean voyage.

Africans north of the Congo River, mainly people who were Congo language group speakers, were brought to the Caribbean and to the United States. There is overlap, of course, but the preponderant pattern was to cluster BaCongo speakers in the Caribbean and the United States. Angolans spoke West Bantu and Macuas spoke East Bantu languages. Bantu language speakers were brought overwhelmingly to Brazil, and this was true throughout the entire long period of slavery. Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Sierra Leone were closest to the Caribbean and to the United States, and the voyage was much more swift. In fact, the voyage was short enough and ships didn't cost so much in those days that many masters decided, 'I'd like slaves from this particular region. I'll send me a ship over there and buy them.' Many of these didn't show up in slave trade documents.
There has been a very important database published called the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. It lists about 27,000 slave trade voyages, and it concludes that not nearly as many voyages came from the Senegal/Upper Guinea area as from other parts of West Africa. This conclusion is false. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database was collected mainly from large centralized archives in Europe and they dealt with large, commercial voyages. But there were little voyages that went to the nearest parts of Africa and chose Africans who were preferred by certain planters from certain regions and brought them to the Americas. The Africans from Senegal were highly prized in many places in the Americas, and this was another reason why there was a clustering. This is one of the things I'm very interested in with these genetic studies. Thus far, they show that a lot of African Americans in the United States have ancestors from Senegal and Upper Guinea.

Africans from Senegal came earliest to the Americas. Throughout the 1500's into the 1600's, these were the main Africans brought. Once an African culture was established, including on plantations, the masters wanted to bring in people who their existing slave force could communicate with, talk to and socialize into how they were supposed to behave in this new environment. Africans from the same places were brought in to particular regions over many, many decades, even centuries.

In general, European slave traders preferred to buy men. The overall pattern is 2/3 male to 1/3 female, but it varied according to ethnicity. In Louisiana, there were certain ethnicities that had a higher proportion of females. Fon Arada were 52% female. Senegal's Wolof were about 40% female. Ibo: 55% female. These were the ethnicities whose women were most likely to marry and were most likely to have children. The Congo slaves were 31% female and 69% male. Let me say something about the Congo from West Central Africa. One of the speakers said that Congolese were 40% of the Africans brought to the Americas. That's telling us something but not everything. The Congo slaves were roughly 1/3 women. The Congo women had very few children. It may be that they knew methods of birth control and abortion and practiced them. Given the shortage of women, they were in a better bargaining position to choose their own mates. A disproportionate number had relationships with white men who freed their children.

The listing of Congo is a very broad, general term. The English would call them all Angola, even though they were very likely BaCongo language group speakers. The French and the Spanish, referred to them all as Congo. Apparently the Africans from these regions were not very eager to correct them and say, I'm really a Teke, or I'm really a Vili. Every now and then, you see these terms, but 97% of the time, the West Central Africans are listed in Louisiana simply as Congo. Even though the Congo women had very few children, after the United States took over in Louisiana, the Congo became quite numerous, especially in New Orleans.

In the early stages of the slave trade to Louisiana, people were almost entirely from Senegal and Guinea. There was a rice industry in Louisiana. The Africans from that region introduced rice and indigo cultivation. They knew how to do it. The captains of the first slave-trade voyages that brought slaves to Louisiana were instructed to bring Africans who knew how to cultivate rice and rice for seeding. It is clear-cut that this is how that African technology was introduced. I made a study of all of the Americans where rice was grown, and there is very high percentage of Atlantic slave-trade ships coming from Senegal and Upper Guinea to these regions, much higher than one would expect. This is one of the factors in clustering Africans: technology transfer from Africa.

This graph shows the origins of Louisiana slaves over time. If you look at 1770, you see that the Creole slaves, those born in Louisiana, are substantially higher in proportion than the Africans. Then by the 1780's, the African slave trade spurted forward, so you have a very high, growing proportion of African-born slaves during the 1780's and 1790's. Then gradually, the Creoles started catching up with the Africans as the Atlantic slave trade tapered off. By 1810, you see that the Creoles are almost equal to the numbers of Africans. In theory, the Atlantic slave trade became illegal in 1804 in Louisiana and in 1808 throughout the United States. Don't believe it. The Africans from certain ethnicities were not getting any older. So over a 20-year period, they had pretty much the same mean age. Now either they had found a fountain of youth or else new, young Africans were being introduced, in spite of the fact that the slave trade had become illegal..

This chart compares Africans coming from certain regions by location, and it's showing you that Africans were clustered, not only within certain colonies but they were clustered regionally. Orleans Parish was primarily urban and it had a high percentage of Central Africans and a comparatively low percentage of Africans from the Bight of Benin. In the rural parishes, there is a much higher percentage of Africans from the Bight of Benin and a lower percentage of Africans from West Central Africa. I think the reason is the same one I gave you before, that Africans from the Bight of Benin were known, people were used to them and they preferred them in rural parishes. This also runs counter to the idea that African communities were deliberately fragmented. You can see that not only were they brought to particular places in waves, from the same parts of Africa but once they got there, they were redistributed so that they were even more clustered by region.

This graph shows how West Central Africans increased in proportion after 1805 when the Americans had taken over. They took over at the end of 1803, and this was when the British had taken over West Central African trading posts, particularly Cabinda, from the French. The British were sending large numbers of Congo slaves to everywhere in the Americas. Instead of just adding up the regions of Africa from which slaves arrived and collapsing time, one must look at the slave trade over time for the wave patterns.

This is a copy of the journal of the American Bar Association. It was I think, November of 2000, and this is a picture of Percy Pierre. Percy Pierre is a very prominent electrical engineering professor at Michigan State University. He was vice president in charge of research there for a long time, and now he's gone back to his department. It turns out that he found the African ethnicity of his ancestor on my database. She was listed as a Macua from Mozambique, East Africa. He has traced his ancestry all the way back. The cover asks, does he have a case for redress? Many lawyers don't know a darned thing about history. Some argue against reparations because we can't know anything about these people, that we must know specific people who have been injured by specific other people in order to have a plaintiff and a defend to seek legal redress. Well, the truth is, there are many documents about slavery. Percy Pierre has said, 'I can calculate precisely what was the value of the unpaid labor of my ancestors.'
Here is a manumission document. This is a black woman, Creole, 25 years old who bought her own freedom and the freedom of her two little daughters for 465 piastres. Somebody's going to trace their ancestry back to this woman and say, "my ancestor paid 465 piastres for her freedom in 179-something, and she paid it to this particular woman. Now this woman's descendants have a lot of money and I want my money back."

These databases came out on a compact disk, which LSU Press published in the year 2000. Many people had trouble using the database so a Web Site called has posted them with a search engine. If you want to access all of the Ibo slaves in the database, for example, you can click on them, then you click on each name and it gives you all of the details of each of these Ibo slaves. If you want to find an ancestor of yours and you know who the master was and the person's name, you can type in the name of the master followed by a little *, and then even if it's spelled approximately that way, it will access this master. You can, if you wish, type in the name of this person's slave, and it will come up with just this information. Or if you want to know all of the slaves owned by this master, or if you want to know who sold slaves, how many did they sell, it will be full of surprises. You can find out who the biggest slave sellers were in Louisiana through 1820. Some of them sold up to a thousand slaves, and the database supplies details about every slave they sold, by name. You click on the names of the slaves, and it gives you, not everything that's in the database, but a whole lot of information about them. The web site is free. If you want to get the entire database, if you want to make calculations on it, you can download whatever files you want. There are SPSS files with which you can make calculations. If you want to use this search engine, which is easy, you don't have to download anything. But if you want the free database, which is giving you manumission documents through 1820, and there are over 4000 cases of people who were freed before 1821 while slavery still existed, you can download that too.

I know there's been some discussion of making money and proprietary interests, but to me, I feel that research is something that is done for the benefit of mankind and womankind. We can get stuck in proprietary interests which will clog and kill research, and this would be a terrible thing. This is why I've made my databases available free of charge. I don't collect royalties on this WEBSITE.. I did collect royalties for a little while on the compact disk, but I just gave up on it because it was too difficult for too many people to use. So now it's widely available. You can log onto it from your computer. If you have people who you think might have any ancestors that might have lived in Louisiana, help yourself.
The Web site is: "laslave" stands for Louisiana slaves.