African Origins Project

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In January 2009 the directors of the project to create Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database began the African Origins Project, a scholar-public collaborative endeavor to trace the geographic origins of Africans transported in the transatlantic slave trade. African Origins seeks the help of members of the African diaspora, Africans, scholars, and others to identify the likely origins of these liberated Africans and thus begin to trace the migration histories of other Africans transported across the Atlantic during the 19th century suppression of the slave trade. Those with knowledge of African languages, cultural naming practices, and ethnic groups will assist in identifying these Africans’ origins by drawing on their own expertise to identify the likely ethno-linguistic origin of an individual’s name.

The African Origins Project arose directly from the work of G. Ugo Nwokeji and David Eltis, who in 2002 used audio recordings of names found in Courts of Mixed Commission records for Havana, Cuba, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, to identify likely ethno-linguistic origins. The names in these recordings were pronounced by speakers of the same language and accent that the Courts of Mixed Commission registrars would likely have had (e.g., if the name was written in a Havana register, Eltis and Nwokeji had the name pronounced by a Spanish speaker with a Havana accent). This helped connect the sound of the name to its spelling and thus enabled a more accurate assessment of the name’s possible ethnic origins than provided by its written counterpart alone.

Eltis and Nwokeji played these recordings to informants in Nigeria and to members of the African diaspora in parts of North America, who were able to identify through these pronunciations the likely ethnic group from which the name derived. Such one-on-one research with informants, though successful, proved highly time consuming and yielded little more than two identifications for each African in their dataset, and led to the pursuit of an online method of broadly soliciting volunteers to assist with this project.

View digitized images of the first pages of the Sierra Leone and Cuba Courts of Mixed Commission registers, from which the information on these Africans was drawn. An earlier database drawn from these sources called the African names database is available on the downloads page of this site. It contains data on stature that are not available on African-Origins. Information on liberated Africans and registers of the Courts of Mixed Commission may also be found in the Glossary. For more information about the African Origins Project and opportunities to participate, please visit http://www.african-origins.org.

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