Friday, 9 September 2011

Database of Virginian Slave Names

"Scholars at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond have set out to leaf through eight million documents dating back to the 17th century, seeking the names of slaves."


It seems incredible, in this time when genealogy is so popular, that research into the identities of slaves hasn't been done already.  Liverpool was one point of the infamous slavery triangle, the other two being Africa and New York.  Ships from Africa would arrive at Liverpool to sell their human cargo and restock for the long haul to New York.  Ships from New York would arrive in Liverpool, sell cotton and similar crops raised on American plantations by slaves, then  to prepare to sail for Africa where they'd barter for more slaves to re-stock the workforce.

Not all the slaves were black.  Many Scots and Irish people were sold as slaves by English magistrates.  Those people caught up in the Highland Clearances and the Potato Famine didn't just disappear; they found themselves in chains on ships destined for Australia or America.

Liverpool now houses the International Museum of Slavery,  which offers a wealth of information about this city's historical role but also about modern slavery.  What, you thought it was all over?  Hardly. 

Emerging information about African slaves is of interest to Richard, as his great-grandfather left his native Sierra Leone to study Law in England. He already spoke English fluently before leaving Africa.  His family's wealth had its origins in slavery.  His was one of the black African families who sold fellow Africans to the European slave merchants.  He was an elderly man when Richard was just a small boy, and Richard remembers him as being a very tall, powerfully-built man with huge hands and a deep, booming laugh.  He married an Irish lady with flame-red hair.

His African name is unknown.  He called himself Christopher, after Christ.  His surname of Golly was lifted off the brand of jam as he thought it sounded amusingly English, as with the old-fashioned phrase "by golly!"  The racial connotation was unknown to him before he came to England.

But this is as far back as Richard's family history research has gone.  Everything about his great-grandfather's African life seems lost.   Richard can remember his childhood home being decorated with carved African masks, spears and shields, and objects relating to voodoo, which his great-grandfather and grandfather allegedly practised.

It's a story which is repeated for hundreds of thousands of families of African descent.  So every new piece of the jigsaw, such as with the Virginian archives, will surely be widely welcomed.

Access the database:

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