Between Oceans and Continents: The Registers of Slaves and Liberated Africans from Mozambique, 1850sPublic Project active 12 months ago
In the nineteenth century, Mozambique, in southeast Africa, emerged as an important source of slaves for societies located in places as distant as Cuba and Indonesia. As anti-slave trade forces suppressed the traffic along the coast of West Africa, slave traders sought for alternative sources of captives in previously underexplored regions. Mozambique emerged as an ideal place. Not only was it situated in a relatively remote region, far beyond the center of the suppression campaign, as it already counted with pre-existing commercial networks linking the interior to the coast. But who were these slaves? From where did they come? What happened to them? And what was their impact on their host societies? This project seeks to address these issues by building a database of Africans listed in the registers of slaves and liberated Africans from Mozambique between the 1850s and 1870s.
In 1854, the Portuguese government ordered the registration of all slaves living in its territories in Africa, including Mozambique. Owners who failed to register their slaves would lose their right over their human property and the individuals in question would be listed in a register of liberated Africans. These documents offer a unique snapshot of the enslaved population of Mozambique during the period of reorientation of the slave trade from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. They were organized in books printed in Lisbon and dispatched to the several districts of the province for completion by local officials and inspectors. Each book has a set number of columns providing specific information about the individuals listed, such as their names, their owners’ names, and their age, sex, origin, and physical description (height, skin color, body marks, etc.).
I have recently returned from a conference trip to Maputo, the country’s capital, where I was able to visit the Historical Archive of Mozambique. I have located a couple of copies of these registers and, after talking to the archivists, they assured me that there are many more copies available. However, as it happens to many African archives, since independence and the period of civil war, the Historical Archive of Mozambique is undergoing a process of reorganization. Consequently, several of the registers have yet to be catalogued. The Resilient Digital Humanities Jump-Start Grant will provide me with the opportunity to visit the archive for an extended period of time to locate the remaining copies of the registers, make digital copies of them, and subsequently work with graduate students to build the database. This phase of the project will culminate with paper presentations at major conferences, like those of the American Historical Association and the African Studies Association, as well as publications in peer-reviewed journals such as Slavery & Abolition and the Journal of African History. Once the database is completed, additional funding will be sought to create a website to host the database and allow the public to explore the information contained therein through interactive maps, graphs, and tables.