Map of African ethnicities prominent in North America and the Caribbean, 1500-1900. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, "Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas; Restoring the Links." (2005)

The study of African ethnicities, or “nations,” is a problematic exercise. The term itself is ambiguous, suggesting the difficulty of determining where a particular individual came from in Africa before being captured, enslaved, and transported across the Atlantic. Ship records typically mention only the African port where slaves were first purchased, ignoring the actual place of origin likely located in the interior of the continent. In the colonies, nation labels were used by colonists as a pseudo-scientific system to superficially assign particular qualities, skills and temperaments to different groups Africans for the purpose of buying and selling them. For example,  Moreau de Saint-Méry catalogued how the Senegalese were thought to  be “grands et bienfaits…il est cultivateur, intelligent, bon, fidèle…excellent domestique”; in contrast, the Mondongues are known to “manger leurs semblables…on les reconnait à leurs dents incisives.” Such fantastical typecasting does not offer much to the study of historical African identities, the nation labels themselves are generally the only bit of information preserved on record that connects individuals, however tenuously, to their homes and pre-subjugation identities. This duality prompts several questions: since these labels are being used by owners, to what extent if at all are they an accurate representation of the way African men and women perceived and categorized their own identities? Were these group identities constant over time, geographically defined, or based on linguistic categories? Is it possible to analyze the distinct cultural and historical attributes of different nations and the role they played in diaspora community in Saint Domingue?

These are not new questions. As Gwendolyn Midlo Hall writes, “the meanings of these ‘nations’ recorded in American documents are not obvious. There is no detailed, existing body of knowledge about historical African ethnicities either in Africa or in the Americas. Ethnic designations and identities changed on both sides of the Atlantic during the 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade.” However, the nation labels featured in many runaway slave advertisements are considerably varied and detailed. This suggests that enslaved Africans themselves were identifying each other using these terms. When these records can be in turn matched to ship voyage manifests, it becomes possible to understand how nation labels were used.

Of the runaway slave advertisements included in the Marronnage database, 130 records can be explicitly linked to ship manifest records that identify the port of origin of the individual slave. These matched records correspond to a total of 205 individual men and women. The largest nation groups represented are Congo, Nago, Arada, Ibo, Mozambique, Aoussa, Cotocoly and Mondongue.

This information can be broken down further to examine the connection between a particular nation label and a port or region of African origin.

In the case of the Congo nation, for example, the majority of the ports of origin are identified in the Voyages database as West Central Africa sites of trade. This corresponds well with the traditional understanding of the Congo by European traders, a large category that as Jean Fouchard observes dominates the phenomenon of marronnage. This 18th century map, hosted by Northwestern University, shows the kingdom of Congo on the west coast of southern Africa.


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