Researchers at York University’s SHADD Biographies Project are on the eve of unveiling a massive database that digs deep into the narrative of African slavery. The project, funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC) and named after Canadian abolitionist Mary Ann Shadd, is a comprehensive collaborative effort by historians to collect, transcribe and publish the autobiographical testimonies of West Africans from the era of the slave trade, spanning two centuries. In many cases, this information is not available anywhere else.
Available free to the public this summer, the project will provide original material alongside first-hand narratives − collected accounts of those who were born into slavery as well as those who were kidnapped and sold into slavery, uprooted from their families and forced into a trans-Atlantic move.
Project Director Paul Lovejoy, a Distinguished Research Professor at York and formerly Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History, joined forces with fellow Historian Sean Kelley from the University of Essex, United Kingdom, and began the project in 2013. With more than 30 books on African history and African diaspora history, Lovejoy’s contribution to this area of scholarship is vast, making him the ideal historian to undertake the project.
“We did this to prove that this history is recoverable and still relevant,” Lovejoy says. “We need to know what happened in the past so we can go on and have a much better future.”
“If we ignore racism, then we’re doomed to continue to live in a racist society that will continue to find ways to reinvent racism.” – Paul Lovejoy
Project offers verbatim voices of those enslaved
The SHADD Project is a massive undertaking by sheer numbers alone. In his seminal 1989 article, “The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Africa” in the Journal of African History 30, Lovejoy estimated that 11,863,000 slaves were shipped across the Atlantic from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Unlike other biography-based databases, the SHADD Project focuses only on individuals who were born in West Africa from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and the emphasis is on testimony – the genuine, verbatim voices of Africans, some translated from French, Portuguese and African languages. This also includes Arabic documents written by African Muslim slaves in diaspora living in Brazil, Jamaica and elsewhere.
“There’s no substitute for understanding the details of an individual’s life.” – Paul Lovejoy
How did researchers approach this massive task?
Lovejoy’s information-gathering methods were diverse. Some stories were found wholesale. Some were pieced together from historical records. Some information was gained from court records and emancipation papers.
When studying any kind of history and in particular the history of slavery or racism, Lovejoy emphasizes the value of a first-hand story: “There’s no substitute for understanding the details of an individual’s life,” Lovejoy underscores.
He also stresses that while slavery is usually seen as something that results in a person’s social death or something in which a people’s past is denied (through renaming) and effectively ignored, these records prove the contrary. “Despite this attempt to silence people and their past, we do know a lot about individuals in slavery, what they suffered during slavery,” says Lovejoy.
In his own words: Ofodobendo Wooma, renamed Andrew the Moor
For example, as a boy living on the west coast of Africa around Nigeria, Ofodobendo Wooma was enslaved. His remarkable story in chronicled in the SHADD project (abridged for the purpose of this article).
I, Andrew the Moor, was born in Iboland, in the unknown part of Africa. My name is Ofodobendo Wooma. My father died when I was about 8 years old, and my brother took me to live with him. He borrowed 2 goats from a man for 2 years and gave me to him as security. [That man] sold me to another after a year’s time. For a short time I was often bought and sold again, and came from one nation to another. […] I was taken into a vessel with a number of others whose language I did not understand. That made me very sad until I came across a girl from my region who comforted me very much. The first 3 or 4 days they gave me nothing to drink and nothing to eat except pork, which in my country it is forbidden to eat; whoever eats pork, the others hate and shun him as a very wicked man. We were brought to the coast of Guinea; the girl and I kept together there and awaited what was going to happen to us. […] One morning we were terribly frightened because we saw 2 white people coming toward us. We though sure they were devils who wanted to take us, because we had never before seen a white man and never in our lives heard that such men existed. One of them, the captain of a ship, signaled us that we should follow him, which we did with great apprehension and were brought to a ship. We were brought to Antigua where I was sold with some 30 others to a captain from N York, who sold me in N York [to a man] who named me York. That was the year 1741, and at that time I was about 12 years old.
Need to learn from history, otherwise, it repeats
The goal of this database is to facilitate a new and deeper understanding of history. Lovejoy believes that we can’t just see slavery as a horrific crime against humanity that everyone wants to forget. “If we ignore and forget it, then we’re doomed to continue to live in a racist society that will continue to find ways to reinvent racism,” he explains.
This message seems particularly timely given today’s global political climate.
For more information, visit the SHADD website and SHADD collection. To hear a related 2013 podcast, visit the African Online Digital Library. For media coverage, visit USA Today. The above-mentioned article by Lovejoy, “The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Africa: A Review of the Literature,” was published in the Journal of African History 30 (1989). The original source of the extracted SHADD story: Daniel B. Thorp, “Chattel with a Soul: The Autobiography of a Moravian Slave,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 112:3 (July 1988), 447-451.
By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, firstname.lastname@example.org