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Chapter 2 places the movement of 99,752 recaptives within a broader history of forced migration in the Atlantic world, conceptualizing the voyages of Liberated Africans as a “structuring link” between homeland and diaspora. The chapter shifts the level analysis away from aggregate origins to the individual experiences of Africans, whom the 1807 Abolition Act and the deployment of the Anti-Slavery Squadron were intended to help. To do so I draw on a corpus of narratives composed in Sierra Leone that comprise some of the few first-hand accounts we have of enslavement in Africa. I also introduce the argument, further elaborated on in subsequent chapters, that this experience was a crucible during which “shipmates” forged deep, lasting connections. Nineteenth-century Sierra Leone was populated first and foremost by the arrival of some five hundred cohorts of shipmates. The Middle Passage experienced by recaptives was both an ending – to family, to friends, to familiar sights and sounds – but also a beginning, to new communities, families, and affinities that helped define colonial society in Sierra Leone.
The concluding chapter follows the buildup, instigation, suppression, and legacies of the Cobolo War, an 1832 conflagration that marked the largest flashpoint between Liberated Africans and the colonial state. During the war, a group of “Mahomedan Aku” (Yoruba Muslim) Liberated Africans, who had previously vacated the colony temporarily, defeated a colonial militia instructed to bring the fugitives back to Freetown. The actions of these Aku Liberated Africans were contemporaneous with a pattern of violent resistance to colonial oppression instigated by Yoruba speakers around the Atlantic world in the 1820s and 1830s. Although eventually defeated, the conflict at Cobolo had long-standing legacies. In the months and years after the battle – and a failed attempt to try the leaders for treason – British officials embarked on a campaign of intimidation and repression, toppling mosques that Muslim Liberated Africans had built as they moved into communities to ensure their religious autonomy. This chapter traces the relationship between Muslim and ethnic identity in the context of colonial oppression, the role of Islam in shaping the conceptual meaning of “Aku,” and the endurance of Muslim Liberated African communities over subsequent generations of Sierra Leonean history.
The conclusion moves chronologically forward, exploring the connections that the colony-born offspring of Liberated Africans felt toward their parents’ societies of birth, their forms of communal association, and their cultural and religious practices. While the emphasis of the study is on the charter generation who experienced the Middle Passage, themes such as community and identity do not lend them well to concrete end dates. The conclusion argues not only that certain customs and forms of communal identification “survived” the westernizing and Christianizing influences of colonial life, but that the late nineteenth century saw a resurgence or revival of such customs and associations. At a time when disillusionment with the British colonial project was at its height, the second- and third-generation offspring of those who came to Freetown on slave ships looked once again to the languages, dress, and community organizations of their forebears. This Conclusion argues that processes of ethnogenesis and creolization cannot simply be seen as a linear process in which certain vestiges can be traced across generations to certain regions of the African continent.
The penultimate chapter broaches the question of why, given the multifarious origins of Liberated Africans, a single recaptive nation – the Aku – came to dominate colonial and missionary discourse on recaptives, as well as most subsequent historical accounts of Liberated African society. Most studies of Sierra Leone have asserted that “Aku” was a colonial term for Yoruba peoples from present-day Nigeria and have echoed contemporary observations that they were the largest and “most cohesive” group within Sierra Leonean society. This chapter considers the role of language in shaping Aku identity, and the interaction between Islam, Christianity, and “traditional” oriṣa worship in defining the Aku. It then traces the shifting relationship between diaspora and homeland, as Aku merchants and missionaries returned to coastal towns near their ancestral homes after 1838, bringing with them a more encompassing sense of Yoruba ethnicity. This chapter argues that what it meant to be Aku in Sierra Leone and what it meant to be Yoruba in Yorubaland were defined and reinforced through a dialogue along the Atlantic coast of West Africa. In doing so it advocates for a nonlinear conception of diaspora that applies not only to the Americas but to diasporas within the African continent.
While the first three chapters explore the regional origins of Liberated Africans and the experiences of their forced migrations to Sierra Leone, the later chapters explore the new communities and identities these migrants forged. Chapter 4 investigates the multifarious “nations” that were at the center of Liberated African identity formation and political life. Within Liberated African society, Africans formed communities based on common language and experience, referred to in colonial and missionary documents as nations. The chapter explores how the most prominent of these nations – the Aku, Igbo, Popo, Hausa. Cosso, Moko, Congo, and Calabar – were diasporic creations whose members congregated based on similar language and place of origin. It looks at the varying meanings of these “national” categories from the perspectives of Liberated Africans, missionaries, and colonial officials. The chapter’s discussion fits within larger debates over the meaning of ethnicity in colonial Africa and the diaspora and how identity was shaped by particular imperial contexts.
Chapter 3 continues the narrative arc of Liberated Africans’ journeys from homeland to diaspora. It traces the settlement of “liberated” men, women, and children in the colony, emphasizing the cultural implications of particular settlement policies in operation at different times. Most Liberated Africans were sent to one of twenty-six villages established across the Sierra Leone peninsula in the vicinity of Freetown. The Liberated African registers record settlement for tens of thousands of Liberated Africans, allowing us to trace captives from particular ports and coastlines of embarkation to particular villages in Sierra Leone. This detailed documentation of settlement is unique within the African diaspora and offers insights into the quotidian interactions through which diasporic identities were born. New villages were often formed by a single group of shipmates. In short, the fictive community formed on the Atlantic voyage was made reality in the various villages of the Sierra Leone peninsula. Over time, multiple groups of shipmates increased the size and diversity of these villages. Each Liberated African became an African diaspora in microcosm within the broader context of a prototypical British post-slavery colony.
The Introduction traverses the early history of the Sierra Leone colony from its founding in 1787 to 1808. Rather than re-rehearse the colony’s early history at length, the emphasis is here placed on the origins and cultures of Sierra Leone’s colonists in the years prior to the arrival of the first Liberated Africans. Within the historiography on Sierra Leone there exists a dichotomy between the first three waves of immigrants from London, Nova Scotia, and Jamaica, referred to collectively as “settlers” and the later involuntary arrival of Liberated Africans. The standard interpretation of nineteenth-century Sierra Leone is that the three cohorts of voluntary migrants formed a cohesive society into which Liberated Africans were “incorporated” or “absorbed.” This Introduction argues that this common narrative of Liberated African incorporation and socialization into a pre-existing settler society is untenable, given the preponderance of emancipated Africans arriving on an annual basis and the nature of their interaction with Settlers.
Chapter 1 presents new insights into the geographic origins of Liberated Africans and the dynamics of the nineteenth-century slave trade in West Africa by analyzing and cross-referencing a range of colonial and missionary sources. These combined sources shed new light on the interior origins of slaves in the nineteenth century, especially for the coastlines of the Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, and Sierra Leone, which provide the largest amount of data due to the number of recaptives from these regions. Most Liberated Africans came from a limited number of identifiable ethnolinguistic groups, principal among which were speakers of Yoruba, Igbo, Gbe, Hausa, Mende, and Efik. The number of arriving individuals speaking each of these languages likely far exceeded the Settler population of 1807. The chapter argues that perhaps 33,000, or one in three recaptives, spoke dialects of what would soon after be termed the Yoruba language, with the Oyo, Egba, Ijesha, and Ijebu subgroups the most prevalent among them. Igbo recaptives were similarly prominent among those brought on slave ships from the Bight of Biafra, and Igbo speakers constituted perhaps one-fourth of those landed at Freetown.
After exploring the etymology and meaning of national categories in Sierra Leone, Chapter 5 looks at the leadership and organization of these nations. Within the historiography, African diaspora “nations” are often interpreted as nostalgic recreations of particular homelands, defined by linguistic affinity. This chapter demonstrates how national organizations in Sierra Leone were not simply about perpetuating language and culture in exile, but were forms of communal welfare born out of the exigencies of displacement to an unfamiliar setting. “National” identities were also political identities as Liberated Africans were able to politically mobilize to a greater degree than enslaved Africans in the Americas to make demands on the colonial government. This chapter traces the evolution of these national organizations from mutual assistance associations to political entities with complex leadership structures of kings, headmen, and companies.