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Regionalizing pre-colonial Africa aids in the collection and interpretation of primary sources as data for further analysis. This article includes a map with six broad regions and 34 sub-regions, which form a controlled vocabulary within which researchers may geographically organize and classify disparate pieces of information related to Africa’s past. In computational terms, the proposed African regions serve as data containers in order to consolidate, link, and disseminate research among a growing trend in digital humanities projects related to the history of the African diasporas before c. 1900. Our naming of regions aims to avoid terminologies derived from European slave traders, colonialism, and modern-day countries.
In recent years, an increasing number of online archival databases of primary sources related to the history of the African diaspora and slavery have become freely and readily accessible for scholarly and public consumption. This proliferation of digital projects and databases presents a number of challenges related to aggregating data geographically according to the movement of people in and out of Africa across time and space. As a requirement to linking data of open-source digital projects, it has become necessary to delimit the entire continent of precolonial Africa during the era of the slave trade into broad regions and sub-regions that can allow the grouping of data effectively and meaningfully.
From Africa to Brazil traces the flows of enslaved Africans from the broad region of Africa called Upper Guinea to Amazonia, Brazil. These two regions, though separated by an ocean, were made one by a slave route. Walter Hawthorne considers why planters in Amazonia wanted African slaves, why and how those sent to Amazonia were enslaved, and what their Middle Passage experience was like. The book is also concerned with how Africans in diaspora shaped labor regimes, determined the nature of their family lives, and crafted religious beliefs that were similar to those they had known before enslavement. It presents the only book-length examination of African slavery in Amazonia and identifies with precision the locations in Africa from where members of a large diaspora in the Americas hailed. From Africa to Brazil also proposes new directions for scholarship focused on how immigrant groups created new or recreated old cultures.
In 1767, Judge Antonio Jozé Araújo of the captaincy of Maranhão in Brazil’s Amazonia region visited the home of Ventura de Almeida in Vila de Viana to conduct an inventory of the deceased’s possessions. Along with a variety of personal items, some land, cattle, and fields of cotton and rice, he owned eleven slaves. All of Almeida’s slaves had been given Christian names, only one maintaining an African surname. Diogo was a Mandinka male who was about thirty years old and married to Rita, a twenty-five-year-old cafuza, or racially mixed woman of black and Indian descent. The thirty-five-year-old Manoel Beyam was listed as a Guiné, or a person from the Upper Guinea region of Africa. His last name, which is not Portuguese, indicates that he, like Diogo, was of Mandinka origin. Eugenca, Beyam’s twenty-three-year-old wife, was also from Guiné, of an ethnic group unnamed. Francisco, a Biafada who was forty years old, was in good health like most of his fellow slaves. However, Vicente, a Papel who was thirty, was either sick or injured, as he was valued at only 50,000 réis, which was a little less than half the value of those who labored beside him for Almeida. Francisco and Vicente likely shared some of the same memories of the Upper Guinea coast’s Grande and Geba Rivers, on which people from their two ethnic groups lived, farmed, and traded. At eighteen, Anna was the youngest of the Upper Guinea–born slaves. Three slaves, Jozefa (age eighteen), Bendito (thirty-five), and Agostinho (twelve), were all listed as crioulo, meaning that they were blacks who had been born in Brazil. Antonio, who was thirty-five, was simply listed as negro, or black, giving us no hint as to where he might have been born.
Had Almeida’s inventory been generated in 1747 instead of 1767, it would have been an odd document indeed. In the 1740s, both the African and crioulo populations of Amazonia were miniscule. At that time, the backbone of the landholders’ labor force was made up primarily of Indians. However, to Almeida’s contemporaries in Maranhão as well as in Pará, the other Amazonian captaincy, there would have been nothing unusual about any of Almeida’s possessions. In the 1760s, most Amazonian colonists grew cotton and rice. Most owned relatively few things, the region being undeveloped compared to the rest of Brazil. And many held African slaves, the majority of whom were from Upper Guinea. Over a short period of time, a revolution had taken place in Maranhão, as Upper Guineans replaced Indians in the fields.
In February 1756, the Portuguese galley São José was anchored in the river off Cacheu, the ship’s crew filling it with slaves who had been shuttled in canoes a short distance from shore. The São José was one of the first ships of the Company of Grão Pará and Maranhão (CGPM) to arrive on the Upper Guinea coast. Since 1755, the CGPM had had a monopoly on trade flowing from Bissau and Cacheu and into the ports of São Luís and Belém, the capitals of the Brazilian captaincies of Maranhão and Pará in the northern Amazonia region. The monopoly was ended in 1778 with the company continuing to trade in a freer market through 1787. As slaves were loaded into canoes, a priest sprinkled each of them with water and spoke a few incomprehensible words. He, too, assigned the slaves Christian names – José, João, Roberto, Sebastián, Maria, Catharina, Brizida, Roza, and so on. Those the Portuguese called gentio (which can be translated as “savages” or “pagans”) were baptized – introduced to Christianity and Western “civilization.”
There was nothing unusual about the manner in which slaves were embarked on the ship. Nothing, that is, except for the fact that a scribe took time to record slaves’ baptismal names and ethnicities. Initially, a total of ninety-seven people (seven of whom were infants) were forced onto the vessel. The infants were listed in the ship’s records without value and were carried by their mothers as filhos de peito, “nursing children.” Fifty-seven percent of those whose ethnicities were recorded had been taken from the immediate coastal region of Upper Guinea, only tens of miles from the ports of Bissau and Cacheu. The ethnicities they claimed were Balanta, Bijago, Papel, Floup, Banhun, and Brame. The remaining 43 percent were Mandinka, who were from farther inland. Just before the São José departed, another few captives were added to the vessel, bringing the total number of slaves of monetary value to the CGPM to ninety-four. Those who survived the passage to Pará probably spent about fifty days together on the ocean.
In 1492, the Early Modern Atlantic was born. After that date, sailing ships connected distant parts of the Atlantic in new and dynamic ways. As people, trade goods, and ideas flowed across the ocean, African, American, and European cultures and economies were radically reshaped. For several hundred years, American Indians would die in tremendous numbers from diseases that white explorers and settlers introduced and wars they waged; Europeans would colonize much of the Americas and establish plantations that produced exports for Old World metropoles; and blacks would labor on those plantations as Europe shipped what ultimately was about 12.5 million enslaved Africans from coastal ports in the largest forced migration in human history. To illustrate the magnitude of this migration, before 1820 about three-quarters of all people arriving in the Americas hailed from Africa.
It is only over the past several decades that studies using the Early Modern Atlantic as a unit of analysis have become popular. Many scholars who examine Atlantic history see Europeans as dominating Atlantic interactions and shaping transformations. They equate the Atlantic basin with European civilization. These scholars marginalize Africa and reduce Africans’ contributions to the construction of an Atlantic World to merely labor alone. However, historians who reject Eurocentric approaches to the past see considerable African and Afro-American agency. That is, they view Africans and their descendants in the Americas as controlling some of the processes that led to the creation and metamorphosis of an Atlantic economic and cultural system. Following John Thornton, “Africans were active participants in the Atlantic world, both in African trade with Europe … and as slaves in the New World.”