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Scholars want help identifying slaves' origins

By Suzanne Gamboa

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 29 2011 11:55 a.m. MST

Liz Milewicz, former project manager for African Origins, presents linguistic work on names to identify their origins.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Almost two centuries before there was a man named Obama in the White House, there was a man named Obama shackled in the bowels of a slave ship. There is no proof that the unidentified Obama has ties to President Barack Obama. All they share is a name. But that is exactly the commonality that Emory University researchers hope to build upon as they delve into the origins of Africans who were taken up and sold.

They have built an online database around those names, and welcome input from people who may share a name that's in the database, or have such names as part of their family lore.

"The whole point of the project is to ask the African diaspora, people with any African background, to help us identify the names because the names are so ethno-linguistically specific, we can actually locate the region in Africa to which the individual belonged on the basis of the name," said David Eltis, an Emory University history professor who heads the database research team.

So far, two men named Obama sit among some 9,500 captured Africans whose names were written on line after line in the registries of obscure, 19th century slave trafficking courts. The courts processed the human chattel freed from ships that were intercepted and detoured to Havana, Cuba or Freetown, Sierra Leone. Most of the millions of Africans enslaved before 1807 were known only by numbers, said James Walvin, an expert on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Once bought by slave owners, the Africans' names were lost. Africans captured by the Portuguese were baptized and given "Christian" names aboard the ships that were taking them into slavery.

But original African names — surnames were uncommon for Africans in the 19th century — are rich with information. Some reveal the day of the week an individual was born or whether that individual was the oldest, youngest or middle child or a twin. They can also reveal ethnic or linguistic groups.

The president's father was from Kenya, on the eastern coast of Africa, and Eltis said it was rare for captives to hail from areas far from the port where their ships set sail. The unidentified Obamas on the slave ships sailed from west Africa. Walvin, author of "The Zong," a book about the slave trade, said there were Africans who had been brought great distances before they were forced onto ships.

"Often their enslavement had begun much earlier, deep in the African interior, most of them captured through acts of violence, warfare or kidnap, or for criminal activity ..." Walvin said in his book, which chronicles the true story of a captain who ordered a third of the slaves aboard his ship thrown overboard due to a shortage of drinking water.

Obama's ancestors, a nomadic people known as the River Lake Nilotes, migrated from Bahr-el-Ghazal Province in Sudan toward Uganda and into Western Kenya, according to Sally Jacobs, author of "The Other Barack", a book about the president's father. They were part of several clans and subclans that eventually became the Luo people of Kenya, Jacobs writes.

The president's great-grandfather's name was Obama. Obama is derived from the word "bam", meaning crooked or indirect, she said in her book.

But it's also possible that Obama was a name used by other cultural groups in Africa and for whom the name had a different meaning.

The slaves found aboard intercepted ships provided their names, age and sometimes where they were from, through translators, to English and Spanish speaking court registrars who wrote their names as they sounded to them.

Body scars or identifying marks also were recorded. The details were logged in an attempt to prevent the Africans from being enslaved again, which didn't always work.

Emory's researchers are including audio clips of the names as they would likely be pronounced in Africa.

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