Archivists Rush to Digitize Sierra Leone's Slavery Records

A group of professors and researchers are working expeditiously to collect information and research about historic enslavement — which is mostly found in books, museums, or websites — in Sierra Leone. A report from Public Radio International (PRI) indicated that a bevy of scholars have been flocking to the African nation since the 2000s, when they realized technology was cheap enough to digitize documents and public information about the slave trade.

One of the first questions historians wanted to find out was the size of the enslaved population who crossed the Atlantic. The first database they put together found the answer: about 12.5 million people were taken from Africa and sold as enslaved people between 1500 and 1875, and nearly 10.7 million survived the treacherous Middle Passage crossing on slave ships.

But the international researchers could not do their work without the collaboration of locals. Abu Koroma has worked at the National Archives of Sierra Leone since 2004 and is helping professors and scholars expand materials that could help African descendants understand more about their family histories, PRI said.

For instance, adjunct history professor Katrina Keefer at Trent University is using the information found in the country’s archives to develop a computer program that could recognize and catalog facial scars made by Africans to show their origins. Before being enslaved, scars were used by tribes to represent the village or ethnic group they belonged to.

The scar database is expected to add more information into a massive hub created by Michigan State University’s Dean Rehberger and his team, with the help of a $1.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, PRI reported. Entitled “Enslaved,” the project will launch in 2020 and have the support of institutions across the world, including the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. The center has at least 1,500 biographies of enslaved people and those connected to the slave trade, as well as three biographical dictionaries edited by professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“By using a large number of biographies, we can tell complex stories, local stories, to get a grip of what is hard history — you know, the forced history of 12 million people, and then systematic exploitation for several hundred years in the Americas,” Harvard’s Steven Niven told PRI.

This is not the first time records related to slavery are digitized. A group of organizations that include the Smithsonian, the National Archives, and the California African American Museum, among others, created the website discoverthefreedmen.org under the 2015 the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, which compiled the names of at least 1.8 million men, women, and children freed from enslavement. According to the project, people can access to the names of their ancestors so new generations can build their family trees. The project also contains indexed images.


About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.