Emory University department uncovering history behind centuries-old names
Historians encouraging input from people who may share a name, or have such names as part of their family lore
Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 8:35 AM on 30th December 2011
Most of the millions of Africans enslaved before 1807 were known only
by numbers, the stories of their ancestry either a part of family lore or completely re-written upon their disembarkment in America.
The move came after Obama’s presidential campaign when he hired genealogists to research his family’s roots – however aides kept the findings secret.
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 – registries recorded almost two centuries before there was a man with the same name in the White House.
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.
Study: Liz Milewicz, former project manager for African-Origins, discusses how rich information can be deciphered from African names, such as place and time of birth
Researchers at the Atlanta school 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.
David Eltis, an
Emory University history professor who heads the database research team, explained: ‘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.’
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 baptised and given ‘Christian’
names aboard the ships that were taking them into slavery.
Analysis: Nafees Khan, project manager for African-Origins, listens to the recordings of names to identify their ethno-linguistic origins at Emory University in Atlanta
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.
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.
Intercepted: An image describes the H.M.S. ‘Pluto’ capturing the slaver ‘Orion’ on November 30, 1859 as it sails off the African coast
Horrific conditions: During the 1840’s, in Sierra Leone, canoes carried up to 200 slaves in their bottom, with dimensions only about 40 feet long, 12 broad, and seven or eight feet deep
Disturbing: Illustrations published in 1857 depict the capture of slaver schooner ‘Zeldina’ and the conditions of the slaves disembarked
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.
Migration: A map shows the primary trans-Atlantic routes out of Africa during the slave trade between 1500-1900
Captive: An illustration shows slave traders preparing to unload human cargo at a seemingly wealthy port
Awaiting passage: An illustration of a trade port, holding a fort typically built by European powers as a depot for the exchange of gold, ivory, and captured Africans
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.
people enslaved were not just a nebulous group of people with no place
and no name,’ said Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson, one of the researchers, who has
found variations of his name, his brother’s and his children’s names in
the database. He is originally from Ghana. ‘That’s how lot of us view
slavery. We don’t have names faces to go with it… It makes them that
much more removed from us.’
Postbellum period: Photos taken in rural Alabama in the 1890s – thirty years after slavery’s end
At work: A dutiful house servant (left) sweeps in front of an Alabama plantation, while a woman plucks a turkey in preparation of a feast to celebrate the great American holiday: Thanksgiving (right)
A look back: A map depicts the slave and non-slaveholding states at the outbreak of the Civil War, along with the dates when each non-slaveholding state legally ended slavery
and his researchers acknowledge the database may not help African
Americans with genealogical research because records on the Africans
once they were freed from the ships are harder to find, if they exist at
However, the project provides another piece in a major jigsaw, and helps put together a bigger picture on slavery, Walvin said.
Before this project, Eltis and others assembled a database of 35,000 trans-Atlantic slave ship voyages responsible for the flow of more than 10million Africans to the Americas.
Together, the two databases provide some details on the horrific voyages of the Africans, including the Obamas.
Political leader: President Barack Obama steps to the podium to speak in the White House’s Brady Briefing Room after signing the payroll tax cut extension on Friday, December 23
The Xerxes, which carried one of the unidentified Obamas, was a 138-foot schooner that began its voyage in Havana with a crew of 44. Five guns were mounted aboard when the ship left on a slave purchasing trip to Bonny on February 10, 1828.
Sailing under the Spanish flag, the ship’s captain Felipe Rebel purchased 429 slaves, nearly one third of them children, before setting out on a return trip to the Americas. But on June 26, 1828, the Xerxes was intercepted and forced to dock at an unknown Cuban port. By then, 26 slaves had died.
The other unidentified Obama, 6-foot-3-inches tall, was one of 562 Africans shackled in the belly of the Midas. The vessel was a Brig, a fast, manoeuvrable ship with two square-rigged masts. It was equipped with eight guns.
Midas’ captain J Martinez and a crew of 53 left Cuba on an unknown date. It left Bonny with 562 slaves but was intercepted. It docked in Cuba July 8, 1829 minus 162 slaves who had died during the voyage.
Some slaves freed from seized ships were returned to Africa, but not always to their original homelands. Some were sent to Liberia or were allowed to remain free in the cities where the courts were located. Some may have been re-enslaved and some died on ships that were returning them to Africa.
Share this article:
Here’s what other readers have said. Why not add your thoughts,
or debate this issue live on our message boards.
The comments below have been moderated in advance.
Obama needs to concentrate on the future, not the past. His recent past is not exactly a glowing success for America.
How soon do you think it will be before some researcher “discovers” that he is really a Hemings who’s ancestors was expatriated to Liberia and therefore eligible for burial right next to Jefferson at Monticello. But then again, in his mind he has been a greater president than Jefferson, so I guess it will be said that Jefferson is buried next to Obama.
From before Roman times, the practice of slavery was normal in Britannia. Slaves were routinely exported. Slavery continued as an accepted part of society under the Roman Empire and after; Anglo Saxons continued the slave system, sometimes in league with Nose traders often selling slaves to the Irish. I’m descended from one of those slaves and I have never heard an apology from Italy Scandinavians or the Irish. But on the other hand I’m white and that doesn’t count because whites cant be slaves…….can they?
but Obama is NOT a decendent of one of them, obviously, so what on earth is this project about? you can bet your life the real ancestry will reveal he comes frm a family of African slave owners.
– sarahsmith232, manchester england, 30/12/2011 10:51
Hmmmm… Sarah.. You are spot on…… Having done my Family tree… I found Obama’s Mother is real interesting… Robert E. Lee appears there.. but on the other so so’s Lincon…
Well , in such a case lets make him President for life .
right wing press trying to find any link. Not knowing he was a son of a Leading Economist from Havard who get a scholarship to Study.
i have absolutely no clue what on earth the point of this is. he isn’t a decendent of a slave. judging by what you read of his fathers character he is far more likely to be a decendent of a slave owner. it was Africans that enslaved Africans. the ports were owned by Africans. african tribal war fare enslaved blacks. the losing tribes were rounded up, sold on to the African slave owners in the port areas. they then sold them on to the highest bidders. there was 6 million sold to the N.Americans, 6million to Arabs. around the same numbers to the Chinese. Brazil got a load. difference being the Arabs and the Chinese bred with them, the European N/S Americans disn’t. but Obama is NOT a decendent of one of them, obviously, so what on earth is this project about? you can bet your life the real ancestry will reveal he comes frm a family of African slave owners.
Pointless Research, did someone choose to forget his dad was a Harvard student from KENYA
Mmm obviously getting near re-election time. Mike, West Midlands, 09:13, not a liberal, here, 06:06, dutch, North Carolina, 05:42 You’re all spot on.
It seems that Americans have some difficulty understanding that there are and always have been black people who have never been slaves.
The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.