When slave traders stole Africans from their homeland, they didn’t just strip them of freedom. Enslaved people lost their identity too. It’s a wound that lingers.
“Africans were taken from multiple origins and developed a new identity in the Americas through their exploitation,” says Dr. Katrina Keefer, adjunct professor in Trent’s department of History. “The trauma of taking someone's name and trying to scour away their homeland can’t be undone. It was a crime against humanity, and its legacy lives with us today.”
Professor Keefer’s research will help people descended from African slaves learn their heritage. She’s creating a database of body modifications like facial tattoos and scarification that will help identify where a person came from.
“Think of body and facial markings as a kind of inscribed passport written on the skin itself,” she says. “If you can 'read' body markings, you can locate someone's birthplace. Marks are specific to villages, families and regions. They’ve been recorded for centuries, and cross-referencing descriptions of marks can identify ethnic origins and even the community from which they were taken.”
This builds on existing projects like the Slave Voyages database, which can reveal the port where an ancestor was sold. However, it’s usually impossible to determine where they arrived from. Prof. Keefer is seeking to make that link.
Piecing it together: Historical archives & modern technologies
Funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant and an Insight Development Grant, Prof. Keefer’s work centers on Sierra Leone. Her team (including Trent graduate students) recently went to the country, where they trained archival personnel to generate and digitize data, so that information can be added on an ongoing basis.
Prof. Keefer is cataloguing marking descriptions and drawings from the Registers of Liberated Africans held in Sierra Leone’s Public Archives, as well as from runaway slave ads, marriage and death certificates, and manumission papers that conferred freedom. Often, these describe markings as proof of identity.
To deal with the magnitude of the data, Keefer’s co-investigator Dr. Martha Ladly and her team at OCAD University are training a neural network to process the current data set. Once it’s analyzed, the project will be able to expand its scope.
“There is an enormous corpus of evidence which has been untouched, because few techniques existed to catalogue all known marks and decode this evidence,” says Prof. Keefer.
Education far from the classroom
In Sierra Leone, Trent graduate students Eric Lehman and Michael McGill trained in archival preservation and digitization at the archives, which are held at Fourah Bay College, alongside Kartikay Chadha, a computer studies graduate from the OCAD side of the project. There, the interdisciplinary team uncovered additional ethnic identifications in an original 1819 Register of Liberated Africans which could help target searches for the marks documents describe.
For Mr. McGill, a second-year Master of Arts in History student, visiting sub-Saharan Africa was humbling:
“My research focuses on religion and group identity in 16th and 17th century Atlantic Africa. Being able to travel to where much of that history took place was special. I learned transferable skills in studying in endangered archives, and though the period I study is earlier than that of this project, I learned methods to assess historical sources that can help understand issues that arise when looking at historical identity.”
“Most importantly for me is the reminder that the archive is not only a house for documents containing historical data, but each of these documents represents a lived life and how they lived it. This is what makes archival field work exciting,” explained Mr. Lehman about his experience.