In my last post, I discussed how historians use ethnonyms in historical datasets. The main take-away from that post is ethnonyms are difficult to interpret but can reflect the movement of African slaves with similar socio-cultural characteristics to specific regions in the Americas. Historians use this information to explore cultural continuities between Africans and African-descended people in the Americas.
The main difficulty with this historical method is interpreting ethnonyms recorded in the Americas and grouping them into categories of shared socio-cultural characteristics. Historians do this differently, and one common method is to associate ethnonyms with specific regions in Africa. In this case, the ethnonym refers to both a socio-cultural identity and a geographic origin. The geographic origin can sometimes be difficult to define, especially for groups that have migrated. Nonetheless, the geographic origin is important for grouping ethnonyms into African regions whose people probably share socio-cultural characteristics.
In the datasets, historians match geographic regions to ethnonyms to facilitate the process of grouping enslaved Africans together based on the proximity of their geographic regions of origin. Like my last blog post, I am using two example datasets from Slave Biographies to demonstrate how historians have done this.
The Maranhão Inventories Slave Database (MISD) compiled by Walter Hawthorne includes 7,742 people (out of 8,193) who have ethnonyms matched to places of origin. The below table shows the ten most frequent combinations of ethnonym and place of origin:
What is interesting in this list is the diverse ethnonyms associated with Upper Guinea. This suggests there were significant amounts of enslaved Africans from the Upper Guinea coast who continued to identify with smaller social groups rather than larger ones. In contrast, 996 persons were identified as “Angola” meaning they came from West Central Africa. While helpful for grouping enslaved Africans in regional social categories, “Angola” has less meaning in this context since it was an identity imposed by slavers and plantation owners.
The Louisiana Slave Database (GMH) compiled by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall contains 8,508 people (out of 104,729) who have ethnonyms matched to place of origin. The below table shows the ten most frequent combinations:
What is interesting in this list is the distinctions between ethnonyms in the Senegambian Region as well as those in the Bight of Benin. Like the MISD, these distinctions suggest the continuity of specific African identities. Interestingly, the ethnonym for West Central Africa “Congo” remains undifferentiated like “Angola” in the MISD.
The geographic regions defined by both datasets, though, can be seen as problematic within the context of African history. These regions were originally defined from the European slavers perspective and did not reflect African conceptions of space in relation to shared socio-cultural characteristics. Thus, it is important to understand more about African cultures during specific historical periods as well as the cultural characteristics commensurate with nearby groups. Moreover, there should be additional historical evidence, aside from ethnonyms, that illustrates the cultural continuities from specific or regional African groups in the Americas.