After abolishing the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807, Great Britain annexed Sierra Leone, which had been under the control of a company and not the state. As with all British colonies, a Vice Admiralty Court was established with jurisdiction over maritime activities. British abolitionists were keen to use this court to embark on a campaign of unprecedented humanitarian effort to stop the slave trade. Intervention and prevention involved raiding coastal barracoons, seizing slave vessels at sea, and escorting the captains, crew, and captives into Freetown to be tried for slave dealing. In the course of a decade, the Royal Navy accomplished the dramatic shift from supporting British domination of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to its suppression.
By 1817, Great Britain had signed bilateral treaties with Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands ‘for preventing Their Subjects from engaging in any illicit Traffic in Slaves’. Thereafter, similar treaties, and amendments to existing ones, were made with the Netherlands (1822), Sweden (1824), Brazil (1826), Spain (1835), Norway (1835), Portugal (1842) and eventually the United States (1862). After 1819, Courts of Mixed Commissions were not only established in Freetown (replacing the role of the Vice Admiralty Court), but also in Havana (Cuba), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Paramaribo (Suriname), Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), Boa Vista (Cape Verde Islands), Luanda (Angola), Jamestown (St. Helena), Port Luis (Mauritius), Nassau (the Bahamas), Spanish Town (Jamaica), and New York (United States).
Locations of Mixed Commission Courts and London
Between 1808 and 1868, officers, primarily from the British navy, captured hundreds of slave ships and brought them into this network of mixed commissions. During the six decades known as the ‘illegal slave trade era’, these international courts liberated upwards of 200,000 people. However, this united effort had a limited impact on the overall suppression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade because an estimated 2.6 million people still crossed the Atlantic in this period with the majority landing in Brazil (1.8 million), followed by Cuba (685,000). According to the treaties, the mixed commissions could condemn a slave ship for re-sale, but the courts could not exact penalties on the owners, captains, and crew, who in many cases returned to the lucrative business on the same ship. Although Great Britain emancipated slaves in their colonies in 1834, most other nations did not abolish slavery in the Americas until much later: this included France and Denmark in 1848, the Netherlands in 1863, the United States in 1865, Cuba in 1886, and Brazil in 1888.
These courts produced extensive documentation about tens of thousands of people victimized by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These records are scattered in many archives and are written in multiple languages. Each case adjudicated before these courts usually contains information about the condition of enslavement along the coast of West Africa, the events leading up to the seizure of the slave ship, and the judicial process resulting in emancipation. The courts at Sierra Leone (1808-48), Rio de Janeiro (1821-56), Havana (1824-41), and St. Helena (1859-62) produced Registers of Liberated Africans, which were lists of people removed from slave ships. Since 1977, historians have been amassing these data into the ‘African Names Database’, which contains biographical information, along with port and date of embarkation, for over 100,000 so-called ‘Liberated Africans’ after 1808. These records are important for the study of the Atlantic World as well as for an understanding of the demography of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the impact of abolition.
The need for collaborative research related to the global diaspora of Africans and their descendants is challenging because the documentation is extensive, multilingual and scattered around the world in hundreds of archives, libraries, churches, courthouses, government offices, museums, ports and personal collections. The overall aim of this project is to bring together as much data as possible regarding the transnational links between these international courts and piece together the lives of over 200,000 Liberated Africans from the worldwide collection of sources to open them up for further research and discussion.
Most cases brought before this network of international courts involved a slave ship and therefore links into Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which contains information for over 35,000 slave ships. The Registers of Liberated Africans also tie into African Origins, a project intended to determine the ethnic origins of enslaved people through the linguistic interpretation of documented African names. Currently, the "African Names Database" not only includes the African names recorded by the Courts of Mixed Commission, but upwards of another 82,000 names documented in comparable Registers of Liberated Africans made at Vice Admiralty and Mixed Commission Courts operating from Freetown, Sierra Leone.
This website also ties into the initiatives of Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network, which addresses the need for collaborative research by pulling together varied documentation on the identities, ethnicities, skills, occupations and illnesses of individual Africans and their descendants throughout the Atlantic World. Last, this website has also started to incorporate church records from Cuba digitized in 2003, which are available at Ecclesiastical & Secular Sources for Slave Societies. We also hope to start working in partnership with other archives and libraries throughout the world as this project expands.
Material herein quoted from Leslie Bethell, “The Mixed Commission for the Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of African History, 7 (1) (1966): 79-93; and Henry B. Lovejoy, "The Registers of Liberated Africans of the Havana Slave Trade Commission: Implementation and Policy, 1824-1841," Slavery & Abolition (forthcoming).