Antigua’s African Origins According To Moravian Church Records

Antiguans in Moravian Church Records 1757-1833 

Rebecca Protten (1718-1780), Moravian born in Antigua, she travelled back to Africa (Ghana) for missionary work.

SUMMARY

Number of (ex)slaves 11,180
Creole (i.e. locally born ) 7,925 (71% of total)
African 3,255 (29% of total)
African specified 2,914 (26% of total)

BREAKDOWN OF AFRICAN BORN (EX)SLAVES

Igbo (Nigeria) 894 – 31% of African specified
Kongo (Congo) 427 – 15% of African specified
Coromantee (Ghana) 390 – 13% of African specified
Source

The biggest documented source of African ethnicity among Antiguans doesn’t come from the official slave registers kept in between 1817-1832 because regrettably no records of country of birth were made then unlike the ones discussed already for Trinidad, Berbice, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts & Anguilla (see this overview). Rather it’s the Moravian Church records whichprovide us with a wealth of information on the ethnic/regional origins of it’s African born/descended church members living in Antigua in the period of 1757-1833. The history of the pioneering Moravian missionaries among West Indians is fascinating for several reasons. I have already blogged about Oldendorp and his highly valuable ethnographic work on the Virgin Islands. Antigua also played a very important role in the early evangelization efforts of the Moravians among slaves. In Catron (2008) it’s even argued that Antigua became “the birthplace of Afro-Protestantism in the British Caribbean”. The proportion of Christian converts among the enslaved population of Antigua in the early 1800’s being considerably higher than for Jamaica or Barbados. The share of  registered Afro-Moravians might have been about 1/3 of the total population around 1798 (Catron 2008, p.88 & p.145), suggesting that the above quoted statistics might be quite representative for the scope and frequencies of Antigua’s African origins for this specific timeperiod.

Catron (2008) provides a highly recommended analysis of the Moravian Church in Antigua and it’s role in “creolizing”  African born slaves as well as how Afro-Moravians were themselves active actors in shaping their new identities. It’s because of the ethnographic focus of the Moravians (also applied in “Greenland, North America among the Amerindians, in Africa, South America, or the West Indies”) that we are able nowadays to study the African ethnicities present in Antigua. In this blogpost i will discuss the below comprehensive overview put together by Catron and contrast it with equally detailed data from the slave voyages database. I think combining these rich informational sources could be useful to get an even better sense of the main African roots for Antiguans.

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Antigua (1757-1833)

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Regional Origins 

The format of above overview seems to have been inspired by Higman (1984). It’s excellent for getting a feel of the full geographical range of all the mentioned ethnicities, however it should be noted that this regional breakdown (“Senegambia”, “Sierra Leone”, “Windward Coast” etc.) is speculative to some degree as i assume this type of information would generally not be mentioned in the original documentation. Also the socalled “Soko” seem to have been misplaced as Central African by Catron (2008), perhaps again by following Higman (1984). In Oldendorp they are clearly described as being from the interior of the Gold Coast instead (see future blogpost for more details). Leaving that issue aside this regional breakdown of Afro-Moravian origins is very helpful for comparing with the data from the slavevoyages database. It actually seems to be pretty much in line for most embarkation regions if we go by the following calculation:

  • 5.3% Senegambia (156/2914)
  • 5.1% Sierra Leone (149/2914)
  • 8.3% Windward Coast (243/2914)
  • 14.2% Gold Coast (414/2914) (or incl. the “Soko”: 22.3% =414+236/2916)
  • 7.7% Bight of Benin (226/2914)
  • 35.6% Bight of Biafra (1038/2914)
  • 23.6% Central Africa (688/2914) (or minus the “Soko”: 15.5%=688-236/2914)

Comparing with below breakdown generated from the Slavevoyages Database; we must keep in mind that a longer time span (the entire period of documented slave trading to Antigua) is being covered than by the Moravian Church records (1757-1833) which leave out the early period (pre 1757), explaining some of the minor discrepancies

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Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (2010) (http://www.slavevoyages.org)

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Especially the ranking difference for Gold Coast and Central Africa might be explained by the large share of “Creole” Afro-Moravians. They were overwhelmingly born locally in Antigua, 7894 persons out of a total of 7925 (Catron, 2008, p.142). Judging from generalized slave trade patterns of the English in the 1700’s, in which the share of slaves coming from the Gold Coast was prominent in the first half of the century but steadily declining later on, it seems not that farfetched to assume that the locally born “Creole” Afro-Moravians might have a greater share of early Gold Coast ancestry than the African born ones from 1757-1833. It’s perhaps useful to reiterate that the share of these Creole Antiguans was about 70% for the entire period, a convincing majority therefore had African origins dating from before 1757. Although Catron (2008) mentions “during the first thirty years of the Antigua mission, however, native Africans made up nearly half of the registrants”. Still it’s suggestive that slave trade patterns to Antigua from an earlier period might have had a significant cumulative impact beyond their initial numbers. For a breakdown of slave trade volume to Antigua according to time period see also this chart.

It would be nice to know whether there was indeed a disproportionate amount of “Coromantee” mentioned in the Moravian registers during the 3 first decades. However there’s also secondary evidence suggesting a more prominent early presence of Gold Coast ancestry carried over the generations by “Creoles” both genetically and culturally. Such as the central role played by Coromantee leaders in the 1736 Slave Conspiracy (read this excellent article for more details) as well as the local recipe for Ducana, which according to many is a culinary legacy derived from Ghana.

Ethnic Origins 

From above discussion we might tentatively conclude that the Moravian Church Records are roughly in line with the known slave trade statistics for Antigua. But given the limited and later timeperiod covered (1757-1833) it’s bound to overestimate the Central African contribution as well as undercount the Gold Coast origins, partially hiding under the locally born “Creole” category. The prominent position of the Bight of Biafra seems to be confirmed by both sources though. It’s intriguing to explore which modernday ethnic groups might be lumped together under the regional breakdown. According to Catron (2008):

“there are a huge number of ethnic, national, and geographic designations represented in the registers, a total of 263 groups, but fully 89 percent of Antigua’s Afro-Moravian congregants belonged to just 18 of them.”

It’s perhaps useful to compare the ethnic groups (or proxies thereof) mentioned in the Moravian records with this below overview of embarkation ports of slave voyages with destination Antigua (for maps showing the location of each slave port scroll down this map page). Of course it can only represent a subset of all slaves arriving in Antigua as it excludes the intercolonial slave trade (involving Barbados etc.). It’s taken from the Slave Voyages Database (see this page for more disclaimers). Even when not fully complete it still gives us a very finegrained breakdown beyond a mere coastal description which we might correlate with hypothetical ethnic origins given our understanding of how the slave trade operated in various parts of Africa.

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Search the Voyages Database

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (2010) (http://www.slavevoyages.org)

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My following observations are meant to be read as just (very) preliminary attempts at a more detailed ethnic analysis of Antigua’s origins. It’s NOT meant to be exhaustive or conclusive in any way 😉 It’s based on (informed) speculation on my part but also on comparing with previously discussed slave registers for the West Indies (see this full overview).

  • Senegambia, there’s a relatively high number of non-Mandingo being mentioned (“Senegally”, Wolof, Bambara), it seems to correlate with a noticeable share of slave voyages coming from Saint Louis (northern Senegal) as opposed to from Gambia which was were the main English slave trading took place. In other West Indian slave registers the share of Mandingo’s seems much more pronounced.
  • Sierra Leone, most slaves being embarked from the Sierra Leone estuary (nearby presentday Freetown and incl. Bunce island). It seems to correlate well with the ethnic mix being mostly northern Sierra Leonean or interior Guinean (Fula, Susu, Kissy, Temne, Bullom etc) . While the number of southern Sierra Leonean ethnicities like the Mende seems rather subdued.
  • Wind Ward Coast,  no specific mention is made of Cape Lahou  or other ports in the Ivory Coast. So we might assume that the generic groupname of “Kanga”/”Kangaw” is referring practically exclusively to (western) Liberian origins surrounding the area of presentday capital of Monrovia. This region being quite ethnically mixed as a meeting point of Mande, Atlantic and Kru speakers (see also this map). Perhaps accounting for the steady flow of captives from this region but also making it harder to assign exact ethnic origins for the socalled “Kanga’s”.
  • Gold Coast,  the ubiquitious “Coromanti” from the slave registers are given somewhat more detail by the specified embarkation ports like Anomabu and the Cape Coast Castle. But it’s still not really useful for any deepergoing ethnic analysis. The interior of presentday Ghana not consisting of solely Akan speakers (see this map). The “Wankyi” are only minor in number but relatively more frequenty named than in most other West Indian slave registers. Possibly they could be referring to Ewe speakers also known as “Watje” or “Wawu” by Oldendorp?
  • Bight Of Benin, overwhelmingly “Papaw” or “Popo” being used by the Moravians, and to some minor extent also “Chamba” from the (Gur speaking) interior. Only a few individual mentionings of Yoruba’s or Edo/Bini and no Hausa. Judging from the main slave port being “Whydah” in presentday Benin and only a very limited use of the Nigerian port of Lagos, perhaps we should assume it was mostly Gbe speakers who were among the enslaved captives at this time?
  • Bight of Biafra, as seen in other West Indian slave registers it’s the “Eboe” (assumed to be mostly correponding to modernday Igbo) who are being mentioned most frequently together with the socalled “Mocco”, often assumed to refer to the Efik, but probably also incl. neighbouring ethnicities (see this map). Specific references to Cameroon, Gabon or the interior seem to be rare or non-existent in the Moravian listing or other West Indian slave registers. Although Cameroon & Gabon do show up as minor embarkation ports. This seems to correpond well enough with the main slave ports being Bonny and Calabar in presentday southeastern Nigeria.
  • Central Africa, the relatively very pronounced presence of the “Soko” seems atypical when comparing with other West Indian slave registers. Oldendorp describes them as being from the Gold Coast interior, so they are quite likely being misassigned by Catron (2008) (see future blogpost for more details). Otherwise it’s predictably the “Congo” who are predominant, aside from a few but intriguing mentionings of “Gulla” and “Noncuba”. Judging from the most visited slave ports being north of the Congo river (Loango, Cabinda, Malembo, see also this map) and only one presentday northern Angolan port being mentioned (Ambriz) it seems that the “Congo” might refer mainly to the Bakongo people indeed (although not exclusively).

Igbo Moravians

” The most numerous ethnicity or “nation” enumerated in the church registers was the Igbo with 894 men and women”

As seen also in the main overview people designated as “Eboe” were the largest group overall speaking among the Afro-Moravians from Antigua. In a future blogpost i will discuss in more detail how certain we might be that this context & time specific ethnonym of “Eboe” could be exactly the same as the modernday Igbo term and to what degree it might possibly also include neighbouring ethnic groups instead. But for now let’s assume its indeed referring strictly to the Igbo from southeastern Nigeria. It’s known that the Bight of Biafra played a very prominent role in English “slave sourcing” (see this chart taken from Curtin). So in that way we shouldn’t be that surprised to see them being mentioned so often. Still it’s fascinating to see that in Moravian records of other former English colonies besides Antigua the Igbo are also often noticeably present.

In Catron (2008, p.188) the very valuable testimony of a person called Ofodobendo Wooma is being described. Very special to see the original name of any African slave in the Americas being preserved in documentation. He was an selfidentified Igbo, enslaved around 1736 and brought to North America via the West Indies, eventually he would marry a “Papaw” woman (from the Bight of Benin) in a Moravian community in Pennsylvania. Relatively many details of his life are known because of the Moravian fascination for autobiographies or narratives.  Another example coming from Jamaica (for a complete review of a book based on his life see this article.)

“The personal narrative of the Biafran Igbo Aniaso, who first became the Jamaican slave Toby, was later christened Archibald John Monteath, and in due course became a trusty and respected Moravian “helper” in the transition from slavery to limited freedom, is one of the precious few surviving ex-slave testimonies from the British West Indies. “

This quote from Catron (2014, p.169) might be useful i think for a proper understanding of the Igbo/Biafran legacy in Antigua and by proxy also in many other former English colonies (incl. the USA):

“As the largest African ethnic group represented in Antigua’s Moravian mission making up a large part of the Antiguan population as a whole, the Igbo appear to have exerted a great deal of influence over the island’s cultural development. Igbo society in Africa was diffuse, lacked any sort of political unity, and therefore may have been more open than other African peoples to foreign ideas like Christianity. Care should be taken that anthropological evidence from the twentieth century not be used to draw conclusions about Igbo culture 200 years earlier; nevertheless, when it is combined with contemporary sources it can have a degree of validity. No people in what is now southeastern Nigeria referred to themselves as “Igbo” in the eighteenth century. Ethnic or national consciousness for most West Africans during this period developed as a result of the diaspora of people put under pressure by the violence of slavery. Accepting the Igbo label was a strategy of survival for individuals from diverse backgrounds who realized that they had to unite with their fellow slaves with whom they shared a similar language or certain facets of a common culture.

Unidentifiable African Ethnonyms

Besides the well known and oft repeated regional/ethnic designations like “Mandingo”, “Congo” or “Coromantee” there were also plenty of unidentifiable terms being used as standins for African identity (by the slaves themselves we may assume). That is to say in our presentday era historians are not able to categorize these terms in a geographical/ethnic manner nor are there seemingly any modernday equivalents to be found. However when native Africans get involved in this type of research a greater amount might still be classified. These “unidentifiable” terms can be found in the Moravian Church records for Antigua but are also plentiful for the West Indian slave registers i discussed earlier.

As mentioned above for Antigua about 260 separate terms were being used. It seems to be evidence of personal identification in Africa itself often being along more fragmented lines rather than greater ethnolinguistical units. For example it’s known that large ethnicities like the Igbo or Yoruba are made up of many separate subgroups/clans while smaller ethnic groups might even be composed of very localized village lineages. Much like how there’s still also strong regional/localized identities among the Germans, Italians etc. Highlighting how the issue of (ethnic) selfidentification is always going to be very fluid and context dependent. In a New World setting the more broadly defined identities based on ethnolinguistical clusters seem to have prevailed. About 90% of Afro-Moravians preferring to be identified by the 18 largest ethnic/regional descriptors. But evidently underlying localized identities did not die out at once and this might also account for a greater genetic diversity than might be expected at first count. As stated in Catron (2008, p.148):

“Eighteen percent of Antigua’s African-born Moravians did not identify themselves with a larger ethnic or national group having, in general, only themselves or one or two other people in the church who shared their cultural and linguistic heritage. As ethnic isolates, they might have become Christians in part to integrate with a new ethnic community. Rather than submitting to the cultural hegemony of an historic enemy, individuals from single-person groups perhaps believed it better to become part of a new institution that made them equals with people from more numerous ethnicities”

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Unidetnified __________________________________________________________________________

Sources:

– Catron, J.W. (2008). Across the great water: Religion and diaspora in the black Atlantic. (available online)
– 
Catron, J.W. (2014). Slavery, Ethnic Identity, and Christianity in Eighteenth-Century Moravian Antigua. Journal of Moravian History, 14, (2), 153-178.
Higman, B. W. (1984). Slave populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834.

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