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Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 4 (October 1982)

by Dr. Peter T. Dalleo

Bahamian history is currently characterized by generalizations and a lack of precision. The topic of African origins is one such case which additional research will improve. This article briefly discusses the, issue of Afro-Caribbean origins in a Bahamian context. Specific reference is made to African recaptives landed in the Bahamas during the 19th century. The paper also touches on the controversial theme of African retentions.

Scholars disagree about the importance of specific African ethnic origins and their link to the preservation of Africanisms in the Caribbean. Roger Bastide and others argue that the classification system devised by slavers during the course of the Atlantic slave trade was misleading.1 They point out that many of the alleged "tribes"2 which appear on slave ship manifests were place names or broad geographical areas which had little to do with actual ethnic groups. They accuse European traders of being ignorant, of assigning arbitrary designations to captives, and of deliberately lying to buyers about the origin of their cargoes. These authors claim that because of these flaws, slave origins are too difficult to trace, and therefore of little use.

On the other hand, those in favor of pursuing origins research refer to the fact that participants in a heavily funded, well-organized operation such as the slave trade would have by necessity been forced to create a very precise, meaningful classificatory system for its merchandise.3 They do not deny that European traders sometimes made mistakes or that distortions occurred. They admit that the lists can be vague and imprecise. They assume, however, that the adoption of new research methods and a rethinking of old questions will overcome such difficulties. Barry Higman explains the importance of looking more closely at changes in the rate and volume of the slave trade as it shifted along the African coast.4 Maureen Warner raises the possibility of utilizing tribal markings as a means of discovering the origins of African-born slaves.5M. M. Fraginals challenges scholars to find "present day equivalents for an ethnological nomenclature that is no longer in use."6


If you are interested in the full text of the article, you may order this issue of our Journal for B$5.00 plus s&h by contacting the society.


  1. Roger Bastide, African Civilizations in the New World, New York, 1971.
  2. The word "tribe" is unpopular in many African countries today because of its colonial connotations. Scholars consider it too vague. For a discussion of the issue, see P. Bohannon and P. Curtin, Africa and Africans New York, 1971 (revised edition), pp. 59-61.
  3. M. M. Fraginals, "Africa in Cuba: A Quantitative Analysis of the African Population in the Island of Cuba," in Vera Rubin and Arthur Tuden (eds.), Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New Work Plantation Societies, New York, 1977, pp. 189-191. See also, Philip Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, Madison, 1969, pp. 127-128.
  4. Barry Higman, "African and Creole Slave Family Patterns in Trinidad," in Margaret E. Crahan and Franklin W. Knight (eds.), Africa and the Caribbean Legacies of a Link, Baltimore, 1979, pp. 43-44.
  5. Maureen Warners, "Africans in 19th Century Trinidad," African Studies Association of the West Indies Bulletin, v. 5 and 6 (1973), pp. 27-59 and 13-37.
  6. Fraginals, op. cit.