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(California Polytechnic State University)

Liberated Africans in the Indian Ocean World


10 May 2022 | 3pm BST

The British Royal Navy removed at least 22,000 Africans from slave ships in the Indian Ocean between 1808 and 1896. As in the Atlantic world, in the Indian Ocean, Liberated Africans—the term applied by the British government to Africans removed from slave ships by the Royal Navy—were not simply released near their place of capture. Instead, they were transported to the closest court of adjudication where their cases could be tried and slave ships condemned, and where they could be registered and placed into contracts for indenture for periods of up to fourteen years. Liberated Africans were most frequently transported to seven main port cities in the Western Indian Ocean—Cape Town, Mauritius, Zanzibar, Mombasa, Aden, the Seychelles, and Bombay, while smaller numbers were taken to Muscat, Reunion, and Durban. They were frequently delivered to port cities where their labor was in demand. Although the Act of Abolition (1807) envisioned indenture as a method to provide liberated Africans with training in marketable skills that would enable them to maintain themselves independently once released, in reality most were placed into menial positions as agricultural laborers or domestic servants. Based on archival research in Zanzibar, Mauritius, Cape Town, the Seychelles, and the UK, this paper traces the lives and labors of liberated Africans from their origins in East Africa to their final destinations around the Indian Ocean.

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Matthew Hopper is a historian of Africa and the Indian Ocean. His general research interests include world history and the history of East Africa, eastern Arabia and the Gulf in the 19th and 20th centuries. Specifically, his research focuses on the history of the African diaspora in the Indian Ocean and the comparative history of slavery and abolition. His book, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire (Yale University Press, 2015) explores the history of the African diaspora in eastern Arabia. His new book project explores the comparative history of liberated Africans in the Western Indian Ocean. 

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