Slow Death for Slavery in the National Archives of Benin (EAP1055)

Aims and objectives

The area know at the beginning of the twenty-first century as the ‘Republic of Bénin’ was a French colony known as ‘Dahomey’ between the end of the nineteenth century and 1960. Between the seventeenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, its coast was one of main embarking regions for the transatlantic slave trade, a phenomenon which has attracted numerous studies focusing on the demographic, economic and social consequences of the slave trade in the region. It has been calculated that around 1.6 million slaves were captured and sent to America by the Europeans (mainly Brazil and the Caribbean) in the region of the Bight of Benin (slavevoyages.org database).

The aim of this project is to digitise all the court records relating to slavery in the Beninese national archives. The abolition of the slave trade had economical and social consequences on the different populations living in nineteenth-century West Africa. States such as the kingdom of Dahomey were major political actors in the area and were directly involved in the slave trade [see for example Law, Robin, ed., Dahomey and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: British Vice-Consul to the Kingdom of Dahomey,

In theory, the archives of Bénin, only contain material created after the beginning of the formal French colonisation. The head of the Beninese National Archives, however, estimates that around 10% of the colonial material are actually precolonial documents. The fact that these documents are (mis)labelled as ‘colonial’ has direct consequences on the scholarship of the region. These documents are mostly written in French because of
the connections between France and this part of Africa in the nineteenth century. Digitising these sources would enable scholars of Africa to understand the relationship between the Africans and Europeans present on the coast of the continent during this century.

This project intends thus to digitise the early colonial records dealing with the end of slavery. The formal abolition of slavery by the French colonial power did not directly lead to the end of slavery overnight as some of the masters tried to retain a form of spatialand contractual control over them by turning their former slaves into tenants and servants. Many former slavers sued their former masters who were trying to reassert their domination over them during the early colonial period.

This video gives a summary of the project.

1) 00:01 to 01:14. Mathias Massode, director of the National Archives of Benin, introduces himself.

2) 01:15 to 04:24. Mathias Massode provides a short summary of the history of the national archives of Benin (creation of the archives, UNESCO records, EAP 1055 with Vincent Hiribarren and Jean-Pierre Bat).

3) 04:25 to 07:42. Mathias Massode shows the room where photos are being taken and explains how metadata is created.

Archives coloniales de la justice du Dahomey (Republique du Benin) par Mathias Massodé

Outcomes

It transpired that the colonial court records were not classified (either chronologically or thematically). As a result, the director of the National Archives of Benin and the main applicant decided to digitise all the boxes most susceptible to contain documents relating to slavery and those which were very damaged. As a result, 60% of the colonial court records available in Benin were digitised by the EAP project team, resulting in 71,224 images that cover a time span of 1900 - 1960.

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