The “liberated Africans” of St Kitts

Slavery was abolished in the British West Indies in 1834. The transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans was abolished by Great Britain in 1807. So how can multiple births appear in the vital records of St Kitts from the 1860s, classifying parents as Africans? The mothers in these cases were most likely born in the 1830s and 1840s, well past the period that African born people could be legally brought to the islands.

The answer lies in a category of Africans brought to places like the United States and the West Indies during the 1800s, referred to as “liberated Africans”.

The transatlantic slave trade continued during the first half of the nineteenth century, primarily bringing Africans to Cuba and Brazil. A number of countries like Great Britain attempted to disrupt the trade, by raiding slaver’s temporary camps on the African coast, boarding their ships en route to the Americas,  or by rescuing captured Africans from shipwrecks. A large body of data exists concerning the detained ships and their occupants (see the Trans-Atlantic and Intra-American Slave Trade Database). From period documents, it is estimated that about 9000 voyages carried enslaved people away from Africa after 1807. Of those, almost 1600 ships were forcibly detained by the British, carrying 186,000 Africans. The vast majority of the liberated people were taken back to African countries like Sierra Leone. About 35,000 were taken to the British West Indies. Although none were recorded as brought directly to St Kitts, records show that about 450 Africans eventually ended up there, with the largest numbers taken to territories like the Bahamas and Jamaica. Unfortunately for those taken to the West Indies, their “liberation” was in name only for quite some time.

Africans who were returned to their homeland were often able to live free (assuming they weren’t captured again). Those sent to the British colonies were governed by the British Slave Trade Abolition Act, which specified that they would be instantly freed only if they joined the British armed forces. Otherwise, they would be bound as indentured servants for up to fourteen years. The difference between slavery and indenture was that there was a time limit, women were not to be employed in agriculture, and indenture status wasn’t inherited. Although some liberated Africans were initially given the choice to either proceed to the Caribbean or return to their homeland, by the 1840s the British were forcing passage to the West Indies, with tactics like withholding food until Africans relented. The Abolition Act encouraged masters to teach liberated Africans a marketable trade, but most were used in unskilled manual labor and as domestics. Many were sent to sugar plantations to address worker shortages and cut costs for plantation owners. In a thoroughly unscientific sampling of Kittitian birth and death records I found from the 1860s, out of eight inhabitants identified as African, the occupations of all eight was “laborer”.

As we find today, all too often, a term like “liberated African” was a euphemism for the actual situation for many thousands of Africans caught up in the cruel business of slavery in the nineteenth century.


  1. Intra-American Slave Trade Database, National Endowment for the Humanities et al.
  2. Liberated Africans, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research et al.
  3. The Diaspora of Africans Liberated from Slave Ships in the Nineteenth Century, The Journal of African History, Vol 55 Issue 3, Cambridge University Press 2014


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