Seeking Refuge from Slavery

Historical resources about people resisting enslavement


Wherever there were systems of slavery, people sought to resist in a variety of ways. This website is focused on how people fled their bondage, taking the difficult decision to run from their enslaver and seek refuge in a new home. This initial stage of the project is focused on a set of records from the Colony of Sierra Leone, in West Africa, dating from the mid to late 19th century. These records are administrative forms, designed to capture basic demographic data about people who came to this British colony to claim their freedom. We believe most of these people were interviewed about their experiences, but in almost all cases, those details are no longer extant in the archive. We have tried to work with the incomplete records that we have, to give some impression of the individuals who sought refuge and the historic patterns of migration revealed in these documents.

In the first stage of the project, we will transcribe the available records from the Sierra Leone National Archives, at Fourah Bay College. Images of one volume of these records are available from The British Library Endangered Archives project. You can see progress on this on the Registers page.

The second phase of the project will set these records in historical context. The records themselves are stripped of any of the rich and complex detail of how and why people set out for the Colony of Sierra Leone and registered themselves as an 'Escaped Slave' with the government. Many of the categories and terms used in the records are problematic in themselves. 'Nationality', for example, was a colonial attempt to categorise these people into groups, defined loosely by language or place of origin. However, we know at this time that many of these people would have spoken multiple languages. Africans in general, and enslaved Africans in particular, were polyglots. Enslaved Africans frequently spoke their 'mother tongue', the language of their home community, and learnt the language of their enslaver. So, when a colonial officer took down a 'nationality' based on the language an individual spoke, how can we know which this was? Questions like these are raised, but not answered by these records. This section will be gradually enhanced with exercises you can use in the classroom, or in conjunction with the suggested reading to raise new questions about resistance to slavery.

The third part of this project will map where these individuals were fleeing from. The "where from" column of the records lists place names, but there are questions to be raised about this information as well. We have taken “where from” to refer to the location where an individual had been held as a slave, and their point of departure as a runaway. But, perhaps some would have interpreted this to mean their original home, or the last place they stopped on a journey to the colony. Again, these records raise questions, but also highlight the transitory and fugitive state of enslaved people's lives in archival sources.

You can find out more about the project team, and future plans for the project on the contributors page.