From Which Port Was Slave Ancestor Sold?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader with Angolan roots wants to find the path her ancestors took to Arkansas.

Villagers in Benguela, Angola, 2010 (Khaled Desouki/Getty Images)

(The Root) --

"I've completed the African Ancestry paternal lineage test and it says that I have Angolan heritage. I would like to find information about the ports that people from Angola were sold from to the United States -- and where they landed --- in hopes of pinpointing where my Angolan ancestors came from. My family hails from Arkansas. How can I do this?" --Rauland Sharp

Where Slaves Came From

According to the historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton, Angolans who were carried to North America or to English ports in general usually were exported through ports on the coast of modern-day Angola, Cabinda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These ports lay north of the city of Luanda, the capital of Angola. The most important of these ports were Ambriz, Mpinda and Boma, all of which were parts of the old Kingdom of Kongo and are today in Angola (except for Boma, which is in the Democratic Republic of Congo). In addition, Malimba, Loango and Cabinda were very busy ports. The greatest number of Angolans carried into the Atlantic trade came from these three ports. 

Many of the slaves who came through Angolan ports were sent to Brazil. However, as we noted in a previous column, 24 percent of slaves sent to North America between the 1600s and 1800s came via Angola. This doesn't mean those enslaved people were all Angolan. As Heywood and Thornton explain, slaves who were exported from these ports might have been enslaved originally in a large zone of Central Africa. Relatively few came from the immediate hinterland of the ports, both because these regions were not thickly inhabited and the kingdoms in which these ports were located were not particularly active in enslavement.

Where Slaves Landed

Prior to 1808, various U.S. ports were used for the transportation of slaves. A number of Angolan slaves were brought to South Carolina and Virginia during the Colonial period, and the earliest known group of slaves from Angola was sent to Port Comfort, Va., in 1619. Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is a valuable resource for learning more about the various ports used for the slave trade. It shows that between 1628 and 1860, more than 73,000 people came through embarkation ports in West Central Africa and St. Helena Island to the United States. In addition to finding data on more than 35,000 slave voyages, one can use the database to create customized tables containing information on specific regions where certain ships sailed from, as well as their disembarkation locations.

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To learn more about the Angolan slave trade, you may also wish to review books such as Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660, by Linda Heywood and John Thornton; Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, by John Thornton; The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, edited by Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman; and Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830, by Joseph C. Miller.

You note that your family has roots in Arkansas. There were several Southern ports that could have been the location where your slave ancestors first arrived in the U.S., including through Charleston, which some 40 percent of the slaves did, before being channeled to locations in both the upper and lower South, depending on their date of arrival. Although the importation of slaves from other countries was banned in 1808, the sale of slaves within the U.S. continued to take place -- during a period also known as the Second Middle Passage. That forced migration moved more than a million slaves from the Upper South to the Lower South in the 19th century, largely because of the cotton boom.