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Apparitions of the Atlantic: Mobility, Kinship, and Freedom among Afro-Brazilian Emigrants from Bahia to Lagos, 1850–1900


This dissertation traces the multigenerational, multi-sited trajectories of the thousands of freed African and African-descended individuals who emigrated from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil to Lagos in present-day Nigeria during the second half of the nineteenth century. In particular, it employs macro-scale digital humanities tools and microhistorical accounts to examine the nexus between mobility, kinship, and freedom for these returnees during a period of immense Atlantic transformation. This study incorporates the individual and collective trajectories of the most understudied members of the emigrant population—including non-elites, women, children, and subordinate dependents—in order to provide a more nuanced and statistically informed picture of the formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who left Bahia for Lagos.

While this dissertation is grounded in Lagos, the circumstances under which its subjects established themselves in the West African port town—including their origins in Yorubaland, their enslavements in Brazil, and their returns to a burgeoning British colony while Atlantic slavery was in its final throes—fundamentally make this an Atlantic project. Using quantitative data derived from the Afro-Brazilian Returnee Database (ABRD), as well as judicial, baptismal, and probate records, British colonial documents, newspapers, land grants, letters of manumission, and passport and passenger lists from archives on three continents, I argue that trans-Atlantic migration and kinship networks shaped returnees’ assertions of freedom and strategies of social mobility on local and Atlantic scales. Further, I find that these individuals undertook multiple voyages and maintained their trans-Atlantic contacts more frequently than previously understood. Finally, by centering Lagos as a crucial node on the Atlantic circuit, I argue that the burgeoning British colony shaped—and was shaped by—these emigrants’ trans-Atlantic understandings and assertions of kinship networks, identities, and freed statuses. Indeed, Lagos served as an important locale for provocative articulations of liberty, which informed Africans’ assertions of freedom in both West Africa and Bahia. In this way, this project sheds new light on the role of African and African-descended migrants in shaping local, transnational, and imperial understandings of what it meant to be free during the last decades of Atlantic slavery and the early years of abolition and colonial rule.

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