Recaptive Number 11,407: piecing together the life of a freed slave
Jonathan Wright talks to the award-winning poet Raymond Antrobus about his efforts to piece together the life of a freed slave in Sierra Leone, listed in a register as merely “Recaptive Number 11,407, without name, deaf and dumb”
In 1807, parliament passed a law prohibiting the slave trade within the British empire. But how was this to be policed? In 1808, Britain sent two ships to patrol off the coast of West Africa, with the aim of suppressing the transatlantic slave trade. The Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, also known as the Preventative Squadron, was born.
Historians have long debated its effectiveness, but over the course of half a century, it seized around 1,600 ships involved in the trade in enslaved people, and freed around 150,000 Africans. The squadron was based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the capital of British West Africa from 1808–74. It was here that many freed slaves made landfall and, rather than returning to the places from which they were taken, also made new lives.
The Registers of Liberated Africans, held by the Public Archives of Sierra Leone, offer an extraordinary record of these rescued people: details such as their ages, sex and height, but also whether they had scars or other body markings. One entry in particular has long fascinated award-winning deaf poet Raymond Antrobus. Referring to a young man rescued in 1818, it simply reads “Recaptive Number 11,407, without name, deaf and dumb”.
Antrobus tells us about his trip to Freetown, a journey undertaken for a BBC World Service documentary and to answer a deceptively simple question: “How do I honour the history of someone who has been almost completely lost?”
How did your documentary, Recaptive Number 11,407, first come about?
A few years ago, I read David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, in which he writes about Sierra Leone and the Registers of Liberated Africans. He points out that Recaptive Number 11,407 had been deaf and dumb, but he puts it in there and just moves on. It really resonated with me – I was like, “Wait, whoa!” It was kind of like being jolted.
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The story just stayed with me. I started applying for research grants to go to Sierra Leone, but nobody would give me any money to do it. The feedback was either we don’t understand why this story is relevant, or because there’s not a name on this person, you’re just going to go there and find a dead end. My hunch was that this was not true.
Eventually, I met radio producer Ant Adeane. We collaborated on a pitch for the story and took it to the BBC. With delays because of Covid-19, the documentary ended up being more than six-and-a-half years in the making!
Before you went to Sierra Leone, you started off your research in Greenwich. What was the reason for that?
We knew there were illustrations of ships that were in the first West African Squadron at the National Maritime Museum. This was launched to intercept ships that were illegally carrying on slavery. These words are so strange when you look at the history: if slavery is still going on, it’s not post-slavery – and the idea of ‘legal’ slavery is ridiculous. We also went to Greenwich to ground the idea that the story we were telling was a British story. The fact that HMS Cherub – which intercepted the slave ship carrying the person we were looking for – was documented at the National Maritime Museum meant there was no ambiguity about this.
It’s an unusual historical era. Prior to the buying and selling of slaves being made illegal in the British empire in 1807, the Royal Navy actually protected the transatlantic slave trade. There are so many different contexts, and different people with their own agendas and different points, that it’s hard to piece together a clean and cohesive narrative. But what struck me about this particular story is that you can zero in on this one entry without a name and you can just keep looking. Indeed, once we got to Sierra Leone, it didn’t take much time in the archives to find another clue that we hadn’t yet come across in the registers. I imagine a lot of people who spend time researching experience this; a kind of mystical connection that feels coincidental, but then also feels like something else in the universe is making a connection for you.
What was it like seeing the archives in Freetown? You talk a lot about the weight of the registers in different ways at this point in the documentary, and yet these are brittle, aged documents...
I picked up another register in the archives that had the names of all the Sierra Leoneans who signed up to fight in the two world wars. There were thousands of names, many teenagers. The document was just lying in a stack, handwritten. Not all the records there have been digitised yet, so it feels very much like being in a room of memories that are prone to fade. To this day, people from the African diaspora rely on the registers to track their ancestors.
Turning directly to Recaptive Number 11,407, did you find out more about him in the archives and where he went?
There are multiple reasons why this person would have been almost impossible to find. Not just because his name wasn’t recorded, but because he was African – ‘subhuman’ in the eyes of many at the time. In fact, his disability made him another kind of categorisation of ‘subhuman’. However, when we visited the area of Freetown where Recaptive Number 11,407 was sent – a district of the city named Kissy – we had an incredibly powerful experience in the local parish church.
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The sermon was being transcribed on screens and we wondered what was going on. We found out that the church had been opened by a deaf man in the early 1800s, the Reverend Wensel, at the same time that the man we were looking for would have come off the ship. Of course, we’ll never know if Recaptive Number 11,407 ever attended the church, but I felt like we had, in some way, tapped into his life, his time, his trail – and it led us there.
At the end of our trip, we couldn’t point at a grave and say, “This is the person without a name,” but it was the fact that we even found a path that wasn’t completely sealed up that was so important. We went further than anyone anticipated.