They never got within a country mile of the White House, but some of Barack Obama’s distant ancestors may very well have crossed the Atlantic roughly 130 years before his father, Barack snr, first made it to the United States.
Scholars from Emory University in Atlanta have discovered that two men with the surname “Obama” were on board illegal slave ships intercepted in the Caribbean and forced to dock in Cuba in the late 1820s.
Both Obamas turned up in registers of roughly 9500 “freed” Africans who were processed in Havana. The university is building a database in an effort to map where the slaves originated and ended up.
The international slave trade was declared illegal in both Britain and the US in the early 1800s – although the use of existing slaves remained legal in the US for decades – and navy vessels from both nations patrolled the Caribbean to enforce the law.
One of the Obamas turned up on a Spanish ship called the Xerxes, a 42m schooner whose captain, Felipe Rebel, bought 429 slaves, a third of them children, on the Bight of Bonny in 1828. By the time the vessel had been intercepted, 26 slaves had died.
The other Obama, who measured 190cm tall, was on the Midas, a vessel which set sail from Bonny in 1829, with 562 slaves on board. After it had been forced to dock in Cuba, 162 of them had died.
David Eltis, the professor leading the research, said he hoped that people who shared names with some of the men and women in his database would contact him to provide information about their origins.
“The whole point of the project is to ask the African diaspora, people with any African background, to help us identify the names because the names are so ethno-linguistically specific, we can actually locate the region in Africa to which the individual belonged,” Eltis said.
In the case of Obama, his donkey work has already been done: the President’s ancestors, a nomadic people known as the River Lake Nilotes, migrated from Bahr-el-Ghazal Province in Sudan toward Uganda and into Western Kenya. They were part of several clans that eventually became the Luo people.
Most of the millions of Africans enslaved before 1807 were known only by numbers, said James Walvin, an expert on the transatlantic slave trade. Once bought by slave owners, the Africans’ names were lost. Africans captured by the Portuguese were baptised and given “Christian” names aboard the slave ships.
But original African names – surnames were uncommon for Africans in the 19th century – are rich with information. Some reveal the day of the week an individual was born or whether that individual was the oldest, youngest or middle child or a twin. They can also reveal ethnic or linguistic groups.
The President’s father was from Kenya, on the eastern coast of Africa, and Eltis said it was rare for captives to hail from areas far from the port where their ships set sail. The unidentified Obamas on the slave ships sailed from west Africa.