Ancestry® Family History Learning Hub


Ancestry® Family History Learning Hub


Ancestry® Family History
Learning Hub

The African Diaspora

"African Diaspora" is the term used to describe the dispersion of African peoples, languages, and cultures, especially as a result of the trafficking and enslavement of Africans during the age of European colonization.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, an estimated 12.5 million Africans were taken from their homelands to be enslaved as human chattel in the Americas. Only 10.7 million of them are thought to have survived the brutality of the Middle Passage to the so-called New World.

The majority of people were trafficked to the Americas from West Africa, primarily from the West Central Africa regions of Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, the Windward and Gold Coasts, and the Bights of Benin and Biafra. A common East Africa point of departure was from Mozambique.

Several European empires--such as the Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and British--and their private trading companies, took part in the commodification and dehumanization of enslaved Africans. The cultures of the lands they colonized--in South America, the Caribbean, and North America--subsequently reflect a mixture of European, African, and Indigenous American traditions and beliefs.

The African Diaspora in Brazil

Brazil, which was colonized by the Portuguese, was the primary destination of enslaved Africans in South America. More than four million African people were taken to Brazil, representing approximately 40% of all enslaved people trafficked to the Americas. In 1888, Brazil's "Golden Law" was passed, which abolished all forms of slavery. Today, Brazil has the largest African diasporic population--over 50% of contemporary Brazilians have African ancestry.

Not only does more than half of the current Brazilian population carry some African DNA, Brazilian culture, especially food and music, is heavily influenced by African cultures like the Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu. Brazilian traditions such as Carnaval, a Catholic festival marking the beginning of Lent, are also defined by Afro-Brazilian cultural contributions to music and dance like samba, frevo, and maracatu.

The Ancestry® record collections for Brazil encompass a huge range of dates. Some old records for Brazil date to the late 1600s, while others are as recent as the early 2000s. If your family was part of the African Diaspora in Brazil, you may want to start your explorations with these older church and civil records:

The African Diaspora in the Caribbean

As in Brazil, the majority of people living today in the Caribbean also have African heritage. Although there is no universal Caribbean culture, the islands share a strong influence from the African Diaspora. This is likely because when the more than four million people of African descent were originally brought to various Caribbean islands, they typically outnumbered Europeans.

Africans who survived the Middle Passage to the Caribbean were subject to a particularly brutal form of enslavement for sugar production. Resistance often took the shape of uprisings and marronnage, the act of escaping into the challenging topography of the islands, which are particularly mountainous or full of thick jungles difficult to traverse. As a result, the Caribbean is the location of some of the African Diaspora's most successful maroon communities. Those communities--of escaped slaves--formed their own societies largely outside of the sphere of European influence.

Haiti was the site of the first successful revolution by enslaved and formerly enslaved people. Their overthrow of the French Empire led to the 1804 formation of the first free Black republic in the Americas. However, slavery in other French colonies wasn't finally abolished until 1848. Across other Caribbean islands, the abolishment of slavery took place over several decades, depending on the colonial government in power. For example, the 1834 Slavery Abolition Act applied to colonies that were part of the British Empire, and in 1863 the Dutch government abolished slavery throughout its colonies.

If your African Diaspora heritage has ties to the Caribbean, you may want to explore the Ancestry® record collections for islands colonized by different European nations, like Great Britain and Denmark. In the "Former British Colonial Dependencies" collection, for example, you can view old records for Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, and the Virgin Islands. Some of these records are specific to enslaved people in the Caribbean:

The African Diaspora in the U.S.

Compared to Brazil and the Caribbean, a relatively small number of African people were brought directly to North America prior to the U.S. government's official 1808 abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.

But before that time, approximately 388,000 enslaved Africans were trafficked to the Anglo-American colonies, where they labored on rice, tobacco, and indigo plantations in the Chesapeake and Tidewater regions, and fruit orchards in New Jersey and New York. In the Deep South, as in the Caribbean, enslaved people who worked in the labor-intensive cotton and sugar industries were often subject to worse conditions. Enslaved people were also used for domestic and skilled labor roles in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, and Baltimore.

Although the population was minimal, free Blacks were also living in British North America when the United States was founded. Several colonies had abolished slavery, some free Blacks had purchased their freedom, and others had been manumitted. The population of free African Americans continued to grow until the 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Federal census records show that in 1790 roughly 60,000 free African Americans lived in the U.S.; by 1830 there were about 300,000; and by1860 there were just under 500,000 free Blacks. Slightly less than half of that population lived in the North and slightly more than half lived in the South.

By the onset of the U.S. Civil War, nearly four million people of African descent were still enslaved, while 10 percent of the Black population had become free. After the American Revolution, the United States' expansion was fueled in part through the development of a large-scale plantation economy in the South as well as a domestic slave trade across the country. But across the country, including the South, free Blacks also contributed to the country's growth before slavery was formally abolished after the Civil War.

As in the rest of the diaspora, the influence of African Americans is deeply embedded in American culture. In fact, the roots of American music genres like gospel, rock-and-roll, jazz, and the blues reach back to the African continent. The call-and-response style of spirituals and work songs are also deeply embedded in early African American cultural traditions. Some of America's most unique cuisine, such as Louisiana's Creole and Cajun food, is largely influenced by Black culture traditions and foodways.

Researching African American ancestors can be challenging, so Ancestry® has two main starting points to help family history researchers: the African American Collection and a guide to African American family history. Here are a few examples of records to explore:

The contributions of enslaved Africans who were forcibly taken to the Americas is significant. Though the countries in the Americas all have their own distinct cultures and traditions, much of what makes each place unique is owed to the African Diaspora. Many people in the Americas may find that they have connections to Africa that they never would have imagined.



Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "How Many Slaves Landed in the U.S.?" PBS. January 2, 2013. Accessed January 17, 2019.

Christopher Muscato. "History of Slavery in Brazil." Accessed January 17, 2019.

Tom Phillips. "Brazil Census Shows Africans in the Majority for the First Time." The Guardian. November 17, 2011. Accessed January 17, 2019.

PortCities UK. "Identity in the Caribbean". PortCities Bristol. Accessed January 17, 2019.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "How Many Slaves Landed in the U.S.?" PBS. January 2, 2013. Accessed January 17, 2019.

"Slaves in New England." Medford Historical Society & Museum. Accessed January 17, 2019.

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