HHSS Associate Professor Co-Authors Groundbreaking Book ‘Five Hundred African Voices’ 

Associate Professor Robert Hanserd explores previously unknown African slave ship survivor tales in “Five Hundred African Voices.”

The published first-person accounts of enslaved persons' homelands and experiences were once considered rare. Most scholars believed there were fewer than 30. 

A new book co-authored by Humanities, History and Social Sciences Associate Professor Robert Hanserd has compiled hundreds.  

Five Hundred African Voices: A Catalog of Published Accounts by Africans Enslaved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1586-1936compiles hundreds of accounts by African slave ship survivors who told someone about their lives in their homelands or in the places they were taken after enslavement throughout the Atlantic World.   

Hanserd co-authored the book alongside Aaron Fogleman, Distinguished Research Professor in History at Northern Illinois University.  

The project, which took years to complete, involved finding, and verifying accounts from across centuries in numerous languages. Fogelman began the process by identifying writings about forced and free migrations from Columbus until the end of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1860s.   

When searching for accounts from slave ship survivors, he assumed like most historians that there were only a handful. But after digging deeper, he found hundreds. Fogleman decided to compile these accounts for researchers, teachers, and students.  

Fogleman then called on Hanserd, whose background in West African studies helped provide invaluable background for the accounts and their contents. 

“My work emphasized translating and ensuring we had accurate historical and cultural context in the accounts,” Hanserd says.  

As more accounts were found, confirmed, and cataloged, it validated for Hanserd the importance of studying impacts of slavery but also African history and culture.  

“It was reaffirming that people knew their homeland, they knew their space and place, they knew who they were,” Hanserd says. “It discounted this notion of people saying slavery just completely dismantled people's identities. That they become shells of themselves. Folks remember their history and can tell you.” 

Because so few accounts from slave ship survivors were previously identified, amplifying more accounts from African sources adds a depth of understanding to their experience that was previously not fully recognized.  

“There are and always have been a lot more published African voices than scholars and audiences have ever realized, and the stories they tell highlight tremendous diversity in the experiences of the women, men, and children who survived the slave ships and were able to tell others about their lives,” Fogelman said.  

To Hanserd, reading these accounts highlighted the value of broadening perceptions of African identity in the era of trans-Atlantic capture.   

“We don't need to tell the story of Roots every time we talk about slavery,” Hanserd said. “There are 500 other stories you can tell. We need to broaden our scope. And part of that too means coming to terms with the legacies of slavery. If I'm able to contribute to that process in any degree that's my hope for the book.” 

Going forward, Hanserd and Fogleman plan to develop a web presence to host the stories and provide more visual and interactive elements for readers to learn from. Hanserd hopes that these resources will help students and researchers from different backgrounds and education levels learn from the accounts.   

“This book can be used in curriculum, obviously at the college level, but there’s a range of ways to apply it,” Hanserd says. “We want to broaden the multi-visual resources and to expand the narratives and individual stories present.”