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Student Spotlight

Interview with Becca De Los Santos '24 from the Senegal Liberation Projects

Duplicate screenshots of the same page from a Slave Emancipation Registry from National Archives of Senegal in Dakar in different colors.

Becca De Los Santos graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor's Degree in French, with Departmental Honors and Distinction. I have sat down with her on May 22nd, 2024 to talk about academic journey at Stanford, her work in for the Senegal Liberations Project, and her internship journey with CESTA.  This interview is being published on June 17th, 2024, one day after her graduation. During the 2023-2024 academic year, Becca was also a Hume Honors Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. She will be continuing her academic career at Emory University's History Department as a PhD students, beginning in Fall 2024. We immensely congratulate Becca! To introduce Becca, I have asked her mentor and advisor, Richard Roberts, Frances and Charles Field Professor of History, Emeritus, and the Faculty Lead for Senegal Liberations Project, to share some words about her work with us. You can find Professor Robert's note and the interview below.

"It has been a pleasure to work together with Becca Faith De Los Santos on the Senegal Liberations Project as a colleague and as a co-producer of knowledge.  Becca began working on entering the data from the Registers of Liberation in Colonial Senegal when she was studying abroad in Paris conducting her work remotely.  The original challenge that Becca faced was how to interpret nineteenth-century French cursive.  When Becca had trouble deciphering certain letters, she brought those issues to her French host family, who were also often stumped.  Mastering the handwriting then opened the door to the data encased in these registers about how enslaved Africans sought their own liberation and often the liberation of their families.  This evidence of the humanity and agency of enslaved Africans led Becca to propose an honor thesis that probed the tensions between the stated goals of French metropolitan abolition, the reluctance of the colonial administration to France to implement abolition, and the agency of enslaved Africans who through their own actions made abolition a reality. Drawing in part on her work on SLP, Becca won a VPUE Major Grant to conduct research in Senegal and in France on her project.  Tracing these tensions resulted in Becca’s award-winning honors thesis. Through Becca’s ongoing data entry work with the Registers of Liberation, she noticed that some enslaved Africans claimed their liberation on the same day at the same colonial post.  This insight led Becca to propose a new research project identifying who sought their liberation together.  The SLP team then shifted attention to exploring these patterns, which in turn led to a paper on runaway enslaved families that Becca and another SLP CESTA intern presented at an international conference in London and is now being reviewed for publication in a major journal focusing on slavery and abolition.  Working with CESTA interns as a team and paying attention to the insights they raise from their work with the project has been and continues to be truly rewarding and in the process we produce new and exciting scholarship."

Eren: I'm here today with Becca De Los Santos, and we're going to be talking about her academic journey through Stanford, Digital Humanities, and the Senegal Slave Liberations Project. Welcome, Becca! You are no stranger to CESTA, as you have been involved with the Senegal Slave Liberations Project for some time now. How long has it been?

Becca: Thank you for having me! At this point, it has been one and a half years. I started working on the project my junior winter, and I am currently a senior.

Eren: That project has had a significant impact on your academic career, and you also had a substantial impact on the project, right?

Becca: It definitely had an impact on me, and I hope that I had an impact on it.

Eren: We have directly jumped into the conversation, but let's take a few steps back. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Becca: I'm a senior at Stanford, so I'm about to leave Stanford. I grew up as a military kid all over the United States. So, I moved around a lot. I came into Stanford thinking I would be an International Relations (IR) major after doing a year abroad in high school in France. I ended up not liking IR. It felt like it was too practical for me, so then I changed my mind and studied French. I still wasn't satisfied with French, so I took on a History minor, and through the History minor, I discovered the SLP. My advisor, Fatoumata Seck, in the French department, has been a part of the project, but she has been much more involved in the project's cultural impact side, rather than the historical side, and working on data entries. Through a CESTA internship, I ended up getting involved with the project and got to meet Richard Roberts, the project's Principal Investigator.

I have always been interested in French Studies. However, ever since I took Professor Seck's class my freshman year, over Zoom, I have been fascinated by this broader, quote-unquote, Francophone world and Francophone history. At that point, I realized that the historical perspective was what I was missing in my studies. Even just having Caribbean roots, which obviously tie back to the slave trade and Senegal, I'm just fascinated by this project, because this is something that I feel like, even though I'm many degrees removed from these people that I'm studying, it allows me to reflect back on my own family and their histories. The beauty of SLP, above all, for me, has been the opportunity to put my so-called "fluffy" skills to researchI had been looking for a research opportunity for a long time, but I hadn't been able to find any. Using my French not just to study literary texts, but to actually look at people who lived and authored their own emancipatory trajectories has been very impactful for me.

Eren: That's a very interesting point you just mentioned about the authorship of these people. So, I would like to talk about the project and their involvement with it as well. But for now, I want to ask, how do you see the authorship of these people in comparison to the authors that you read in your French classes? While taking those classes and doing this research at CESTA, have you been comparing the two different authorships in your head?

Becca: Most certainly. I think what you see in these liberation registers is a conception of freedom and emancipation that differs from the liberalism of the French Republic and the French Empire. These authors who are narrating abolition from the Metropole, if you want to use that framework, are saying abolition and freedom need to look a certain way. They believe they are the ones who are going to bring humanity and abolish this undignified institution of slavery. But when you look at it on a more micro level, it's evident in these liberation registers that the liberal ideologies in French authorship were not being applied in the colonies. They were great, lofty ideas, but when put in the context of Senegal, where there are many other motivations behind colonialism, not just a so-called civilizing mission but also commercial and exploitative motivations, it is really the enslaved individuals who have to take up their own burdens. The responsibility of emancipation falls on them, and even though they are weighed down by this burden and their dependence on their owners is constantly reinforced, they still find ways to navigate liberation. In my thesis, which was born out of this project, I examine how the French colonial administration, because they had such difficulty applying abolitionist ideals, limited the conditions of liberation. More and more enslaved Africans are being liberated as a result of their own actions, not as a result of the French government. Does that make sense?

Eren: Yes, it does. They're the ones taking action, not the French government.

Becca: Exactly. The French government, after 1848 when they officially abolished slavery, claimed that slavery was over in Senegal. They declared that they had emancipated everyone and eradicated this horrid institution. Yet for decades afterward, the institution of slavery continued under the French flag in these protectorates. Enslaved people were still coming in and out of the colony, and the French government was not actively seeking to emancipate them because it was not in their interest. It would ruin their commercial and political relationships. So, these enslaved Africans had to act on their own accord, deciding when it was a good time to run away, navigating factors like war, famine, drought, and the risk of re-enslavement.

Eren: Thank you for sharing that. I have a question about this history. In high school, I learned that France abolished slavery in the late 18th century. Is that correct?

Becca: Yes, that's correct. France did abolish slavery during the late 18th century, but it was reinstated by Napoleon.

Eren: So, my question is, are there any documents from that time that relate to the 19th-century documents you are studying? How do you connect the events of the 18th century to your research in the 19th century?

Becca: Yes, I go back as early as the 17th century with the Code Noir, which standardized the treatment of enslaved Africans in the French Empire. The Code Noir was supposed to improve conditions, but it was not applied as intended. During the French Revolution in 1791, when the French Republic abolished the monarchy and instituted a liberal Republic, they took about two to three years to abolish slavery because of the economic benefits of maintaining it. There was also turmoil in Haiti with the Haitian Revolution, which influenced France's decision-making. Napoleon reinstated slavery to regain control, but it failed due to ongoing conflicts. In the 19th century, gradual abolitionist measures were implemented because of the fear of immediate emancipation causing revolts. The 1848 abolition was the product of enduring abolitionism that had existed since the 18th century. Abolitionists finally gained enough influence to implement abolition during another revolution in France.

Eren: That provides a lot of historical context. How do you see the connection between micro and macro levels of reading in your research? You mentioned the importance of micro reading in understanding these documents.

Becca: This is a question we encounter in the archives. Colonial bias is present, and we have to come to terms with the fact that archives provide a macro-level understanding of what's happening in the colonies. These documents contextualize the motivations and fears of the colonial administration. When we look at liberation registers, where people declare their names and origins, we can read them alongside colonial documents. The colonial administration's fears of dangerous vagabonds can be compared to the reality of children, mothers, and orphans seeking liberation. Both macro and micro readings are complementary and necessary for a holistic historical truth.

Eren: Thank you for sharing that. Let's go back to how you first got involved in this project. How did you learn about it, and what were the first steps like for you?

Becca: As a French major, my advisor, Professor Fatoumata Seck, mentioned the project to me. Initially, there was no position available, so I did something else that summer. Later, I remembered the project and applied to CESTA twice, but got rejected once. I eventually got involved through the History department and started working on data entry. I worked closely with CESTA, particularly with Christina and others, to present the project's findings on a web interface. It was a collaborative effort.

Eren: That's great. How has your work on data entry evolved, and what technical skills have you acquired along the way?

Becca: I'm not a tech whiz and had few Excel skills initially. Data entry seemed daunting, but it involved reading French handwriting and inputting data. Over time, I got better at it. Our most recent paper involves analyzing trends, gender divides, and other patterns in the data. One future step I'd love to pursue is mapping the data, which could reveal new insights about liberation routes. Working with CESTA has profoundly changed how I think about primary sources and the information we can extract from them.

Eren: Mapping sounds fascinating and very useful for humanities research. How has your academic career been influenced by this project, and what are your future plans?

Becca: The project has been instrumental in my decision to pursue a PhD. Last summer, I received a grant to do research abroad in Senegal and France, which solidified my interest in history research. I have many questions that I want to explore further, and this project has given me the skills and confidence to continue in academia. I'll be starting my PhD at Emory, where I connected with my future advisor through a conference in London where I presented our paper related to the SLP.

Eren: That's wonderful! It's great to hear how these opportunities have shaped your academic journey. You mentioned your research trip abroad. Can you share more about that experience?

Becca: I went to Senegal and France. In Senegal, I visited the archives where the liberation records are from and discovered documents explaining why they were created. In France, I visited the Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer and the Bibliothèque nationale de France . It was rewarding to see the reach of our work and to uncover information that added depth to my research. The trip allowed me to piece together a more comprehensive picture of the historical context.

Eren: How did it feel to work with these historical documents after months of reading about them?

Becca: It was extremely rewarding. Working on these records at such a micro level made it difficult to see the bigger picture at times. Going into the archives allowed me to find answers and understand the broader context. It also helped me shape my thesis, which focused on the flights of enslaved people into colonial Senegal. The experience highlighted the immense benefit of close reading of primary documents and hands-on research.

Eren: That's fantastic. Your journey highlights the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of digital humanities research. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us today, Becca. Your work on the Senegal Liberations Project is truly inspiring.

Becca: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure to share my journey and insights with you.