This article delves into the strange, contradictory archives of the illegal transatlantic slave trade that flourished between Angola and Brazil in the mid-nineteenth century. The article interweaves contemporary archival encounters with the documentary trail of a notorious slave ship, the Mary E. Smith. It focuses on the list of the ship’s Africans who were “liberated” from captivity, most of whom were already deceased. Simultaneously a memorial of liberation and a death record, the list invites readers to consider what Ann Laura Stoler has called the “archival grain” of illegal slavery. The particular ways in which the Brazilian state and its British counterparts crafted these archives shed light on the narratives of freedom that they produced and caution us against replicating them in our own desire for satisfying stories of, for example, the Age of Emancipation and the triumph of liberal freedom. The article also engages recent scholarship on the archives of slavery. Dizzyingly multinational and multilingual, the nature of illegal slavery is reflected in the plurality of its archives. Scholars must work across these multiple archives even as we recognize that the lives of the enslaved remain fragmentary. Illegal slavery’s archives force us to look beyond commodification and imagine stories of freedom that attend to the suffering and deaths of the enslaved.

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