Digital history in “Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database”

December 22, 2018 |  Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Digital history in “Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was one of the most impacting aspects of the development of nations on either side of the Atlantic from its beginnings in the sixteenth century to its demise in the nineteenth. Not only did it produce untold amounts of material and economic wealth to those nations who dealt in its commerce, but led to the enslavement, torture, and objectification of millions of people shipped to labor for others. In the development of the slave trade came racialized prejudice and oppression, which continues to haunt the societies it built, as well as those that the enslaving powers later influenced. This is a history that goes to the root of every society in the Americas, yet one that is very often obscured or rejected in the present day. People maintain false impressions of the scale of the slave trade, as well as the conditions under which slaves lived, based on flawed popular histories and textbook, institutionalized racism, and active obfuscation due to discomfort regarding the sins of the past. This legacy, however much one seeks to deny it, has very real consequences for people whose ancestors were forcibly shipped across the ocean as chattel to be bought, sold, traded, ordered about, derided, and tortured by others on the other side. To truly understand this past is to come to terms with the wrongs done in the past, as well as the generational trauma that seeps into every facet of American (the continent) society.

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3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is an online resource that seeks to allow any visitor–from dedicated historian to curious peruser–to access information regarding the Trans-Atlantic trips that brought millions of Africans into slavery. In order to better understand a world in which “the shipping of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic was morally indistinguishable from shipping textiles, wheat, or even sugar” (Eltis), Voyages has collected in one place the data from the 34,948 trips of slave ships across the Atlantic. The database’s origins lie in the 1960s, when scholars such as Herbert S. Klein began collecting data from archives regarding the trips undertaken by participants in the slave trade, mostly from then-unpublished sources. In the 1970s and 1980s, datasets began being produced that collected this information into navigable, computerized formats, and by the late 80s, over 11,000 voyages had been documented from published sources based on the records of a particular European country or slave port. In the 1990s, funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowed for the earliest version of Voyages to use new published data, registers, and accounts to build a single database to collect this data into a single database, code the data, and publish it as a CD-ROM in 1999; by this point, 27,233 voyage records were analyzed and published. In the beginning years of the twenty-first century, new data from research on Latin-American participation in the slave trade from colonial archives in Europe and the Americas, as well as information gleaned by supportive independent researchers, allowed for more nuanced information to be added to the database. In 2006, with a grant from the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard, work was undertaken to bring Voyages online, to expand materials to other formats such as essays, lesson plans, and maps, increase the types of data variables, and allow for outside participation in the maintenance and aggregation of data on the site. Every three years, after a peer-review process, new data and corrections will be added to the database to ensure a complete, accurate record of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade for public access.

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5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The Voyages database itself holds a wealth of information, all interactive and accessible by the public. One can search the database for trans-Atlantic voyages based on the desired variables (e.g. nation, “Voyage outcome,” “Voyage dates,” demographics of the enslaved, etc.), and find information regarding a particular slave ship voyage from Africa to America. For example, to click on Voyage 22 (the number assigned the voyage in the database), one finds the log of the Portuguese/Brazilian Bergantin ship Caçador (Portuguese for “Hunter”), owned by João Gomes Vale and captained by Félix José dos Santos and João Joaquim de Souza Fontes. One can learn that the voyage was “completed as intended,” with “slaves disembarked in Americas” “delivered… for original owners.” The voyage began in Rio de Janeiro on 2 October, 1816 and landed in Luanda sometime in the next month or two. 594 slaves were embarked. The Middle Passage crossing took 32 days. By the time the Caçador arrived in Rio de Janeiro on 24 February, 1817, 570 enslaved Africans disembarked; 24 died, 4 per cent of the original group. In all, the whole voyage took 145 days to cross the Atlantic and back. While this information is somewhat minimal (it lacks, for example, information on slave demographics), it is still able to convey a compelling story, one based on primary source documents such as archives in Brazil and Angola, British accounts, the Gazeta do Rio De Janeiro, and a Database of slave vessels arriving in Rio de Janeiro, 1811-1830 by Manolo Fiorentino. This is but one record of the 36,002 currently in the database, and more could be coming as research on the slave trade and its repercussions continues. Further manipulation of the tabs atop the “Search the Voyages Database” reveals more options for exploration: one can access summary statistics of the chosen variables, a table of cross-continental participation in the slave trade, custom graphs, timelines, an interactive map, and a chilling animated map where one can watch the ships crossing the Atlantic year by year (it must be said that control of the speed at which the ships ‘cross’ would make for an impressive, if disheartening viewpoint). Also included in the database are brief essays explaining the way the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade worked, what it was like, the role of colonial-imperial powers in its maintenance, free and enslaved Africans’ resistance to slavery, the end of the slave trade, its influence on ethnic and racial identity, the influence of the seasons on voyages, and testimonies by former slaves (numbering three). These essays allow the casual visitor to better understand the circumstances under which the slave trade existed and was carried out. Further resources include a searchable image bank (ideally complemented with a visit to the website Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora), a database of the names of Africans enslaved during this time, lesson plans for a grade 6-12 audience, and links to resources for further investigation. These resources lend to a rounded and interdisciplinary understanding of the world that the slave trade shaped, as well as how visitors in the present day can understand this once-quotidian, yet peculiar, institution.

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7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is an invaluable resource for researchers of all types to better comprehend the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in all its dimensions. In its capacity to make even the smallest scale of the voyage as important and approachable as the grand horror of the commerce itself, Voyages renders a necessary service to the ancestors lost to the Middle Passage and to slavery itself. While it lacks certain frills and a particular smoothness in its display and functionality, and could use the further addition of primary source documents beyond ledgers and logs regarding the slave trade (or at least links to such), as it stands, Voyages is edifying and essential to work regarding the Atlantic world and the role of slavery in its development. There is much to be learnt in the inhumanity of the scale at which people were bought and sold as mere property, as the debates over slavery and its importance for the present day infuriatingly rage on.

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10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 SOURCES

Eltis, David. “Construction of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Sources and Methods.” Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Emory University, 2010. Retrieved from

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora. Virginia Humanities and University of Virginia, 2018. Retrieved from


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