Slavery, as many Americans know it, holds a place only in discussions about the Antebellum period. It was, after all, the period’s defining characteristic, and its presence in the South generated secession and the Civil War, forever altering the racial and ideological framework of American society. Yet this approach to understanding slavery through Antebellum periodization is a faulty way of thinking about American slavery that could, if not paid careful attention to, perpetuate historical inaccuracies.
The most obvious problem with restricting slavery to just the Antebellum period is that it excludes the other two hundred years or so of slavery taking place on what would later become U.S. soil and the other three hundred years of slavery taking place in the wider Atlantic World. In other words, slavery’s history is not solely an American story that begins in Jamestown, Virginia and ends with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Slavery’s history runs deeper and wider than that. Its roots can be traced in the Atlantic as far back as the 15th century, prior to Columbus, when Portuguese merchants began setting up mercantile enclaves along the West African coastline and as recently 1888 when Brazil’s Golden Law banished the institution forever. Its geographic reach was just as spacious, stretching from the African interior, to the mines of central Mexico, the wharves of New England, the sugar fields of Brazil, the European port cities like Liverpool and Marseilles, and the many Caribbean Islands in between.
Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database attempts to track some of this History. The project began as a joint effort between renowned historians David Eltis ( Economic Growth and The Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), David Richardson (Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery) as well as Stephen Behrendt, and Henry Louis Gates in 1993. Under the primary direction of Eltis and Richardson, the project compiled scores of data and records pertaining to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The post-1999 surge in research has seen the project expand. Whereas early data focused primarily on British records, recent research has uncovered vast amounts of information on slave voyages directed by the Spanish and the Portuguese, making the project more inclusive.
The size of this project can be seen whenever user visits the database. From the homepage, a user can find a particular voyage by keyword searching through the databases 34,946 documented voyages. A user can also search by using either a ships name, its captain’s name, its year, its region of purchase, and its destination region. From this page, as one edits his or her searches, a series of downloadable tables and statistics are simultaneously updated. The ability to download data is part of what makes this project so unique. Everything is very much geared toward helping other researchers use this data in their own scholarly and research pursuits. It even has downloadable lesson plans and essays for teachers to use at all levels when preparing to discuss Atlantic Slave Trade. It is already a huge project that encompasses lifelong amounts of research by professionals, but, at the same time, it is built to be very accessible and usable by people on varying intellectual, mathematical, and historical levels.
The project also does a great job of humanizing the slaves. What I mean is that by charting particular slave’s by their names, ages, sex, and city of disembarkation, city of embarkation, date of travel, and even their height, the project becomes something more meaningful than mathematical or statistical project. The data, in essence, becomes something more than data. It becomes people, complete with their own story and own individual set of experiences. With the right amount of luck and some successful research outside of this project, historians can then use this information to reconstruct the experiences of these slaves, ensuring that the horrors and the victims of the Slave Trade will never be forgotten.
You can access the site by clicking on the link below: