American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia

Edmund Morgan’s classic work, American Freedom, American Slavery: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, tries to resolve what he calls the “American paradox,” that though slavery and freedom are irreconcilable opposites, the two developed almost in tandem.

The key to such a dual ascent was tobacco. Though the initial settlers embraced a certain democratic spirit so essential to frontier settlements (And it should be pointed out that slavery was never an inevitability in the early years,) the production of tobacco introduced social fissures in the form of class division. White indentured servants, mostly poor Englishmen thought to be indolent and given to vice, were soon shipped over to work the lands. The servants contracted their labor, agreeing to work for a set number of years, in exchange for one’s basic necessities and the promise of landownership once their terms were completed.

Problems arose, Morgan asserts, when these servants became free men. A number of factors–the lack of women in Virginia, which inhibited the formation of family units, the infertility of the lands they were given, and the overall reduction of tobacco prices among other factors–produced a poor, sometimes landless, and highly mobile class of discontented men. The source of their discontent, they charged, were the “big men” of the colony, a class of established tobacco barons and officeholders. These men determined the colony’s social structure and, so the free men claimed, maintained it in a way that preserved their power and induced the free men back into servitude. With the steady stream of new servants pouring into the colony, the fractious social structure underpinning colonial Virginia only grew larger as the voices of the free men grew louder.

Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1676 uprising, provided a solution. National Bacon, the rebellion’s leader and namesake, was hardly a leveler in any sense of the word, but he and his followers drove the colonial governor, William Berkeley, back to England, an ostensible victory for the “small men,” over not just the “big men,” but the “big man.” Yet Bacon’s rebellion possessed a dark shade of racial contempt, for the source of the Bacon-Berkely dispute devolved over a response to an  indian raid where a number of Virginia frontiersmen were killed. Berkeley balked and Bacon retaliated against the Governor’s orders, brutally massacring  the inhabitants of a neighboring Susquehannock village. Morgan argues that the teaming race hatred behind the attacks, the culmination of a series of confrontations with the indians along the frontier, provided a vital lesson for the colony’s big men: the scapegoating of a minority, particularly a minority of a different race, created a common union, an in group-out group mentality amongst the people. As Morgan puts it, “Resentment of an alien race” could prove “more powerful than resentment of an upper class” (269-270).

In the years following Bacon’s rebellion, indentured labor became less rational. England’s population plateaued, reducing the amount of potential servants, and the colony’s woefully high mortality rate decreased, making temporary indentured labor less economically expedient.  Yet labor was still in great demand, thus prompting the turn to chattel slavery–servitude that had no contractual stipulations or termination date. Morgan argues that the seemingly monumental shift was not so difficult, for slavery had already proved to be highly profitable elsewhere in the Atlantic and the slaves coming into Virginia did not have to be enslaved. The work of enslavement was the work of the contemptible traders; Virginians only had to buy them, which Morgan suggests assuaged their conscious about taking part in such a deplorable enterprise. The problem, however, was that unlike indentured servants, slaves had no incentive to work. Slaves had to be “disciplined” to work,” a particularly violent process that, in effect, re-enslaved the enslaved. Brutality was therefore inherent to the institution and no amount of rationalizing or hand washing could divorce the two.

Morgan maintains that the emergence slavery, along with a series of legal measures disassociating whites and blacks, suppressed class conflict by creating a social structure similar to what scholars in the 1960s termed a herrenvolk democracy. The slaves, representing a minority ethnic group, became the antagonists of the majority group, the white Virginians. Virginian’s both “big” and “small” thus created an “in group” identity, consolidating their individual interests into a powerful, class inclusive shared set of interests based solely on their whiteness. In effect, race replaced class as a the primary source of social strife. Morgan argues that such structure created a highly stabilized society as their was no expectations that the slaves would be freed, eliminating the prospects of a discontented class of newly fee men like there was in previous years. The system was so stable, Morgan maintains that it explains the lockstep growth of slavery and freedom. American ideas of republicanism, he argues, was born out such as system as powerful Virginians and soon to be Americans like Jefferson and Madison could preach leveling and equality without fearing the “mob.” The American underclass, unlike their volatile European counterparts, were perpetually fettered, bound to a lifetime of bondage.

Of course, while American Slavery, American Freedom has become a standard history, it is not without its flaws. The biggest flaw, at least in my mind, is his rather muddied position of whether racism produced slavery or slavery produced racism. He goes to great pains to show that the initial intent of the English was to work with the Indians and reform them so that they could be incorporated into English society. The English even played the part of liberators, freeing slaves from the cruelty of the Spanish in the early battles of European supremacy that surprisingly took place, in part, in New World locations. And, of course, he points out that the shift to slavery only occurred when it was economically viable. Ostensibly, then, it would seem as if he falls into the scholarly camp maintaining racism was a product of slavery. Yet, he maintains that the English always looked at the indians with a sense of “otherness. Why else would they need reforming? African slaves were no different. To the English both the indian and the African represented a heathen people, a people, perhaps, more brute than human. Would the English enslave another European, much less another brother in Christ? No, they would not. Morgan therefore straddles the fence, refusing to align himself to one position. Nevertheless, American Slavery, American Freedom stands as the most astute explanation of how a country so synonymous with liberty was born out of a dedication to bondage.

For more about the book, follow the link below and see what the people at the Junto Blog had say about the book’s legacy:

The American Dilemma


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Saltwater Slavery by Stephanie Smallwood

“Saltwater,” Stephanie Smallwood suggests, defined the Atlantic slave experience. Metaphorically, spatially, and in terms of one’s identity, it represented a continuous but indeterminate wave of trauma inextricably bound to the experience of forced trans-Atlantic migration.

As a metaphor, Saltwater represented the market forces of the 17th and 18th century Atlantic. Inter-contenintal trade, operable only by the controlled whims of the ocean, drove the early Europeans to the West African coast. In the case of the Gold Coast, the primary subject of Smallwood’s study, the Europeans were, first, the Portuguese, in search of the valuable ore giving the region its European eponym. The turn of the 18th century, however, saw a shift–the Portuguese were replaced by the British, and the trade in Gold fell secondary to the trade in human bodies as the British feverishly sought to satisfy the labor demands of their new and increasingly profitable colonial holdings. Saltwater, in that it could be navigable and that it had to be navigable for purposes of trade, was thus the essential component of Atlantic commerce, thereby making it the origin of African commodification. To be transported across the Atlantic meant that slaves had to be brutally but systematically stripped of their ability to function as social beings, losing their humanity but retaining their physical, laboring form. Saltwater, in short, placed slaves in a deplorable middle ground between human and object, life and death.

Spatially, the open ocean, an unimaginably vast cauldron of salty liquid, presented its own form of trauma. First, the limitations of the water placed slaves in the strict confines of a sailing vessel, whose hollow interior, designed initially for European wares and goods, made for an insufferable home. Bound tightly for the duration of their journey–typically three months across–the captives struggled to not only survive but cope with the perpetual inevitability of death. As Smallwood suggests, death at sea was particularly traumatic as the watery mortuary of the open ocean did not allow for the typical African death rituals. Accordingly, then, one could never return to earth, return to home, in ones afterlife as would have been the case, so they believed, if the deceased had received a proper burial. Even in death, therefore, would remain a slave to the sea. Second, slaves from the African hinterlands, many of who probably had never seen the ocean before, struggled to make sense of what they were seeing and where they were going. The openness of the ocean, Smallwood points out, would have seemed as portal into whole other world, quite possibly a journey into the afterlife itself.

Saltwater also served as a demonstrative marker of Atlantic identity. When in the New World, “Saltwater” slaves were those non-American born slaves, those who wore the physical and emotional scares of the inter-continental trade. But the term “Saltwater” was more than an appellation. It was a window into their traumatic experience and social isolation. “Saltwater” slaves had experienced the social death of commodification, sundering them from their community, fictive or non, and brutally re-organizing them in inorganic and fragmentary collections at each point along their journey. “Saltwater” slaves, in other words, were the slaves still stuck in the social and emotional purgatory of the Atlantic.

Smallwood’s analysis has two major contributions to the larger historiography of slavery. For one, her idea that slavery equated to social death is irreconcilable with the idea of a slave expressing one’s agency, an occurrence, or better yet, an expression we know to be true to a certain degree. She does an odd thing with her book. She writes a social history, that in many ways doubles as a cultural history, while maintaining the preposition of social death. How can one be socially dead but very much culturally alive? Her methodology is tricky, but she makes it work. She also suggests that the slave experience is antithetical to the idea of a “Middle Passage.” Calling it a middle passage denotes that there is a beginning, an in between period, and an end. The actual slave experience was a series of contingent events, each with their own set of traumatic moments. And if the commodification process, a process that begun in the journey’s initial stages, signals social death, is death itself not an end point with extreme finality?

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The Claims of Kinship by Dylan Pennigroth

In the world of the enslaved, kinship and property are often thought to be components of life just beyond reach. Slaves, after all, were bought and sold at the will of their masters, displacing kin and disturbing the natural growth of multigenerational families; and since slaves themselves were considered property, anything they claimed to “own” was, in theory, also the property of their masters. However, in The Claims of Kinfolk, Dylan C. Pennigroth shows that property and kinship did indeed exist in the slave quarters and that the two composed a dialectic relationship of sorts—Kinship helped make property and property helped build kinship. Pennigroth’s outstanding book highlights the ways in which slaves accumulated property and explains that property or the acquisition of property, not blood, often served as the foundation upon which a slave’s social and familial connections were made.

Yes, slaves did own property despite being property themselves. But a slave’s idea of property varied from that of whites. In the 19th century, property was synonymous with land, but to slaves, property took the form of household possessions, crops, and goods. To foster plantation harmony and decrease any excess expenditures, slave owners often   set aside small plots of land away from the primary fields to serve as personal gardens for his slaves. These gardens offered a much needed form of sustenance to supplement the scant rations given to them by their owners. Any excess items, however, entered what scholars refer to as the slaves’ internal economy. Mostly on weekends, slaves would take their foodstuffs—these items were mostly items from the garden but they also could consist of fish, hunted game, or even handcrafted items like woven baskets or wooden furniture—to neighboring plantations, local markets, or to the big house looking to sell their goods for a monetary return. If able to sell their goods, slave families would then pool their money together, saving up if they had to, to buy valuable items such as chickens, hogs, the occasional cow or wagon, and, if lucky, their own freedom.

Slaves were also able to accumulate property by being “hired out.” In the slow, non-harvest season, slaves were able to go around the country side looking to be employed by someone in need of labor. The master himself would often broker these labor contracts, personally finding “hired” work for a slave with or without the slaves consent. The wage paid for the hired slave’s labor would be broken up with a portion going to the slave and a portion, probably a much larger one at that, would go to the master. Skilled slaves, those slaves with any craftsman skills or special abilities, invariable fared much better in the “hired” market. So too did domestic slaves. It was not uncommon for a family to host a large party in which extra servants and maids were hired from neighboring families in order to accommodate all of their guests.

The Low Country region of South Carolina and to an extent Georgia, where rice was the primary cash crop, offered a unique opportunity for slaves to accumulate property. There slaves worked according to the task system of labor as opposed to the gang system commonly seen on cotton plantations. Working by the task essentially meant that a slave was assigned a set number of tasks to perform each day or week, like, say, harvesting a set amount of rice, digging a specific number of canals, or clearing a particular acreage of forests. Once the assigned tasks for the given day or week was finished, slaves were then able to use their “free time” however he or she wished. Most, however, chose to spend it cultivating their own crops, hunting or fishing, or working extra jobs for which they would be compensated for in some way. Choosing to work once their assigned task was finished was absolutely essential, for it was the only way slaves could acquire “wealth’ that could improve their already base material well-being and ensure their sustenance considering the lack of resources provided to them by their masters. Therefore, a slave’s “free time” as it is often called, should not denote leisure, but it did offer a small reprieve from the constant control of the master by allowing slaves to determine how they would manage their own labor.

Kinship proved to be a critical component of the slaves’ internal economy. Working to accumulate property was a family affair as it took the efforts of every member to raise the collective material and monetary wealth of the family. But kinship bonds could extend beyond familial ties. Slaves that were completely unrelated to another by blood could “join” a family or network of kin by helping a family acquire property. In return, the unrelated slave would be given access to spoils of the family’s labor. This sort of agreement is best seen in the example of Charles Ball. Upon being separated from his family and sold South, Ball was inorganically placed in slave cabin on his new plantation. In his narrative, Ball remembers being hungry to the point of starvation, but he makes no mention of the slave family living in the cabin. It was not until Ball agreed to work with the slave family in return for his share of the food and clothing that the family is even mentioned. From there on out, he was taken care of and brought into the “family” and introduced to their pre-established social networks.

In the case of Ball, as it was with many other slaves, agreeing to work collectively for the acquisition of property allowed access to kinship bonds for slaves transplanted to a plantation where they had no ties to the other slaves. Property essentially made kinship, and, likewise, the collective labor of the kin produced property.


Penningroth, Dylan C. The Claims Of Kinfolk: African American Property And Community In The Nineteenth-Century South. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture, 2003.

Image from LAprogressive.com

“Slave and Citizen in the Modern World” By Thomas Holt

We have all heard it before: History is about knowing dead people and long forgotten dates. Certainly, this popular refrain is at least partially true. I’m thinking of course of the multiple choice tests we were all forced to endure during high school. But far from this popular practice, the study of History is, in fact, a science. It stands as a systematic method of inquiry, where archived material, family papers, and public records are used to build interpretive frameworks that facilitate our understanding of the past. But History is not always retrogressive. These same interpretive frameworks can be applied to the present and, at times, the future, allowing for a bit of, shall we say, perspective as to our present condition, where we are going, and how to avoid the pitfalls that may arise along the way. The term “interpretive framework” is without a doubt vague, but they are highly familiar to us all. They manifest themselves in constructed ideas, phases, and concepts like “Paternalism,” “Antebellum,” and “Modernity” which come replete with their own sets of schemas and paradigms that help us make sense of a given historical topic.

The term “emancipation” is not quite as abstract. It is simply the act of being liberated from something, but it is most often applied to being freed from slavery. In American history, the national process of emancipation—I call it a process because that is truly what it was, starting with the Confiscation Acts and ending with the Thirteenth Amendment—was a monumental moment in our nation’s history, for it was the time when the promise of the Declaration of Independence was finally coming to fruition—at least for a while. Over the years, the study of our country’s emancipation process has since developed its own set of schemas and paradigms, making it, in my mind at least, its own interpretive framework for how we understand the dissolution of slavery in this country.

The only problem with these frameworks, however, is that sometimes they set limits to our understanding when our perspective on a given topic desperately needs to be expanded. In After Slavery, a collection of essays dealing with the challenges freedmen and women faced following the Civil War, Thomas C. Holt’s introductory essay titled “Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-First Century” calls us to do just that.

Holt’s essay draws striking parallels between the worlds of plantation slavery and “slave-like” sweatshop labor, forcing the reader to consider the implications behind the reality that ancient methods of labor extraction still exist in a country that places the expansion of freedom at the center of its world view. Using a 1995 case occurring in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte and a similar case in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, New York as a point of departure, Holt blurs the line between the diabolical and utterly inhumane Atlantic Slave Trade and the late twentieth century process we now know as Globalization. Both movements, he points out, arose out of a concerted effort to satisfy world markets with, in the case of the Atlantic slave trade, raw materials and under globalization, cheap goods—both of which could not have been accomplished without a steady abundance of cheap, mobile labor.

Parsing out the differences between slave labor and the “slave-like” labor found in sweatshops is a valid undertaking, but for this comparison, in-depth analysis is not needed. All that is needed to know is that sweatshop laborers are forced into oppressive labor situations where an undue amount of control is exerted over them. They are, to briefly paraphrase and add to Holt, often pushed into unfair labor contracts which sometimes mandate that a worker’s wage be withheld until a certain quota of production has been met, disallowed from organizing themselves as a bargaining labor force, inhibited from seeking outside allies, and often racialized–meaning that many of the workers come from other parts of the globe, creating what Holt calls a “not-us” or outsider mentality, allowing them to be tucked away in enclaves out of plain site. In essence, they are not in any way the single independent agents in their own lives, which, in my mind, is enough to grant validity to the comparison. Might I point out too that Holt’s essay does not even mention the nefarious and all too real world of sex slavery, a system that I would presume warrants an even stronger comparison.

But so what? What purpose does this comparison serve and how does it relate to thinking about Emancipation? Well this topic is certainly one that needs more study for a final conclusion to be made, but I think the message, at this stage at least, is simple. The comparison proves that just as the Civil Rights Movement did not eradicate notions of white supremacy (do we need to look any farther than Charleston, S.C. for proof of this?), our country’s national emancipation process did not put an end to the terrible human quality that beckons one to exploit the labor of another for personal gain. It is a quality, quite frankly, that is engrossed in greed, making it inherent to human nature. As a result, our country’s emancipation process is one that, I believe, is never ending, and its history should help shape our future policy, lest slavery, in any of its nuances or variances like sweatshop labor or sex slavery, creep back into our society.




Holt, Thomas. “Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-First Century.” in Baker, Bruce E., and Brian Kelly. After slavery : Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 2013.

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Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made by Eugene Genovese

Wikipedia summarizes the historiography of American slavery as this: U.B. Phillips wrote about what slavery did for the slaves, scholars writing in the 1950s like Kenneth Stampp pointed out what slavery did to the slaves, and Eugene Genovese documented what the slaves did for themselves. As it pertains to Eugene Genovese and his highly acclaimed Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Wikipedia’s concise summary only offers a cursory assessment. Genovese did, in fact, write about what the slaves did for themselves, but his analysis of the slaves’ cultural creations is embedded within a complex argument about the law, class distinction, and, above all, the conveyance of power.

Genovese’s central argument is centered on the notion of paternalism, commonly thought of as the practice by which a figure in a position of authority asserts power by assuming the role of a subordinate’s mother or father. As Genovese points out, there were deep contradictions in how the country’s legal codes and the slaveholders themselves governed the enslaved. In theory, slaves existed only to be extensions of their master’s will, and the slave codes treated them as such, addressing them only as property void of any legal rights or human qualities. The slaveholders, however, could not ignore the human qualities of their slaves. Whether it be for reasons associated with increasing agricultural output or plantation harmony, the slaveholders regularly interacted with their slaves on a basic, human level. More often than not, these interactions were governed by the practice of paternalism which, to the slaveholders and many northerners, justified the hegemonic nature of the master-slave relationship and the institution as a whole. But the slaves themselves also had a role in paternalism’s development. As Genovese notes, the slaves quickly recognized that in the absence of legal protection, their defense could only come from the hands of their supposed “benevolent” masters.

The slaves’ appeal to the slaveholders for defense only reinforced the slaveholder’s claim to paternalism, but it also entered the two sides into a paternalistic relationship—a dialectic relationship replete with its own set negotiations as to the nature of slave life. Genovese argues that through these negotiations the slaves defined paternalism in their own way, using the slaveholders need to justify their status as patriarchal overlords to claim basic rights and ameliorate their conditions. Issues such as time off, church participation, and the ability to produce their own food through gardening or hunting became quasi “rights” that all slaves could claim for themselves. This relative amount of “freedom”—as in the freedom to make certain choices for themselves—Genovese argues, is how slaves were then able to assert their own cultural creations and build a “protonational consciousness.”

Genovese pays, perhaps, too much homage to the idea of paternalism. While no one can discredit its role in the master-slave relationship, the range of slave experiences varies to the point that paternalism cannot be listed as the sole or even primary governing factor. Other factors such as racism and the basic market value of slaves also dictated how masters, in particular, interacted with their slaves. Yet, with that being said, Genovese lays out a precise and thorough argument for how slaves eked out a life—rife with its own set of customs and expectations—under the hegemonic rule of their masters. While not a frontal challenge to slavery itself, these customs and expectations limited the reach of the slaveholder’s hegemony. As Genovese succinctly puts it, the slaves’ assertion to basic rights under the master’s guise of paternalism “rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s, but it also narrowed down considerably that which in fact was Caesar’s.”



Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll; the World the Slaves Made. New York:       Pantheon Books, 1974.


Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative

Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761 is a project that I have previously had some experience with. It is, at its core, an animated map that relates the events of “Tacky’s War,” a major Jamaican slave revolt. Harvard Historian Vincent Brown–the site’s creator–uses the map to relate the spatial and strategic characteristics of counter insurgency and rebellion.

Image Via Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761


The biggest flaw of site is its lack of archival information. While Brown admits the site is not intended to be a database, some form of documentation would have been incredibly useful. The animated movements are great, but the lack of archived data makes it hard to understand exactly what is happening with those movements. In other words, the lack of archived information allows the user of the site to lose context of what is going on. As a result, I think the site is not quite as immersive as it could be, which negates the site’s effectiveness.

Image Via Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761


However, with that being said, the map really helps one to understand how important space, geography, and the landscape is to acts of rebellion. The thing that really stood out to me is how the rebellion engulfed the entire island while as remained demarcated to certain regions. It reminded me very much of how I envision the Haitian Revolution–the world’s first successful slave rebellion that also happened on an island in the Caribbean. After recently reading C.L.R. James’s remarkable book Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverature and the San Domingo Revolution, I now understand how geography and place often dictates the actions and, sometimes, results of revolutions and rebellions.

To view the site in its entirety, access the link below:

Two Plantations: Enslaved Families in Virginia and Jamaica

Two Plantations: Enslaved Families in Virginia and Jamaica is quite the digital and historical marvel. From a historical standpoint, it uses comparison to assess an incredibly popular and hotly debated topic: In what ways were the slave systems of the Caribbean different from that of mainland North America? Using Mesopotamia–a sugar plantation in Jamaica–and Mt. Airy–a tobacco plantation in Virgina–as examples, the site explores how slaves in these two regions were both subject to immense suffering but through very different means.

As a quick overview, slavery in mainland North America–particularly in Virginia–differed greatly from Caribbean slavery. For example, most of the islands in the Caribbean were comprised of large sugar plantations with absentee landowners. The process of harvesting sugar cane and then preparing it for travel required intense labor, leading to an incredibly high death rate. To keep production going, the plantation owners were therefore required to import slaves regularly. In contrast, Tobacco production in Virginia was much less labor intensive allowing for a natural increase in the slave population. However, because of this increase, there was often a surplus of Virginia slaves. As a result, slaveowners bartered and sold their unneeded slaves at a high rate, splintering and disbanding slave families with every exchange. Two Plantations documents how the slave families of Mesopotamia and Mt. Airy were broken up and forced to deal with high rates of death and exportation by reconstructing as many of their family trees as possible.
Sally Thurston’s Family Tree


In terms of its digital properties and abilities, the site is really quite amazing. It opens up to homepage that directs the user through a quick overview of the site. However, the introductory pages will quickly collapse if the user clicks on the tool bar or scrolls to the bottom of the page. When the user scrolls, family trees immediately appear, situating the user at the core of the site. Yet, even here, the tool bar remains accessible, and the user can quickly navigate to other family trees, diagrams, and a quick analysis. If the user continues to scroll, without stopping, he or she will find a short bio of the sites creator and chief researcher–Richard Dunn–and list of books for more information about the two plantations.

Overall, the site is incredibly interactive and it appears to be “well made,” but is it too much? There is so much going on in the site and so much initial movement, that it could be difficult to use for a first time user. So much so, in fact, that it may inhibit someone from understanding what is being relayed in the family trees. It also seems a tad unorganized. The bio and selected reading sections could have their own pages, but instead they occupy a space on the main page. I am in no way insinuating that it is a bad site. Quite the opposite really. I only aim to use this site as an example of how, when working with digital history, content and design have to have a congruent relationship. One cannot be greater or more overwhelming than the other.

To access the site, follow the link below:


Voyages: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

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.
Map of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade


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:





Visualizing Emancipation


The Civil War brought death and destruction upon the American landscape, but for the four million African American slaves residing in the Southern states, it also brought freedom. However, that freedom did not come uncontested. Though the Emancipation Proclamation legally freed the slaves in the deep south, it was, in effect, a wartime measure with little to no credibility in the seceded states. Emancipation, then, had to occur the hard way–through a series of interactions between the enslaved, the union army, and the individual slaveholders themselves. In short, Emancipation owes its materialization to the scores to those on the ground acting according to their own individual circumstances and operating within the messy context of war and rebellion.

Visualizing Emancipation–a project directed by current University of Georgia professor Scott Nesbit and standing president of the University of Richmond, Ed Ayers–charts this messy history. It showcases a war that occurred in disparate localities across the South, often producing differing outcomes. More importantly, however, it displays the ways in which the lines between injustice, liberation, violence and generosity were sometimes blurred. As Nesbit and Ayers put it, “If emancipation was a process, it must have seemed a chaotic, directionless one to many caught up in it. Visualizing Emancipation shows a war in which alliances between enslaved people and union soldiers were uneasy and often tested, but which yielded, somehow, the end of slavery.”

Map of Visualizing Emancipation Project


At its core, Visualizing Emancipation is a map that “organizes documentary evidence about when, where, and how slavery fell apart.” It documents and locates three pieces of information: where slavery was protected, where the Union Army had a military presence, and where emancipation events occurred. Also, by using descriptive icons, it even distinguishes between the different types of emancipation events. For instance, there is an icon to represent the running away of a fugitive slave, an icon to denote slaves being captured by union troops, and another to mark an incident where slaves were recaptured by the Confederate soldiers. However, what I find most compelling about the project is its ability to capture the essence of History as a scholarly field–the study of change over time and space. Since it uses certain GIS mapping technologies, the project is able to evolve over a timeline which appears at the bottom of the screen. Yet, if a user wishes, he or she could easily stop the timeline and choose a particular date. Then, by clicking on the pins, the events come to life. A screen appears that contains the details and documentation of the event chosen.

Overall, I think it is a remarkable project. It possesses the quality of research found in traditional scholarship while capturing the visual, participatory, and spacial capabilities of Digital Media. The project, in its entirety, can be access by using the following link: