Slave trade records now searchable online

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This 1662 map of the Caribbean Islands and the continental coast of the Americas, stretching from northern South America to Virginia, provides the names of the main ports situated on both the islands and the continental coasts. (Credit: John Carter Brown Library at Brown University).

EMORY (US)—The hidden history of 12.5 million slaves and their transatlantic journeys is being opened to the world. A free online database documents more than 80 percent of the slave trade activity—almost 35,000 voyages—between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is the result of a two-year undertaking at Emory University. David Eltis, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of History, is one of the scholars who originally published The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as a CD-ROM in 1999. He and Martin Halbert, director of digital innovations for Emory Libraries, led the work that made the online project expandable, interactive, and publicly accessible.

“Voyages provides searchable information on almost 35,000 trans-Atlantic voyages hauling human cargo, as well as maps, images, and data on some individual Africans transported,” says Eltis.

Links between America, Africa
“Everyone wants to know where their ancestors came from,” Eltis says. “There are more data on the slave trade than on the free migrant movement simply because the slave trade was a business and people were property, so records were likely to be better. What the database makes possible is the establishment of links between America and Africa in a way that already has been done by historians for Europeans.”

Halbert says online effort is intentionally collaborative and can grow and change over time. “Scholars who discover new information can add it to the database, and thus share it with their colleagues. In addition, researchers can download the database in a format compatible with the SPSS statistical package,” he explains.

In the classroom
Halbert, Eltis, and their team also collaborated with educators from public and private middle and high schools to create lessons plans and other materials, so that K-12 teachers can take Voyages into their classrooms. These and other resources on the site, such as images, introductory maps, and essays, are designed to help visitors experience the reality of the slave trade, says project manager Liz Milewicz.

Henry Louis Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and writer/producer of the PBS documentary African American Lives, credits Voyages with shedding an important light on the hidden history of 12.5 million slaves.

“The greatest mystery in the history of the West, I believe, has always been the Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the New World,” he says. “Their ancestries, their identities, their stories were lost in the ships that carried them across the Atlantic. The multidecade and collaborative project that brought us [the Voyages] site has done more to reverse the Middle Passage than any other single act of scholarship possibly could.”

The online project was funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Emory University news: www.emory.edu/home/news

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