Credit: (Image Courtesy of SlaveVoyages.com and Brown University)
Website Gives a More Revealing Look at Transatlantic Slave Trade
Many Americans will acknowledge Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the last of enslaved African Americans were finally freed in Galveston, Texas — more than ever now that June 19 is the nation's newest federal holiday.
The digital age is providing a closer look at the transatlantic slave trade. A new website is featuring more than 50 years’ worth of research into the global dispersal of 200,000 Africans.
Bringing SlaveVoyages.org to life required the work of several researchers from around the world, including David Eltis of Emory University.
His curiosity about the transatlantic slave trade began by staring out at the ocean.
"My initial interest was in the abolition of the slave trade movement,” Eltis said. “But I quickly realized that there was a lot of debate going on about the size of the slave trade and the direction of it."
With the help of various collaborators, Eltis says they were able to document more than 36,000 slave voyages. Those include voyages from Africa to Great Britain and to the Americas.
Experts have also tracked the trade of Africans forced into slavery between the Americas and the Caribbean, which Eltis says doesn't get much attention.
"What we call the Inter-American Slave Trade, it was the route that probably 15% of all Africans coming into the United States took because each American port drew heavily on the Caribbean,” Eltis said. “So, it wasn't just slave trading voyages coming from Africa that was populating the United States, but slave trade voyages coming from other parts of the Americas."
Eltis discovered, because the slave trade was a business, there are more and better detailed records of movement of Africans across the Atlantic than records of Europeans.
Eltis said when he looks at the sheer numbers of Africans brought to the Americas, he can only conclude that the new cultures of the continents have more in common with Africa than with Europe.
"So, we've got a very dramatic situation here, which not many people realize," he said, "which is that, by 1830 ... we've estimated that about four Africans arrived in the Americas for every single European. So, in effect, the Americas is an extension of Africa rather than of Europe."
In the U.S., that was especially true in places such as South Carolina where, by 1830, Europeans were outnumbered by Africans. That was nearly the case in Georgia at the time, too.
But for Nafees M. Khan, this website has become a connection to his world.
The Clemson University assistant professor first started working on SlaveVoyages.org when he was a graduate student at Emory University. That was around 2006, when the research needed to be transferred from a CD-ROM to a website.
Among the website's features are several maps, where one can watch the progression of the slave trade between the 16th century and the 20th century.
Khan's family is from Jamaica. He was struck by watching the forced movement of masses of people who could be his ancestors.
"Seeing the ships or the dots move across — and the relative size of the dots corresponding to the number of people taken on board — really starts to hit home,” Khan said. “This was an insidious enterprise where millions of black bodies were forcibly transported across the Atlantic and to varying places in the Americas. It wasn't just the U.S.; it was also Brazil and the Caribbean and in Central America. And just seeing the scale of it, you start to really see that this wasn't an accident of history. This wasn't a small, small blip. This was centuries of a complicated, large scale endeavor. And so, it really starts to hit home when you see that playing over and over the five or 10 minutes. You think, ‘Wait, those represent lives that were being drastically altered one way or the other going forward.’”
Eltis said another absorbing experience on SlaveVoyages.org is a virtual walk-through of an exact replica of a slave ship.
"We've got a video on the site of an actual slave ship, which is a 3D construction from plans of a slave ship found in the French archives," Eltis said.
Khan says the visual gives a realistic view of how inhumane the slave trade was. He also sees SlaveVoyages.org as a digital memorial.
"My motivation is how stories and narratives and histories are told and disseminated, and how those stories are often diminished, marginalized — particularly around black communities — both in the U.S. and more globally,” Khan said. “Making sure or wanting to dive into how we tell these stories. How do we remember these narratives, these experiences, these trials and tribulations, but the moments of joy, as well."
Researchers estimate 12.5 million enslaved Africans were taken from their native land between the years 1500 and 1900. But even decades of research on SlaveVoyages.org only identified a fraction of the voyages enslaved Africans took across the Atlantic.
"It doesn't tell us everything we want to know,” Khan said. “We don't know as much as we want around the individual lived experiences of enslaved Africans and people caught up in the trade as well as we would want to. But it does give a sense of the scale, and how long-lasting and wide-reaching, and who the perpetrators were of this endeavor. So that's what I'm kind of excited about. Getting that information out as often as possible and disseminating it and making it freely accessible is a really important element, too."
Making this research accessible comes at a critical time, as America faces a number of racial issues, such as police brutality and restrictions on voting rights.
Khan thinks SlaveVoyage.org makes a strong argument for paying reparations and teaching critical race theory, because governments, private industries and individuals all were part of and benefited from the slave trade.
"And unfortunately, in most school curriculums, [learning about] the slave trade, in the U.S. at least, is minimal,” Khan said. "Students take away the idea that the U.S. was the biggest slave trade, which is not the case, but the U.S. was deeply involved nonetheless. And so, reconciling with that history with that, the fact that those who engage in the trade, and the regions, and the places where the trade took place, there's still a real contention around how we recognize one of the names on the building, the monuments that we have that are dedicated to people who were not just part of, but led and took major roles in the slave trade. I think we're still very much grappling with that."
Khan believes the pushback against critical race theory is part of a long tradition of not wanting to reconcile with systemic racism in the U.S. and across the globe.
"And so, I see the voyages as a space and part of that conversation," Khan said. "Not because we need to start with slavery and the slave trade, but it shows that this is not just a small, unique, isolated incident. This affects how insurance companies and businesses and governments engaged in this trade. And so that information is very needed in curriculums, in schools."
So researchers such as Eltis and Khan are always searching for more artifacts and family histories to expand their research.
You can find out how to contribute valuable insight about the slave trade by visiting SlaveVoyages.org.