Studies of the intra-American slave trade reveal a limited understanding of the forced migration of millions of Africans onto this continent. UC Santa Cruz associate history professor Greg O’Malley wanted to know why.
“There seemed to be a missing link,” O’Malley said. “I decided to make that missing link my research.”
For 10 years, he uncovered and added 7,600 shipment entries into a personal database on his laptop. He’s analyzed thousands of port records, printers’ documents and ship logs to uncover how hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were trafficked, sold and relocated within the colonies and the Americas.
This past March, the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) awarded a $220,000 grant to integrate O’Malley’s database into the widely-used online resource, Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, which begins this month.
As one of the more well-known sites in the digital humanities, Voyages is made up of over 35,000 records and logs over 1,000 visitors each day. It is a large collaborative project that documents archival materials in an interface for a comprehensive system to track the transatlantic slave trade.
O’Malley’s research is culminated in his recently published book “Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America”, 1619-1807, which contains some of the information logged into his database. While it wasn’t a conscious decision for him to enter the field of digital humanities, the broad scope of the slave trade made a digital platform the best tool to organize research.
The founder of the website, David Eltis of Emory University, and O’Malley worked on the NEH grant proposal that will now aid in integrating a new interface onto the existing site, allowing users to query the data. The official grant period goes until February 2018, although O’Malley has already begun working on it this summer.
With his addition to the site, O’Malley hopes that his work will merge into two distinct camps of study within this era of history: one that analyzes numerical data and one that examines personal narratives of captive black lives.
“The story of an individual and the hardship they suffered in the slave trade is more meaningful when you know that 12 million other people also endured similar captivity in the slave trade,” O’Malley said. “A number like 12.5 million people were taken out of Africa and shipped across the Atlantic is more meaningful when you have some of those stories of individual captives — what this actually meant, what they experienced, what the conditions were like on ships.
The most challenging part of his work, he says, is the inherently limited and dehumanizing aspects to the records he studies. These records don’t disclose the names of the individuals on board, their cultural background, the languages they speak or anything about who they were as people, O’Malley said. His work therefore requires reading between the lines in order to develop a clearer understanding of the lives of captives in this trade.
Daniel B. Domingues da Silva, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, is a co-manager of Voyages and a collaborator on the site. Part of his work includes an extension of the site called African Origins, a crowdsourcing historical database that works toward understanding the regions enslaved people came from. He uses both databases in his own classes to help students understand the vastness of the transatlantic slave trade.
“[Voyages] gives [students] a better sense of the size and distribution of the trade,” Domingues da Silva said in an email. “It also sheds light on a number of details, such as mortality at sea, age and sex ratios and the ships’ carrying capacity.”
With the new grant allocation, O’Malley can integrate his database into this larger framework, allowing anyone with an internet connection to become familiar with the demographics and specifics of this commerce of people. O’Malley will be team-teaching a course at UCSC with professor Cameron Monroe in the fall called Slavery in the Atlantic World: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives. He will be working with one graduate student and fourth-year Rose Greenberg this fall quarter. Greenberg is the only undergraduate slated to work on the project and to her the most exciting aspect is being a part of building the new interface and working directing with O’Malley — who she referred to as a “historian in action.”
“There’s history that’s unknown to people,” Greenberg said. “I like the idea of these documents being available to everyone, not just if you have access to a really great library.”
This database, though, will never be complete. Because of the nature of this time period, researchers like O’Malley know that some details are lost to history. The expansion of the Voyages website will allow other researchers to build on O’Malley’s work to create a more complete picture of the slave trade and its lasting impacts today.
“It’s a pretty big topic, even the places I’ve already studied could use more research and more depth,” O’Malley said. “There’s a lot more to do.”