Magazine article History Today

Counting the Slaves

Magazine article History Today

Counting the Slaves

Article excerpt

THE TRANS-ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE and the `African Diaspora' are attracting academic and educational interest worldwide. In 1995, the Merseyside Maritime Museum opened the gallery `Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: Against Human Dignity', which is now the museum's most-frequented exhibition. During the first five months of 1999, the Bristol City Museum's exhibition on the Guinea trade attracted 160,000 visitors. In the United States, the recovery and preservation of artefacts from slaving vessels has increased public awareness of the notorious trade. In recognition of this interest, a new CD-Rom which offers a database of almost 30,000 slaving voyages across the Atlantic, will provide an important and exciting new reference resource.

In 1972-73 and 1983, divers off Florida found numerous (eventually ninety) shackles and then the ship's bell inscribed `THE HENRIETTA MARIE 1699'. Identified as a London slaver, this vessel sank in a storm in 1701 after disembarking enslaved Africans in Jamaica. Some of the 7,500 artifacts from the Henrietta Marie exhibit, housed at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, have toured the United States. The London slaving ship Whydah (or Whidaw Gally), named after a lagoon site in modern-day Benin, was captured by pirates in the Caribbean on its homeward passage and subsequently wrecked off Massachusetts in 1717. Rediscovered in 1983, artifacts from the remains, including the ship's bell inscribed `WHYDAH', are on display at a small museum in Provincetown. Most recently, divers believe they have discovered the wreck of the pirate Blackbeard's flagship Queen Anne's Revenge, sunk in the shoals off North Carolina in 1718. This vessel, captured in the Caribbean and renamed by the pirates, was the Nantes slaving ship Concorde.

The final slaving voyages of the Henrietta Marie, Whidaw Gally and Concorde are just three of 27,233 trans-Atlantic slaving voyages documented in The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-Rom (published by Cambridge University Press). The large data set of voyages, which, if printed as text, would comprise about 10,000 pages, is the culmination of more than thirty years of archival research by numerous scholars from Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The first stage of the project, sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute (Harvard) and funded primarily by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Mellon Foundation, involved creating a consolidated data set from previous computerised slave trade files (such as those on the Portuguese, Cuban and Dutch trades), which varied in content and structure. During the project's second phase, the editors computerised published volumes of slave-trade material -- including 2,100 Bristol voyages and 3,300 French slaving ventures. The final stage added new voyages -- those that had not appeared in any other published compilation -- documented in sources such as the English newspaper Lloyd's Lists (1741-1808), and in records from the public archives of Bahia, Brazil (1680-1810). The consolidated database is thus a new archive on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The disk includes information on at least two-thirds of all the trans-Atlantic slaving voyages that, together, disembarked about ten million enslaved Africans in the Americas. There are data for all major slave-trading participants spanning almost all years of the 350-year trade, from a Spanish-contracted voyage arriving in Puerto Rico in 1527 (nine years after the first trans-Atlantic slaving voyage) to an unnamed vessel disembarking 700 slaves in Cuba in 1866, the year before the ending of the trade. …

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