Sources 101: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Voyages

Sources 101: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Voyages

It’s the height of summer, and I think all of us could probably use some inspiration for new projects or more sources of information to contribute to our on-going research. While it’s not a new resource, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Voyages offers quantifiable, searchable data on slaving voyages, published results, genealogical resources, and lesson plans. Having used it in my own work, I thought I’d take some time to break down its main features.

Slave Vessel image

Plan of the Slaver, Vigilante, as drawn by abolitionists in Britain, 1823.

History:

The history of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is complex. It is the result of multiple grants and efforts over several decades to record and quantify the size and nature of the transatlantic slave trades of every trading nation. Early work using archival data was turned into the shared data sets of historians working on the trading of different nations, a CD-ROM in the late 1990s, and the current searchable website in the 2000s.

What You’ll Find:

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Voyages contains information on nearly 36,000 individual slaving voyages that took place between the 1500s and 1800s. It also records the names of over 90,000 individuals who were forcibly shipped as slaves from Africa. These voyages and names can be searched in the Voyages Database and the African Names Database, African Origins, respectively.

Thankfully, a number of essays and estimates utilising the information found within the Voyages Database are also provided for readers and researchers to draw upon. These save time and also provide ‘jumping off’ points from which to extend, expand upon, or challenge in your own research. Contributors to the database have also devised a number of educational resources for use in schools, including lesson plans that contextualise and tie the information found within the database to US national standards for grade 6-12 history, social science, and geography.

How to Use It:

Clicking on ‘Search the Voyages Database‘ takes you to a page that initially looks overwhelming in the volume of information already on display. To create a search, work your way down the left-hand column of the page. You’ll be asked to enter a timeframe, select which variables you’re interested in specifying (such as date, origin, ownership, and outcome) and then press the “search” button. At the bottom of the left-hand column you will have the option to save a URL of your specific search.

As you can probably see, the search function of the database is geared towards asking very specific questions of the material. This is great for researchers who have exact questions in mind for their research, but not so useful for those with a general interest in the topic or want to get an idea of what the database has shown. This is another reason why the essays and estimates mentioned above are so important. It’s also no wonder that they provide a detailed guide to using the Voyages database and website and a pop-out FAQs page.

Research Potential:

The essays have the potential to be great for providing context (e.g. How big was the slave trade? What countries participated in the trade?) and the raw data is useful in answering specific inquiries (e.g. How many trips did vessel X make? Where did Captain Y sail?). Perhaps one of the most exciting, accessible pieces of work to develop out of the information contained within Voyages recently was The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes, a video by Andrew Kahn of Slate, who animated the movement and size of more than 20,000 of the voyages recorded in the database.

Reflections:

This is an older tool now, but it is the most comprehensive online source for information about the transatlantic slave trade that we have. The initial search page is overwhelming. This could perhaps be improved by having the search and results shown on separate pages. The search variables could be streamlined for a more intuitive experience for the searcher (such as presenting two types of search — general and advanced — depending on the type of results the searcher is looking for) that doesn’t require detailed background reading on how to use the database in order to get started. Finally, the database isn’t optimised for mobile learning via smartphones. However, much of the complexity is acknowledged and the creators attempt to address it through the various help pages.

The existence of this database is pretty amazing when you think about it. It is the outcome of decades of international, systematic, expert research and collaboration and its programmers have attempted to make it usable by anyone with an interest in the trade and the people who were caught up in it. It also seeks to assist people looking for teaching resources, background information on the trade of the many nations taking part, and family history and genealogy. And as Kahn’s video demonstrates, the information contained within it has the potential to inform a wide range of audiences. Definitely worth a look!

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2 thoughts on “Sources 101: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Voyages

  1. Pingback: Why We Study Slavery from a Comparative Viewpoint | Isles Abroad

  2. Pingback: Digitising Historical Sources | Isles Abroad

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