In the News: Ben Carson, ‘Immigrants’, and Slavery in America

In the News: Ben Carson, ‘Immigrants’, and Slavery in America

On March 6, 2017, newly-sworn-in Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson, made a speech to his agency’s employees that confused enslaved Africans for immigrants seeking a better life in America. Word of this mix-up quickly gathered momentum in news outlets, on social media, and the late show circuit.

Regular readers of our blog know that we rarely get political, but in this case I wanted to contextualise Carson’s remarks and hopefully shed some light on why his assertion immediately received such strong criticism. Continue reading

Facts versus Interpretation and Why Historians Disagree

Facts versus Interpretation and Why Historians Disagree

Facts v Interpretation & Why Historians Disagree

In popular culture, I think there’s a tendency to shrug off the study of history as the memorisation of dates and facts. This ignores a fundamental element of history: it’s open to interpretation. Not only that, but ‘history’ tends to have been interpreted by the time it reaches its audience.

This doesn’t mean, however, that historians can say whatever they want and it will be considered ‘fact’. Continue reading

My New Article in Slavery & Abolition

My New Article in Slavery & Abolition

Hello 2017! It’s great to be back and to be blogging again. It’s been a busy few weeks, as I’m sure it’s been for all of you, too! Probably the most exciting professional development for me is that my new article has been published in Slavery & Abolition!

You might remember that last spring I wrote about the Wellesley Index and how great this resource is for finding out about authorship of anonymously written articles in popular 19th century periodicals. Continue reading

“Unspeakable Things Unspoken” at Nottingham Contemporary

“Unspeakable Things Unspoken” at Nottingham Contemporary

On Wednesday, 12 October 2016, a number of slavery historians, early career researchers, postgraduate and college students, artists, educators, and members of the public gathered at Nottingham Contemporary to witness and engage in a series of ‘Dialogues’ that were tied together by the theme, ‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken’ Transatlantic Slavery – A Public Conversation. The day was hosted by the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham. I was able to attend the first day, learned some new things, and was given the opportunity to view a topic that I know quite well from some new perspectives. I’m so glad that I went.

What struck me most was the way in which the day and the physical space had both been structured to create opportunities for discussion on a wide range of topics related to historic slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Attendees were grouped in tables with approx. 8-10 seats, college students from Hackney had been invited and were mixed in with great success with some of the biggest historians of British slavery and abolition working in Britain right now. We watched panels of 2 to 3 presenters and a chair discuss their work and answer questions for 20 to 40 minutes before being actively encouraged as audience members to continue the dialogue at our tables, leading to some great discussions that were enhanced by multiple perspectives on the themes of the day.

The day was well organised, well thought out, and well implemented. Congratulations are definitely owed to Dr Katie Donington and her colleagues for the massive amount of work they must have put into organising such a large event. If you’re interested in finding out more, there will be several more related workshops happening London, Liverpool, and Hull over the next six months with a focus on slavery and art, public history, and education, so keep an eye out!

An Introduction to Slavery and the Arts, Pt. 1

An Introduction to Slavery and the Arts, Pt. 1

Over the summer I was asked to take part in Glasgow’s Black History Month programme of events and started putting together a talk on ‘Slavery in the Arts in the Era of [British] Abolition’. I had previously looked at the importance of artwork, literature, and drama to the anti-abolitionists in establishing and demonstrating the existence of a culture of proslavery for both my PhD thesis and my book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). I also wanted to share some of my thoughts here on some of the uses of artistic depictions of slavery during abolition.

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William Holland (publisher), ‘The Blind Enthusiast’, 1792  — Image credit: The British Museum

Works of art are vital sources of information. In theory, many types of artistic works could be seen, heard, and understood by a wider range of individuals than written works such as a periodical, newspaper, or pamphlet. They contain visual details that might not otherwise of have been captured by an author’s printed words. Information about Africans and people of African descent in the colonies was shared with a wide swath of the British public and British politicians by Britain’s anti-slavery societies and their opposition. Many of these artistic works could certainly have been created with the intention of swaying public opinion, but their form, being pieces of art, meant that they could also be passed off as a simply pieces of art.

There seems to have been four central uses of artwork, drama, song, literature, etc.  that depict images of the enslaved in Britain in the later 18th and early 19th centuries:

  • Art as a Leisure Pursuit
  • Art as Information
  • Art as Propaganda
  • Art as a Commercial Endeavour

The divisions between the categories can be quite blurred, as you’ll see, depending on the author’s intention, the date of creation/publication, and the display or distribution of the item.

‘Reading’, analysing, and understanding artistic sources requires a range of techniques that are drawn from the fields of history, drama, art history, and language studies. Items need to be studied within a wider context:

  • Where and when was it created?
  • Who was the creator/artist/author?
  • Who might have seen the work?
  • Why might it have been made?
  • How does the piece compare to other similar contemporary works?
  • Are there any contemporary records that mention it? If so, where are the records from and what do they say about it?

Art is also an interpretation of its subject, so any analysis of a piece of artwork would be an interpretation of an interpretation.

This was a period of growth in the middling classes. People were encouraged to go out, visit newly opened galleries, expanded theatres, and circulating libraries in cities across Britain, share ideas in cafes with likeminded, politically-aware individuals, and develop ‘taste’ and an appreciation for the arts. The upper middling and upper classes also had the money and time to support the arts, read widely and build up a small home library, attend the theatre, collect some favourite political prints or caricatures, and have portraits painted to display within their homes.

People bought or borrowed books and tended to read aloud, allowing for others to share in the experience. Women will still discouraged from attending the theatre (due to the threat of being ‘corrupted’ by the experience); this demonstrates a heightened awareness of the theatre as political and influential, as well as the true mix of crowds in the stalls. Literacy rates were growing among men and women. Novels, known more in the 18th century as histories, romances, etc., became more popular and more common as literacy rates grew.

Portraiture was the most popular genre of art in 18th century Britain. Political prints, however, were a key part of making a politician or other individual recognisable to the wider public. Meanwhile, hundred of poems about slavery and the colonies were also published. Most of these were anti-slavery in nature, but a few supported the institution of slavery or the colonies in general.

A few key things have shaped how slavery would be depicted in the arts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. First, by defining or classifying Africans and people of African descent as ‘black’ and Britons/Europeans as ‘white’, this automatically places the two in direct opposition with one another. This opposition can be magnified through an artist’s paint choice or pen strokes. In a pen and ink political print, for example, a ‘white’ subject might not have any colour or shading added to their skin, whereas a ‘black’ might be completely coloured in.

Second, as the century went on, we see that for the first time African or black subjects are being depicted as ‘familiar’ rather than ‘foreign’ subjects in some forms of art. This suggests a growing awareness or even a sense of familiarity of slavery or the role of Africans in the British colonies and in Britain. Abolitionists were striving to make the plight of African slaves on slave ships and in the colonies a familiar subject to the British public. They wanted to convince Britons that they could and should help induce Parliament to make a change and vote for abolition. Perhaps this shift in the role of blacks in British art is a sign of their efforts and denoted their later success.

I hope this has served as an informative, interesting introduction to art in the era of British abolition. Next week I’ll look at some specific pieces to show how art (and slaves) were used across the genres of artwork, song, literature, and drama.

Suggested Reading:

Kay Dian Kriz, Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies, 1700-1840 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal, eds., Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Jan Marsh, ed., Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 (Aldershot: Manchester Art Galleries, 2006).

Marcia Pointon, Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).

Hazel Waters, Racism on the Victorian Stage: Representations of Slavery and the Black Character (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Karina Williamson, ed., Contrary Voices: Representations of West Indian Slavery, 1657-1834  (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2008).

Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representation of Slavery in England and America 1780-1865 (New York: Routledge, 2000).

Sources 101: The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database

UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project holds a lot of promise for historians of British slavery and abolition. It contains vital details and evidence of slave ownership within Britain at the end of slavery in the British Empire. Several academic publications have already come out of the project detailing the extent of slaveholding and financial ramifications of the compensation granted to slaveholders as part of the abolition settlement in 1833. In the summer of 2015, the television channel BBC Two aired a two-part documentary in the UK that examined some of the project’s early findings. This brought the project (and, to some extent, Britain’s slave-owning past) into the public eye. For today’s post, I wanted to go back to the database and share some tips for getting started and making the most of this great resource.

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History:

Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) was an ESRC-funded research project based at UCL that ran from 2009 to 2012. The project employed ten staff members and resulted in the creation of an online encyclopaedia of British slave owners as of 1833. On the project website it is noted that the project is not concerned with the identities of the enslaved individuals; such registers are found in the British National Archives. Some of the researchers on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership then moved on to work on the ESRC- and AHRC-funded project, Structure and Significance of British Caribbean Slave-ownership 1763-1833 (also at UCL), which looked at the histories of the slaveowners and the plantations.

What You’ll Find:

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database is a digitised, searchable version of the Slave Compensation Commission’s records. This Commission was set up in the 1830s to settle the compensation claims of approximately 46,000 British slave holders whose private property in slaves had been taken by the British Government through abolition. These compensation records were then supplemented where possible with biographical information submitted by researchers and developed at workshops that were held across the UK over several years. I was lucky enough to attend one at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, back in 2010. These elements have combined to turn the database into an online encyclopaedia.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership website contains details about the research project and its staff, the searchable database with both simple and advanced search options, a form for researchers and historians to send in relevant information on slave owners that they may wish to see added to the database, a list of related publications, and a link to the project’s blog which was last updated in late 2015. Finally, it contains multiple lists of “legacies“: slaveholders who had recognised ties to British commercial, political, imperial, historical, physical, and cultural ventures. It is in these lists that we finally get a sense of the real legacies of British slaveholding.

How to Use It:

Along the right-hand side of the project’s main page contains a large blue box labelled “Search the Database”. This simple search asks you to specify whether you wish to search by an individual’s name, the name of a firm/business, an address, or for something in the notes. Alternatively, clicking on “Search the Database” in the bar along the top of the site takes you directly to the Advanced Search page. Here you’ll find a wide range of potential areas within which to search. You can search by name, sex, role in the claim, location, education, religion, birthday, wealth, residence, and claim details (such as the location of the claimant’s plantation(s)). With such a large number of inputs, I highly recommend visiting the Search Guidance Notes for more information on how to search (including the use of wildcards) and some of the results you can expect to receive from your search words.

To skip searching for individuals or keywords and go directly to the categorised legacies results, click on the category that interests you from the drop-down menu under the header, “Browse the Legacies“, that you’ll find next to “Search the Database” along the top of the page or in the orange box below the “How You Can Help” section on the front page of the project.

Research Potential:

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database has led to several books and articles listed on their website. There are a number of areas of research that may stem from this resource. First, we are able to see and map where slaveowners lived. Some early mapping has been done for areas of London using Google Maps. Second, we can find out more about how 19th century British businesses and institutions made their money. If, like me, you are interested in understanding the West Indian interest’s fight against abolition in the 1830s, knowing the size and make up of the interest is vital. The records reveal who people were, their money and property, their location, and their connections. There is much more to do to fully utilise these records.

Reflections:

One of the great strengths of this project was that the historians working on this project set out to utilise the knowledge of researchers across Britain to supplement the material contained within the specific records that were being digitised. They travelled around the country, bringing local researchers into their circle and drawing attention to the project in its early stages. They made it easy for historians to contribute information to the encyclopaedia via their “How You Can Help” form. They gained public attention through their television appearances (for example, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners received a BAFTA in May 2016). And they put the raw data as well as this supplementary information and specialised lists online as a free resource.

Former ties to slavery are making big news in the United States and elsewhere (for example, see the ongoing news items about Georgetown University‘s plans for reconciliation). The need for reparations from institutions and from governments is a pressing, vital issue for many people around the world. Those of us studying the lives, work, and culture of planters within Britain are well aware of the legacy of slaveholding in the buildings, industries, businesses and institutions in our areas. By sharing this information with the wider world, we are not only informing the public about the past (as the Legacies of British Slave-ownership has done), but we can encourage change in the future.

British Planters Abroad: Autumn Reading List Edition

British Planters Abroad: Autumn Reading List Edition

A few months ago I wrote up an introduction to the historiography of British abolition in the form of a summer reading list. With the new term upon us and students of all ages excitedly heading back to school (including my little sister who is starting university!), it seemed like the perfect time to create another such survey of monographs related to slavery and abolition.

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Autumn in Edinburgh

This season I’m focussing on British planters in the West Indies. I’ve chosen them as my subject for several reasons:

  1. I’ve studied British planters and their treatment in historical studies for my PhD, ‘Defending the Slave Trade and Slavery in the Era of Abolition, 1783-1833’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2013), and my first book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016);
  2. Opinions on the size, makeup, and influence of the planters has been the topic of heated debate for almost a century; and
  3. Thanks to recent studies, we can now learn more about the lives of British planters at home and abroad.

You’ll probably notice that several of these studies discuss the ‘decline’ in influence British West Indians experienced before and during the era of abolition (which I tend to define as between 1783, when the first anti-slavery petition was read in the Houses of the British Parliament, and 1833, when the British Parliament legislated for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire). This focus allows historians to use their research to assess why abolition took place when and how it did, but it can also lead to historical narratives that assume that abolition was inevitable (a point which deserves further exploration in its own blog post). This helps justify one’s interest in people who opposed the popular abolition movement. It is also a reaction to and legacy of the first major twentienth century study that focussed on British planters, Lowell Joseph Ragatz’s The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833. You’ll find more about his work below.

This reading list is meant as an introduction to the historiography of the subject and is by no means exhaustive. It’d be great to hear your suggestions for additions and your thoughts on the works (or even aspects of slavery and abolition around which you’d like to see a reading list developed!) written in the comments below. You can also tweet us @IslesAbroad.

Ragatz, Lowell Joseph. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. 1928.

In this early study, Ragatz argued that slavery would have come to an end in the islands regardless of abolition because of moral, social, and economic deterioration, the planters’ loss of political influence, and the unwillingness of colonists to adapt to new progressive farming methods. He addressed the events and influences which led to the decline of the planter class’s influence and wealth. Ragatz put forth an openly judgemental, negative image of the planters throughout the work.

Burnard, Trevor. Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire is an exploration of 40 years of European and African cultures in Jamaica through the lens of a planter’s diary. In his work, Burnard uncovers not only details of life on the plantation, but why Jamaica was seen as a ‘land of opportunity’ (p. 66) for white British colonists. Abolition would therefore have been seen as a threat. I also can’t forget to mention Trevor Burnard’s most recent book, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650-1820 (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Lambert, David. White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity During the Age of Abolition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity During the Age of Abolition is concerned with identities and networks. By focussing on Britain’s earliest Caribbean sugar colony, Barbados (colonised in 1627), Lambert looks at how planters worked to define themselves as ‘white’ and ‘British’. Through this study, he shows how these representations were created as a means of defending themselves, their wealth, their system of laws, and their property in slaves in the face of intense opposition from abolitionist efforts back in England.

Petley, Christer. Slaveholders in Jamaica: Colonial Society and Culture During the Era of Abolition. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009.

In Slaveholders in Jamaica, Christer Petley echoed Ragatz’s theory of planter decline as the reason behind the achievement of abolition in 1833. He argued that by being unwilling to defend slavery using moral arguments at a time when the expanding British empire rendered the West Indian colonies less valuable to the mother country, the West Indian interest in Jamaica and abroad brought about their own loss of influence.

I also want to draw your attention to a relevant special volume of Atlantic Studies that really tackled some of the major arguments about the roles and state of the planters in the era of British abolition. Back in 2010, a number of slavery historians (including myself) gathered at Chawton House Library in Hampshire, England for the ‘Rethinking the Fall of the Planter Class’ one-day conference on British planters, their legacies, and their treatment in the historiography of British slavery and abolition. Speakers frequently spoke about their research into West Indian planters in relation to Ragatz’s work mentioned above.

As a follow-up to the conference, Christer Petley edited a special volume of the journal, Atlantic Studies, which contained articles from several of the authors mentioned above. If you have access to Taylor & Francis online journals (such as through an academic library’s online collections), I highly recommend visiting Atlantic Studies vol. 9 (2012), Rethinking the Fall of the Planter Class.

Why Study Slavery from a Comparative Viewpoint

In September I’ll begin teaching the first of two new courses at the University of Glasgow‘s Centre for Open Studies on the histories of slavery and abolition. ‘Slavery in the Americas‘ will run for 10 weeks from September 28 until December 7 (no class on October 12). With a little over one month to go, I’m beginning to put together some of the resources that I will be sharing with my class. One of the Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) for Slavery in the Americas is to ‘Compare the size and state of the slave populations of the various colonies’. I think it’s a really intriguing topic that deserves a bit of exploration here, too.

Atlantic_Ocean image

Why should we study slavery within a wider context? For example, you may have come across studies that look at slavery in two different states in the USA, or the South versus the North, or the United States versus the British Empire and so on. The short answer is that studying slavery using a comparative perspective can tell us more. It can reveal things that we might not have seen otherwise. It gives us context and can reveal significant differences and unique events as well as similarities and trends across space and time.

Here are a few examples of areas to consider when thinking about placing your study within a wider context:

  1. Demographics. While it’s hard to know exact numbers, there are a number of ways to attempt to assess the size of the enslaved population of one or more regions. For example, we can use the Transatlantic Slave Trade database, Voyages, to get an idea of the numbers that were imported to specific regions from Africa. (Check out my guide to using Voyages here.) We can look at registers from the Caribbean and census records from the USA. British compensation records give numbers from the period of abolition in the 1830s. Some plantation record books are still in existence, allowing for comparisons between individual plantations. There are also advertisements in newspapers that provide information on slaves for sale which gives an indication of the interest in and scale of slavery in an area.
  2. Local crops. Coffee, sugar, tobacco, etc. were all grown using slave labour in the Americas. The kinds of crops being grown have been shown to affect the size of the enslaved population. This is due to a number of factors, including: physical intensity and exertion required to grow and harvest the crop; the degree of mechanisation; and the risk of accidental physical harm due to the machinery and tools involved in the growing, harvesting, and processing of the crop. Sugar, for example, was a dangerous, exhausting crop to grow, harvest, and process, yet demand for it was skyrocketing in the later eighteenth century. Planters in the Caribbean, then, struggled to maintain the size of the slave population in their sugar plantations, whereas their counterparts in the southern USA, with more land devoted to growing cotton and tobacco, witnessed a self-sustaining enslaved population.
  3. Mortality. Mortality rates were high for enslaved Africans and those of African descent. Corporal punishment, accidents, racially-based hate crimes, restricted legal rights in the justice system, malnutrition, and infanticide all affected mortality rates (probably many other factors did, too)*, as well as old age and disease. By the late seventeenth century, planters and abolitionists alike were becoming obsessed with understanding and justifying the rate of natural increase (or decrease) in slave versus free populations. Abolitionists argued that a slave population that could not sustain itself was proof that the system of slavery was inhumane. Planters and merchants, meanwhile, blamed decreasing numbers on an unequal sex ratio, the climate, natural ageing, and manumission (the process by which a slave could become free). They used the declining numbers to justify their continuing support for the slave trade.
  4. The timing and nature of abolition. Abolition (here referring to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade) and emancipation (the freeing of enslaved persons) took place at different times in different areas and also comprised of different things. For example, while both the USA and Britain officially ended their participation in the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, Britons could still invest and take part in the foreign trade for several more years. Britain’s Caribbean colonies faced a growing labour shortage France, meanwhile, abolished slavery in her colonies in 1794, only to reinstate it eight years later. Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888. As such, an estimated four million enslaved Africans were imported to Brazil from Africa over the centuries.

I hope that this has been a helpful overview of some of the ways in which we can look at the history of slavery and abolition from a comparative perspective in order to contextualise and, really, just better understand the numbers and experiences that we will inevitably come across.

*The history of slavery in the New World contains stories of unimaginable death, terror, and tragedy. I know that I don’t discuss these elements very often in the context of this blog, but you can’t understand the demographics, the events, and the arguments for and against abolition without acknowledging this reality. We are looking at people’s lives and it was an awful life to live, but there were also enslaved and freed people who kept hope, who made their own ways out, and who helped others get out, too, on the ground, in community centres, and in government chambers and assemblies both there and abroad.

Suggested readings:

Blackburn, Robin.  The Making of New World Slavery (Verso, 1997)

Blackburn, Robin.  The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (Verso, 1988)

Eltis, David. ‘Was Abolition of the U.S. and British Slave Trade Significant in the Broader Atlantic Context?’ The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 66 (2009): 715-36.

Littlefield, Daniel C. ‘Plantations, Paternalism, and Profitability: Factors Affecting African Demography in the Old British Empire.’ Journal of Southern History, 47 (1981): 167-82.

Mason, Matthew. ‘Keeping Up Appearances: The International Politics of Slave Trade Abolition in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World’. The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 66 (2009): 809-32.

Morgan, Kenneth. ‘Slave Women and Reproduction in Jamaica, ca. 1776-1834’. In Women and Slavery: The Modern Atlantic, ed. Gwyn Cambell et. al. (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008): 27-53.

Sheridan, Richard B. ‘Slave Demography in the British West Indies and the Abolition of the Slave Trade.’ In The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, ed. David Eltis and James Walvin (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981): 259-86.

Slavery & Abolition, 26 no. 2 (August 2005). [special thematic issue on women and slavery]

Museum Websites and Enhanced Public Engagement

Over the past few months I’ve been looking at ways in which social media is being employed in new ways to share information on historical events, public history, and the digitisation of historical resources. This has included using a combination of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and traditional websites.

As part of my work contributing to H-Net Slavery’s Twitter account this month, last week I came across the website for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. This striking website inspired me to want to highlight some of the work that museums are doing online that raise awareness, not only of their own institutions, but of their holdings, exhibits, and important contemporary issues. These sites bring visitors into the museum through their browsers where ever they are in the world. As such, here are some great examples of modern, accessible, and engaging websites from museums that focus on the broad subject areas of Isles Abroad. Enjoy!

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Photo credit: Fuzheado via Wikimedia Commons.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Explore the building, explore the collections, and immediately be confronted with the goals and ideals of this museum “100 Years in the making”, all online. The NMAAHC opens on September 24, 2016. I hope to be able to find an opportunity to make it to Washington, D.C., to make my way through its displays and exhibits, but until then, this beautiful, inviting website will make do quite well.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Find out about current and upcoming exhibitions, discover online resources for teachers to use in schools, and learn about the research and curation process that goes into a museum on such an important but “difficult” topic. There’s even information and advice on how to become a defender of human rights. Manitoba is one of the few Canadian provinces that I haven’t visited yet, but it’d be great to get to Winnipeg sometime soon!

Museum of London Docklands

Housed in a formed sugar warehouse along the side of the West India docks in the early 19th century, the Museum of London Docklands brings visitors to their website directly into their exhibitions with slideshows, a timeline outlining their permanent exhibitions, and activities for families to do at home. The London, Sugar, and Slavery 1600-present permanent gallery acknowledges the history of the museum building and the vital role sugar and slavery played in London’s development.

These are just a few examples of modern engaging museum websites. We’d love to hear about your favourites, so be sure to share a link or two in the comments below!

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!