History Made Manifest

Mellon grant will expand Emory's Voyages Slave Trade Database, shifting the focus from ships to people

Who were they? How did they get here? Who brought them, and who bought them?

Those are the questions David Eltis, professor of history emeritus, has been asking about the Atlantic slave trade for more than a quarter century. His restless search became the web-based resource Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, hosted at Emory and used by hundreds of scholars and knowledge-seekers each year.

“For more than a quarter century, David Eltis’s Transatlantic Slave Trade Database has been the gold standard in the field,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. “It has transformed what we know and how we think and write about the forced removal of 12.5 million Africans to the New World and the 10.7 million who survived the horrors of the middle passage. No scholar can undertake a serious study of that process without consulting it.”

And the project continues to expand, thanks to support such as a recent grant of $300,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for use by the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) to fund a new initiative allowing researchers at Emory, across the United States, and abroad to update and add to the renowned Voyages website. The latest effort, called People of the Atlantic Slave Trade (PAST), will provide information on any historical figure who can be linked to a slave voyage—enslaved and enslavers alike.

“We are proud to house this project at Emory and grateful for support from the Mellon Foundation, which advances our efforts to make this extensive research publicly available, broadening its reach and impact,” says Dwight McBride, Emory provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “The People of the Atlantic Slave Trade project builds on the scholarly resources of the Slave Voyages website and promises to offer new insights into the stories of thousands of individual people—both the enslaved and the enslavers—from this ignominious part of our history. By adding searchable access to their names, the site will link these individuals to time and place, which in turn can help us better understand ourselves and our shared history.”

PAST brings together the work of twenty-one scholars whose expertise matches the geographical range of the transatlantic slave trade. “PAST will create a biographical database of all those who have a documented link to any of the voyages in the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, whether as an enslaved person, an African seller, a buyer in the Americas, a ship owner, or a captain,” Eltis says.

PAST will be incorporated into the Voyages website—which already contains the names of thirty thousand slave ship captains and ship owners, as well as ninety-one thousand enslaved Africans—and will be accessible to researchers and the public via its own interface.

“Overall, this newest phase will allow scholars to examine the organization of the traffic, locate the social background of those involved, make new assessments on the trade’s impact and relative importance, and eventually develop new explanations of why a race-based Atlantic slave trade evolved, why it endured for 340 years, and why it ended,” Eltis says. “Our aim is to extend the primary function of the website from a ship-based to a people-based record of the movement of people from Africa to the Americas.”

Since its online launch in 2008, the Voyages website has become a widely used reference tool for the study of slavery in the Atlantic world, says Allen Tullos, professor of history,project codirector, and codirector of ECDS.

By mid-2018, Slave Voyages will offer a new database comprising ten thousand intra-American slave voyages that occurred within the Americas, usually carrying recent survivors of the middle passage.

“Half of all disembarking captives faced a lengthy second journey after the middle passage,” says Eltis.

Since Voyages’ inception in 1992, the project has received funding of more than $3 million. In addition to Mellon, the project has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, and the Arts and Humanities Research Board of the United Kingdom, administered through the University of Hull in the UK. In 2010, maps generated by the project were published in print form as the Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, coedited by Eltis at Emory and David Richardson of the University of Hull.

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