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Tracking the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Via the Web

          What took shape in the 1970s as data collections on the trans-Atlantic slave trade stored on mainframe computers has made its way to a world-wide audience as an interactive and searchable database on the Internet.

Scholars and data specialists, along with Emory University officials, today unveil an interactive web-based database that provides information on nearly 35,000 voyages which transported enslaved Africans to the New World during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Entitled “Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Database”, the website expands upon the research originally published in the 1999 “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” CD-ROM.

          The official launch of Voyages takes place today at the Emory campus, coinciding with a conference that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The new website carries twice the information of the CD-ROM, including thousands of recorded African names of enslaved passengers, according to Dr. David Eltis, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of History at Emory University and a lead scholar in the website development. The website has data on the slave ships as well as financial records, maps, images, and other documentation relating to the estimated 12.5 millions Africans transported during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“We were able to fill in gaps in the existing data set. It’s been both widened and lengthened….We have African names for about 67,000 captives that got off slave vessels in the 19th century,” Eltis says.

          The African names and details on individual captives, coming from the court prosecution records of illegal slave trading following 1808, adds a new component that was not available on the CD-ROM, Eltis adds. He says the data on individuals is providing the foundation of another project “to establish an ethnic profile within Africa of the origins of the captives.”

          Eltis estimates the development of the website, which occurred over two years and was coordinated at Emory University, cost $450,000. The National Endowment for the Humanities provided the bulk of the funding with $325,000 in grants. In contrast, Eltis recalls the CD-ROM development, which began in 1993, cost about $140,000. Prior to locating at Emory University, the trans-Atlantic slave database project had been housed at Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research.

          The Voyages website allows educators to create lesson plans for their middle and high school students. Eltis notes the website invites scholarly contributions and it will be updated at least once every two years. Dr. Leslie Harris, a professor of history and African-American Studies at Emory University, says she believes having a public website will generate enthusiasm among African-Americans and others who see the database as a potential genealogical tool. She plans to use the website for research she’s conducting on slavery in the southern U.S. and the notions of gender roles Africans brought with them during their enslavement.  

          “Perhaps what is most exciting about (Voyages) is the names of people who were enslaved and experienced the Middle Passage. What this site really allows scholars and the general public to do is to begin to bring in individual stories and stories about groups of people in a much more fine-grained way,” Harris says.

          See to access Voyages.

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