Making history of slavery accessible Scholars introduce slave trade database

September 14, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- The numbers flash to the screen of Steve Behrendt's laptop, and it takes a moment to decipher their full horror.

The British ship Young Margaret, the database says, sailed under Capt. James Frisby from London to Gambia, where it loaded 327 captured African men, women and children. On Aug. 4, 1707, when it arrived in Maryland where prospering tobacco planters were eager to purchase cheap labor, only 265 slaves disembarked.

"The rest didn't survive the voyage," says Behrendt. "That's horrible, but pretty typical," he adds, punching a few more keys to determine that the average shipboard mortality rate for slave ships unloading in Maryland was 18 percent.

Behrendt, a historian at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American research at Harvard University, is one of four authors of a new database of the slave trade introduced at a weekend conference here that drew some of the nation's leading historians of slavery.

"We as scholars can begin to put an end to America's collective amnesia about the most heinous, most evil system of exploitation that human beings ever imposed on other human beings," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the Du Bois Institute. "Until we as a society fully reckon with the history of slavery we cannot truly begin to confront the so-called race problem in this country at all."

The database, to be published on CD-ROM by Cambridge University Press late this year, is the compilation of decades of research in dozens of countries by researchers who gleaned the bureaucratic details of human tragedy from marine and business records in archives.

All told, the database covers 27,233 trans-Atlantic slave ship voyages between 1527 and 1867, which the authors believe amount to about 70 percent of all the voyages. They conclude that about 11 million African captives were taken aboard slave ships over the three centuries, of whom perhaps 600,000 were brought to the United States; far more went to Brazil and the Caribbean.

The database records 64 voyages unloading slaves in Maryland ports, but historians said that is probably less than a quarter of the total. Much primary research on Maryland records remains to be done, they said.

The database represents a collaboration spanning time and geography. Du Bois himself did pioneering work on the slave trade early in this century. Critical research in assessing the scale of the traffic in human beings was carried out in the 1960s by the Johns Hopkins University historian Philip D. Curtin, who attended the conference.

To Curtin's work was added data compiled by researchers from Barbados to Holland. The four authors of the $195 CD-ROM were able to expand the data others had compiled by about one-third, Behrendt said. Computer programmers are working out the bugs in the CD-ROM.

"The slave trade database is an extraordinary achievement, both in intellectual and technical terms," said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland historian and author of a new account of the first two centuries of slavery in North America. "All those dispassionate numbers help us understand one of the epic events in our history."

The conference was planned as a modest gathering of a few dozen scholars, but interest proved overwhelming, said Philip D. Morgan, a slavery historian at the College of William and Mary, who organized the meeting. Several scholars said the overflow crowd of nearly 700 people reflected a burgeoning popular interest in the history of slavery among black and white Americans.

Academic specialists found themselves outnumbered by students, teachers, genealogy buffs and black activists. The mix proved fruitful, but it was uneasy at times. Some amateurs were disappointed to learn that the database contains no names of individual slaves, since African names were almost never recorded.

"We don't want to mislead people. It's not really for genealogy," Behrendt said.

But the data included could prove useful for African-Americans who have traced their roots to slave ancestors. If a person knows the name of a ship, its captain, the date and place of its arrival or other details, the database may be able to trace the ship to a particular African port.

The ability to link American slave communities to their African places of origin may be the most important use of the database, several scholars said. Morgan said the "next big challenge" would be to use the work to trace surviving elements of West African cultures on this side of the Atlantic.

Another theme for detailed study is shipboard insurrections by the Africans, which are recorded in the database.

A recurring debate focused on the estimate of the number of slaves brought from Africa. Du Bois once used an estimate of 100 million. Some in the audience expressed skepticism about the newer consensus of historians that the total was close to 11 million. Gates suggested that the number could rise as research continues.

The most striking controversy was generated by the cool, analytical tone of some presentations, which seemed to some in the audience not to recognize the moral and emotional dimensions of slavery. One Long Island, N.Y., activist called the conference a "very sanitized view" of the brutal crime represented by the slave trade.

Michael Gomez, a scholar of slavery at the University of Georgia, replied: "The information you seek, on murder, on rapine, can be found in the database." But Gomez also said he was struck by "the chasm between the academy and the community" and said the desire of nonscholars for a public ceremonial acknowledgment of the horrors of the slave trade should have been honored.

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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