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Dec. 5,  2008

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Debuts at Emory

'Voyages' sheds light on hidden history of 12.5 million slaves

News Article ImageVisiting professor Jelmer Vos and geospatial consultant Stacey Martin use the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database to see a geographic display of the African regions and ports of the slave trade.

A group of international scholars will gather at Emory Dec. 5-6 to celebrate the debut of "Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database" as it begins its own maiden expedition.

Two years in the making at Emory, the free and interactive Web-based resource documents the slave trade from Africa to the New World between the 16th and 19th centuries, says David Eltis, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of History and one of the scholars who originally published "The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade" as a CD-ROM in 1999. He and Martin Halbert, director of digital innovations for Emory Libraries, directed the work that made the online "Voyages" project expandable, interactive and publicly accessible.

"'Voyages' provides searchable information on almost 35,000 trans-Atlantic voyages hauling human cargo, as well as maps, images and data on some individual Africans transported," says Eltis.

The conference, which also marks the bicentennial of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, will feature presentations by Eltis' graduate students who have worked on the database, with leading scholars commenting on their papers. Other sessions include "The Slave Trade, the Web site and Atlantic History" and "The Slave Trade, the Website and the Classroom."

David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus and founding director emeritus of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, will give a keynote lecture on "Camparing the Paths to American and British Slave-Trade Abolition." Following Davis' talk will be the formal launch of the "Voyages" database by Rick Luce, director of University Libraries.

Database Establishes Links Between America, Africa

Funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, "Voyages" is based on the seminal 1999 work, "The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade." That CD-ROM included more than 27,000 slave trade voyages and has been popular with scholars and genealogists alike. However, it is no longer available and had several limitations.

"Everyone wants to know where their ancestors came from," Eltis says. "There are more data on the slave trade than on the free migrant movement simply because the slave trade was a business and people were property, so records were likely to be better. What the database makes possible is the establishment of links between America and Africa in a way that already has been done by historians for Europeans."

Adds Halbert: "The digital and Web-based Voyages publication is intentionally collaborative and can grow and change over time. Scholars who discover new information can add it to the database, and thus share it with their colleagues. In addition, researchers can download the database in a format compatible with the SPSS statistical package."

Slave Trade Database in the Classroom

Halbert, Eltis and their team also collaborated with educators from public and private middle and high schools to create lessons plans and other materials, so that K-12 teachers can take "Voyages" into their classrooms. These and other resources on the site, such as images, introductory maps and essays, help visitors appreciate the reality of the slave trade, says project manager Liz Milewicz.

Henry Louis Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and writer/producer of the PBS documentary "African American Lives," credits "Voyages" with shedding an important light on the hidden history of 12.5 million slaves.

"The greatest mystery in the history of the West, I believe, has always been the Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the New World," he said. "Their ancestries, their identities, their stories were lost in the ships that carried them across the Atlantic. The multi-decade and collaborative project that brought us [the Voyages] site has done more to reverse the Middle Passage than any other single act of scholarship possibly could."

About Emory University Libraries

The Emory University Libraries in Atlanta and Oxford, Ga., are dedicated to fostering courageous inquiry among students and scholars at Emory University and around the world. The nine libraries' holdings include more than 3.1 million print and electronic volumes, 40,000-plus electronic journals, and internationally renowned special collections.

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