William G Thomas offers one possible definition of Digital history as an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet and software systems. [i] Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database fits the criteria of this definition by Thomas. Starting as a CD ROM but with advances of the computer converted to an online database, this is an interesting example of combining modern computer practices with the research of an important historical subject.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database is an online digital history project that was started back in 1990 by David Eltis, Stephan Behrendt and David Richardson. It was at around this time that countries such as France, Spain and Portugal began to publish documents about the records of the slave voyages to Africa.[ii] Their work was initially produced for a CD ROM but the project was expanded to an online database after an award from Emery University in 2006.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database has information on more than 35,000 slave voyages that forced more than twelve million Africans into slavery from the 16th century to the 19th century. The site contains a vast amount of information on transatlantic slave trade with great detail of the many voyages that took place over 350 years. Information about the voyages include: the destination of the voyage, the name of the ship, the captain and its native origins. The number of slaves from each voyage is broken down, providing details of how many of the slaves were men and women, how many embarked and how many disembarked. The database is designed in such a way that it allows you to view the results in a variety of ways. You can view the total number of slaves that were taken from Africa as a whole in one year or how many slaves were transported to a nation in a single year. That information can then be presented via numbers, graphs, timelines and maps. Essays are also available to read on the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database that examines various aspects of the slave trade which is a useful section of the database as it provides a context to the information provided on the voyage search. Another interesting feature of the site is the African names database which allows you to search for the slaves through their original names. To conclude the first part of this review, I think that the site does realise its objectives. This is an excellent site that is quite unique in the subject area that it covers as it applies a great in depth combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis.
The site is specifically aimed at people in school and college but it also there for anyone in the public who have a desire to learn about the slave trade. At first, the information was not published onto the web but instead, designed for a CD ROM. On the homepage section of the database, you can access an educational materials section. There are seven lesson plans which not only allow you to become familiar with the database but also allow a user who might not be too familiar with the Slave Trade, to familiarise themselves more with the subject. The lesson plans are provided by the team who run the database. However, those who wish to learn beyond what the lesson plans cover, can access a list of web resources linked to the database to further their knowledge of the slave trade learning about the triangular trade and the slave’s experience on the plantation.
In regards to its contribution to the Digital Humanities the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database is a fantastic online resource that is unique. Many documentaries and books have been made to cover this subject but not one has the blend of quantitative and qualitative resources available in one place. In the time that the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database has transitioned from a CD ROM to an online database it has greatly expanded. The database has a vast amount of information covering the 350 year timespan of slavery available and provides you with a satisfying number of ways to look at the results. Some consider that digitisation plays an important role in improving historical sources as it offers a ubiquitous accessibility.[iii] I feel that this certainly applies to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database .
The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database receives funding from three sponsors: The National Endowment for the humanities, The WEB DuBois institute for African and African American research and Emory University. There are a number of institutional partners that have also contributed to the database over the years to help with research. Funding was also provided by the UK Arts and Humanities research board. Unlike a number of online projects that engrain the public into a contributing role of sorts, the database does not use public volunteers but has relied upon the cooperation of teams from universities and other institutions to collaborate to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database.
[ii] Sharp. “Sociological Images.” Sociological Images
- Cohen, Daniel J. et al. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.”The Journal of American History 2 (2008). Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
- Sharp, Gwen. “Sociological Images.” Sociological Images RSS. N.p., 7 Jan. 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
- Zaagsma, Gerben.“On Digital History.” BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 4 (2013): 3–29.