Extending the Frontiers: Essays on the New Transatlantic Slave Trade Database

Extending the Frontiers: Essays on the New Transatlantic Slave Trade Database

by David Eltis

Since 1999, intensive research efforts have vastly increased what is known about the history of coerced migration of transatlantic slaves. A huge database of slave trade voyages from Columbus’s era to the mid-nineteenth century is now available on an open-access Web site, incorporating newly discovered information from archives around the Atlantic world. The


Since 1999, intensive research efforts have vastly increased what is known about the history of coerced migration of transatlantic slaves. A huge database of slave trade voyages from Columbus’s era to the mid-nineteenth century is now available on an open-access Web site, incorporating newly discovered information from archives around the Atlantic world. The groundbreaking essays in this book draw on these new data to explore fundamental questions about the trade in African slaves. The research findings—that the size of the slave trade was 14 percent greater than had been estimated, that trade above and below the equator was largely separate, that ports sending out the most slave voyages were not in Europe but in Brazil, and more—challenge accepted understandings of transatlantic slavery and suggest a variety of new directions for important further research.

For the most complete database on slave trade voyages ever compiled, visit www.slavevoyages.org.

Editorial Reviews

James Oliver Horton

“Based on historical information compiled and extensively analyzed over the last decade, these essays expand our understanding of the transatlantic slave trade as nothing has done in the last two generations.”—James Oliver Horton, co-author of Slavery and the Making of America

David Brion Davis

“Only in recent decades have we recognized the absolutely central and indispensable role of the transatlantic slave trade in creating the New World as we know it. And only since 1999 have historians acquired massive new data that wholly revises our understanding of that historical crime. Now David Eltis and David Richardson, the two leading experts on the subject, have provided the first crucial collection of essays interpreting and explaining the new findings.”—David Brion Davis, author of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

"The greatest mystery in the history of the West, I believe, has always been the number of Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the New World. Who were these Africans? From whence did they hail? Where did they embark in Africa and disembark in the Americas? Five hundred years after that heinous trade commenced, this collection of essays, edited by David Eltis and David Richardson, has finally answered these questions. Together with the new slave trade database, this project has done more to reverse the Middle Passage than any other single act of scholarship possibly could. It is a scholarly miracle. Twelve and a half million slaves were lost; now, thanks to Eltis, Richardson and their contributors, they are found."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University

New West Indian Guide - Joseph C. Miller

"The complexity of all these chapters, liberally sprinkled with charts and graphs and rigorous logic, make clear both the enormous analytical power of the database and the great subtlety of method required to use its content responsibly to try to write history. . . . Editors Eltis and Richardson are clear on this vital distinction, and the studies in this book constitute an exemplory extension of the existing frontiers of knowledge and a solid base from which to advance them even further."—Joseph C. Miller, New West Indian Guide

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Yale University Press
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Extending the Frontiers

Essays on the New Transatlantic Slave Trade Database
By David Eltis David Richardson

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13436-0

Chapter One

A New Assessment of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

David Eltis and David Richardson

The transatlantic slave trade was the largest transoceanic forced migration in history. Peoples throughout time had been forced to relocate in response to natural disaster, military defeat, or exhaustion of resources. Not quite as old was the forced movement of individuals to be sold in markets far removed from their homelands. Wherever slavery existed, and there were few parts of the globe where it was unknown, a slave trade was usually necessary to sustain the long-term viability of the institution. But at the start of the sixteenth century, the shipment of a few slaves from the Iberian Peninsula to the New World initiated a new phenomenon in human experience. Slaves were crowded together in small ships and dispatched thousands of miles to plantations, where they generated large quantities of produce-none of which was vital to the nourishment, clothing, or shelter of the consumers who devoured it. Relatively small improvements to the quality of life of a people on one continent-stemming from cheaper sugar, alcohol, and tobacco (labor for cotton did not come from the slavetrade)-were made possible by the removal of others from a second continent, and their draconian exploitation on yet a third. In the process this third continent, the Americas, was comprehensively repeopled, not initially with Europeans but with Africans. Prior to 1820, about four Africans arrived in the Americas for every single European.

What made this unprecedented, coerced movement of peoples possible? It is almost inconceivable to those living today that for most of the Atlantic slave-trade era (and of course, for eons before this point), trading and forcibly moving people was in moral terms considered no different from buying and moving the merchandise such people might produce. From recorded time in most societies, slave trading had been as accepted an institution as slavery itself. If an expanded slave trade could reduce the price of sugar, then there was certainly no moral constraint to prevent the slave trade from expanding. What made the expansion of transatlantic slavery and the slave trade possible were new opportunities to obtain slaves rather than greater acceptance of servitude per se; such acceptance was a given. The new opportunities emerged first from a mastery of winds and ocean currents that greatly facilitated transoceanic transportation, and second from the collapse of the North American aboriginal populations as an alternative source of labor to migrants from Africa and Europe and the related emergence of large transatlantic differentials in labor productivity. Third and most important were intercontinental differences in conceptions of social identity. On the African coast, both Europeans and Africans traded in people that they looked upon as outsiders. Both sides in the transactions that put captives into the filthy below-deck environment of a slave ship had clear ideas of what made some peoples eligible for the status of captives, and what excluded others-by definition, "insiders." The exclusively African composition of the transatlantic slave flow stemmed from the fact that Europeans saw all other Europeans as insiders and therefore not potential slaves, whereas the African conception of "insidership" covered a geographic region somewhat smaller than sub-Saharan Africa.

Fifty years ago the transatlantic slave trade was seen as marginal to the development of the Americas and certainly to the major patterns of global history. It was viewed as an unfortunate and minor episode, even within the context of the global movement of peoples. Since the 1950s, however, it has moved steadily toward the center of the consciousness of professional historians and the general public alike. Print publications, museums, television documentaries, and Web sites dedicated to the subject proliferate. Why? As the above summary suggests, the striking features of the transatlantic slave trade in global history terms are its scale, its racial basis, the uniquely awful below-deck conditions to which its victims were subjected, and the sheer distance it spanned. Yet in the face of the many other horrors of history, these features in themselves seem inadequate to explain the recent explosion of interest. Perhaps more important is that interest in the past is always driven by the concerns of the present, the disclaimers of historians notwithstanding. While no counterpart to the slave trade exists today, the disconnect between the values that made the slave trade possible and modern concern with human rights, as well as the burgeoning multicultural composition of modern societies, appears ever more stark and demanding of explanation. It is, after all, less than 150 years since the last slave ship crossed the Atlantic in 1867.

Coupled with this compelling dichotomy between the present and a recent (yet ideologically remote) past is the fact that tools now exist for us to uncover so much about the subject. The evidentiary base is strong because the slave trade and slavery survived almost into the modern era. It is also strong because the slave trade was a business that involved accounts and careful record keeping, and it was a business, moreover, in which governments on both sides of the Atlantic took a keen interest. Far more records have survived for this branch of migration than for any other. We may know far more about the movement of Europeans to the Americas than we do about Africans in broad terms, but on the transoceanic phase of that movement, the situation is quite the reverse. The voyages of free migrants, convicts, and even indentured servants have by comparison largely disappeared from our view, at least in terms of their numbers, their direction, and what those on board endured, despite the fact that the last two of these three groups were in temporary servitude and thus subject to sale in the New World. The density of records on the slave trade is such that it is just conceivable that some documentary trace of every slaving voyage that occurred-at least after 1700, when 85 percent of the transatlantic slave trade took place-survives to the present. In the future it will be possible to retrieve ever larger shares of the information that has survived. It appears that more records on slavery and the slave trade remain than for most other institutions of historical interest. Interest in the slave trade has expanded not only as a result of the changing values of society, but more mundanely as a result of the evolution of personal computers and the large amounts of information that they can digest.

Readers should be aware of the wider project to which the essays presented in this volume belong. Philip Curtin's well-known 1969 book The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census initiated the modern era of slave-trade studies and triggered a wave of research into slave-trading records in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Almost forty years later, we are on the brink of a complete reconstruction of the history of the transatlantic slave trade from the early sixteenth century through to its close in 1867. The level of detail now possible was unimaginable when Curtin published his book. Where Curtin sought to track slaving activities by centuries or quarter centuries, we can now do so on an annual basis, at least from the mid-seventeenth century onward. Where Curtin grouped ship departures to Africa by nationality, and embarkations and disembarkations of slaves by African coastal regions or American colonies, we can now do the same on a port-by-port basis. Where Curtin could only identify places of embarkation and disembarkation of slaves separately, we can now reveal links across the Atlantic and track how they changed through time. Where Curtin could only measure shipboard mortality through the percentage of losses of slaves in transit, we can now estimate shipboard mortality rates and the factors that helped to shape them. The evidential base for the study of the Atlantic slave trade (and the computational capacity for storing and interrogating it) has been revolutionized.

The density and range of the new discoveries have meant that a full synthesis and reassessment of the transatlantic slave trade must be preceded by additional groundwork. Three preliminary steps are necessary: (1) the organization and publication of the massive amount of new data on slave-trade voyages; (2) the production of a convenient and accessible reference to summary statistics derived from these data; and (3) sustained scholarly attention to several branches of the slave trade that were previously known only in outline (to complement what has been learned about the British, French, and Dutch slave trades). The first two of these preparatory phases are now complete. The raw data on the slave voyages are available on an open-access Web site based at Emory and Hull universities in the form of a permanent database. This tool enables both scholars and the general reading public to view the building blocks of new interpretations of the slave trade, as well as make their own contributions of new data and corrections. The new open-access Web site and Yale University Press's Atlas of the Slave Trade represent the second preliminary step, providing easily accessible statistical and cartographical representations of the Atlantic world's involvement in the slave trade, all of it derived directly from the new database.

The essays in this book complement the new database and the Atlas, and complete the foundations for new interpretations and a new version of Curtin's Census. Each of the essays deals with a branch of the slave trade that the new data have allowed scholars to explore systematically for the first time. In recent years new research on the South Atlantic slave traffic has not kept pace with the research efforts devoted to the major northern slave powers. The present collection does much to redress this balance, especially for English-language readers.

While this volume is primarily an intermediate and preparatory step toward what we hope will be a new era of slave-trade studies, in this introduction we nevertheless go beyond merely setting a framework for the new essays. We offer in addition a preliminary reexamination of the overall volume of the slave trade by national flags, African regions, and destinations of slaves in the Americas. In terms of the last reassessment of the slave trade, made with the data as they stood in 1999, this introduction thus constitutes an update of several essays in the special issue of the 2001 William and Mary Quarterly, especially the first essay. We also draw on the Eltis and Lachance chapter in this volume to attempt a reconciliation of the new estimates of the slave trade's volume with population data in one major region of the Americas: the Caribbean. Such an integration of two branches of the historiography-slave demography and the slave trade-was first tried by Curtin in his 1969 book but by surprisingly few of the many scholars who subsequently revised his slave-trade estimates.

We begin by reviewing the work carried out since the publication of the 1999 CD-ROM and the articles it made possible. Readers who wish to follow the earlier debates are referred to Per Hernaes's excellent 1997 summary, but it should be noted that the main conclusion of that overview was that slave ships had carried off 12.8 million Africans to the Americas over nearly four centuries. 5 The publication of The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM in 1999, containing details of 27,233 voyages, formed the basis of a new overall assessment of the transatlantic slave trade. At that point we thought that 9.66 million Africans had arrived in the Americas, the survivors of 11.06 million carried from Africa. Thus, at first sight, the voyage data as they were in 1999 had apparently reversed the findings of thirty years' research by reducing the consensus estimates of the mid-1990s, essentially suggesting that Curtin had been correct all along. Closer examination of our revision of nine years ago also showed that, while the new findings for the volume of the slave trade were similar to Curtin's, the distributions of the slave trade over both time and space were markedly different from those of both Curtin and his critics. More important, however, our work on the CD-ROM database and since then has involved a shift in the way patterns of the slave trade, including its size, could be assessed. In broad terms, it is now possible to track these patterns with data on voyages alone, instead of with combinations of voyage information, contemporary opinion, and demographic research.

The essays in this book are all based on research completed since the publication of the 1999 database. They do not ignore either contemporary opinions on the size and direction of the trade or demographic data. Nevertheless, they could not have been written without recently discovered archival data. Collectively they represent a major shift toward reliance on shipping data. The reason for this shift lies in the strengths of the new database. Both versions of the transatlantic slave-trade database, the 1999 CD-ROM as well as the revised online version-henceforth called TSTD1 and TSTD2, respectively-are multisourced. By this we mean that the great majority of the voyages contain information that comes from more than one source. While hard-copy published lists of voyages that were multisourced first appeared in 1978, TSTD1 was the first electronic data set on the slave trade that employed this basic strategy. Thus, if the same voyage appears in different records created, say, in Europe, Africa, or the Americas, the information is integrated and the different sources are listed. Indeed, we have allowed for seventeen separate sources of information per voyage, although only eight voyages have all seventeen source variables completed. A great part of our research effort has been directed to eliminating double and triple counting of the same voyage. Over 80 percent of the voyage entries in TSTD2 have more than one source, and on average there are between three and four sources of information for each voyage. In short, the density and weight of the information now available on individual slave voyages have increased the database's reliability and comprehensiveness. Population data, vital rates, and the opinion of contemporaries are now useful chiefly for the independent checks they might provide for voyage-based assessments or, as the present essays show, helping to fill in gaps in the shipping records for the pre-1700 era before the slave trade's rapid expansion.

What has been added to TSTD1 in the last few years? It was clear in 1999 that the largest hole in the data comprised missing voyages that had sailed under the Portuguese flag. The compilers of the 1999 set were also aware of weaknesses in the coverage of the Spanish trade, which in its transatlantic manifestation was active only in the first 150 and the last 85 years of the slave-trade era-either side of the trade's eighteenth-century peak, in fact. Other potential gaps existed for the large trade based in London before 1662 and again between 1711 and 1779, the Dutch trade between the Brazilian interlude and the founding of the second West-Indische Compagnie in 1674, and the early French trade. Between 2001 and 2005, a group of scholars funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Board grant (UK) filled in or severely reduced most of these gaps. Archives in Luanda, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Lisbon, Havana, Madrid, Seville, Ghent, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, and Middelburg, the Netherlands, as well as extensive eighteenth-century newspaper holdings in the Bodleian and British libraries, have been exploited. Scholars unconnected with the project have given generously of their time and the archival data that they themselves have collected. This research effort has resulted in the discovery of 8,232 additional slave voyages that we were not aware of in 1999. Just as important, it has allowed us to modify 19,729 voyages that were already included in the 1999 database.


Excerpted from Extending the Frontiers by David Eltis David Richardson Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

David Eltis is Robert W. Woodruff Professor of History, Emory University. He lives in Atlanta. David Richardson is director, Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, and professor of economic history, University of Hull, England. He lives in East Yorkshire.

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