Slave Biographies: Atlantic Database Network

July 19, 2013, 10:30 | Long Paper, Burnett 115

1) Overview

The NEH supported Slave Biographies: Atlantic Database Network project provides a platform for researchers of African slaves in the Atlantic World to upload, analyze, visualize, and utilize data they have collected, and to link it to other datasets, which together complement each other in such a way as to create a much richer resource than the individual datasets alone. During the past two decades, there has been a seismic change in perception about what we can know about African slaves and their descendants throughout the Atlantic World (Africa, Europe, North and South America). Scholars have realized that, far from being either non-existent or extremely scarce, various types of documentation about African slaves and their descendants abound in archives, courthouses, churches, government offices, museums, ports, and private collections spread throughout the Atlantic World. Since the 1980s, a number of major databases were constructed in original digital format and used in major publications by their creators, but they lacked a platform for preservation and therefore are at risk of being lost as their creators retire. Also, a number of collections of original manuscript documents are beginning to be digitized and made accessible online free of charge. However, our task as historians is more than to preserve images of primary sources; it is to interpret those sources by finding new ways to organize, share, mine and analyze as well as to preserve original materials which might otherwise be discarded or lost.

The Slave Biographies digital repository has developed a core metadata schema describing enslaved peoples. The fields have been defined based on six datasets and a distinguished group of historians, serving on the project's Advisory Board. The digital repository schema, fields, and search interface will be made available in English and shortly thereafter in Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

Slave Biographies addresses two major challenges that historians increasingly face: first, to create models for collaborative research in a field that has been dominated by a methodology of—and rewards for—individual research and, second, to analyze vast quantities of data that can now be accessed digitally. The project makes tools available to perform calculations and visualize the data to encourage and assist collaborative, international studies of these numerous but widely scattered collections of materials. The stories about lives of slaves as well as the analyses of slavery emerging from this network will be a unique resource for linguists, creolists, anthropologists, economic historians, sociologists, geographers, cartographers, creative writers, and genealogists searching for their African ancestors as well as for historians of slavery.

This DH2013 presentation on the Slave Biographies project will not only give a comprehensive overview of the project but will outline the challenges of dealing with large historical datasets. However, what is most exciting about the project is that by bringing together large sets of data, we cannot only do large calculations and visualizations about the historical practices of slavery, but we can drill down to find rich representations of individuals and families, giving life to the individual biographies of slaves and their relationships and contexts. That is, the promise of big data may not be to bury people in blizzards of numbers but to recover the lives of individuals.

2) Significance

Never before has it been more important to the humanities to try, as NEH Chairman Jim Leach has recently noted, “to manage a deluge of data and turn bits of information into useful knowledge.” This is particularly true of history. Historians, their students and the public at large are awash in the materials available in digital archives and databases, a flood of data enhanced by global scholarly networks and better access to archives and collections around the world. More than ever, it is crucial to find ways to preserve and manage large stores of quantitative and qualitative data and to make it accessible in ways that important research questions can be asked and well-formed answers derived. To be sure, the task of accumulating, organizing, and making sense of mountains of information from scattered corners of the globe cannot be handled by any one researcher. If the humanities are to advance in transformative ways in this age of globalization, humanists must find new ways to collaborate—to work together on large, international projects. If international collaboration is to occur, humanists in the wealthy countries with best access to new networking and data-analyzing technologies must find ways to make them available to their colleagues in poorer countries. Slave Biographies, to this end, provides both a collaborative, international project that is building a data network available to scholars, teachers, students, and genealogists in the U.S. and abroad, and a platform for addressing the difficult practical, ethical, methodological and, especially, hermeneutic problems scholars face when turning their attention to collecting and analyzing data about African slaves and their descendants.

Answering important historical questions

For several decades after the publication in 1969 of Philip D. Curtin's seminal book, The Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, much scholarly attention and resources have been focused on quantitative studies of trans-Atlantic slave trade voyages. This research has yielded considerable important scholarship, discussed in the following section about related databases. However, these sources contain relatively little information about individual enslaved Africans.

Recently, a growing number of scholars have been unearthing important data from other sources, such as notarial documents; plantation inventories; police reports; testimony by runaway slaves, conspirators and rebels against slavery, church books of baptism, death and marriage, church Inquisition testimony, government and church censuses, which reveal much about slave life in the New World and about African slaves’ lives in parts of the Old World. These sources focus on individual slaves. When records about many individuals are combined, patterns can be discerned. Data about ethnicities tell us from where within Africa many slaves hailed; data about slave residence in the Americas tell us where members of particular groups ended up and where and how they were housed; data about marriages tell us with whom Africans and their descendants chose to partner; data about skills tell us what slaves did and their contributions to agriculture, trade and the economy beyond brute labor. And this list could go on for pages.

Among the questions that might be asked and answered from multiple, large-scale datasets are:

  • What percentage of people by African ethnic group was skilled in X?
  • On X plantation, what was the gender ratio of slaves by African ethnic group?
  • What percentage of Africans married people of the same ethnic group?
  • What were the gender ratios of slaves identified as being of XXXX ethnicity?
  • What injuries did people performing X type of work most commonly have?
  • In X period, what was the percentage of slaves in Y place by ethnic group?
  • In what records does the slave named XXXX appear? What were XXXX's professions?
  • What places did he live? Who were his/her children and children’s children?
  • What was the value of slaves by ethnicity in X period? By skills and gender?

Making statistical data easily available and securely preserved is, then, one aspect of the project. Making that data understandable is another. Scholars and students—and anyone with Internet access—can search and browse (or download) individual datasets or the entire collection of datasets. Users can formulate questions (like those spelled out in section I.A. above), and get calculated answers not only in the form of numbers but also visual graphs: pie and line charts and histograms. The project also has a visualization platform that connects slaves to family members creating a complex web of social and kinship networks. This functionality affords nuanced views of the interconnectedness of individual slaves within the larger data collection.

By aggregating multiple datasets about slaves and developing tools that allow users to visualize and analyze this information, Slave Biographies empowers users to see broad patterns within a big set of data and identify small stories about individual slaves and their families. Ultimately with Slave Biographies scholars will be able to ask and answer unexpected questions that arise from the mass of biographic data in the repository and give life to slave experiences in the Atlantic World through their biographies contain in the data.

Into the future, Slave Biographies intends to enhance the visualization layer of the platform to allow users to map the data; maps of the Americas and Africa will illustrate from the places where individual slaves (based on ethnic identifications) hailed and to where they were finally brought. A time scrubber will enable scholars and students to see temporal and spatial shifts in patterns, a visualization of the slave trade attached to names and individuals. Another frontier for the project marries the geo-spatial mapping layer with richly illustrated slave biographies in an iPad application as well as a Windows Surfaces version for museum exhibition. Prototyping is already underway for this experience, which we hope will provide an engaging access point into the repository for general audiences.