We Still Can’t See American Slavery for What It Was

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By Jamelle Bouie, New York Times

The historian Marcus Rediker opens “The Slave Ship: A Human History” with a harrowing reconstruction of the journey, for a captive, from shore to ship:

The ship grew larger and more terrifying with every vigorous stroke of the paddles. The smells grew stronger and the sounds louder — crying and wailing from one quarter and low, plaintive singing from another; the anarchic noise of children given an underbeat by hands drumming on wood; the odd comprehensible word or two wafting through: someone asking for menney, water, another laying a curse, appealing to myabecca, spirits.

An estimated 12.5 million people endured some version of this journey, captured and shipped mainly from the western coast of Africa to the Western Hemisphere during the four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of that number, about 10.7 million survived to reach the shores of the so-called New World.

Shackles for Adults & Children from the Henrietta Marie
Shackles for Adults & Children from the Henrietta Marie

It is thanks to decades of painstaking, difficult work that we know a great deal about the scale of human trafficking across the Atlantic Ocean and about the people aboard each ship. Much of that research is available to the public in the form of the SlaveVoyages database. A detailed repository of information on individual ships, individual voyages and even individual people, it is a groundbreaking tool for scholars of slavery, the slave trade and the Atlantic world. And it continues to grow. Last year, the team behind SlaveVoyages introduced a new data set with information on the domestic slave trade within the United States, titled “Oceans of Kinfolk.”…

After nearly 10 years as physical media, SlaveVoyages was introduced to the public as a website in 2008 and then relaunched in 2019 with a new interface and even more detail. As it stands today, the site, funded primarily by grants, contains data sets on various aspects of the slave trade: a database on the trans-Atlantic trade with more than 36,000 entries, a database containing entries on voyages that took place within the Americas and a database with the personal details of more than 95,000 enslaved Africans found on these ships.

The newest addition to SlaveVoyages is a data set that documents the “coastwise” traffic to New Orleans during the antebellum years of 1820 to 1860, when it was the largest slave-trading market in the country. The 1807 law that forbade the importation of enslaved Africans to the United States also required any captain of a coastwise vessel with enslaved people on board to file, at departure and on arrival, a manifest listing those individuals by name.

Countless enslaved Africans arrived at ports up and down the coast of the United States, but the largest share were sent to New Orleans. This new data set draws from roughly 4,000 “slave manifests” to document the traffic to that port. Those manifests list more than 63,000 captives, including names and physical descriptions, as well as information on an individual’s owner and information on the vessel and its captain.

Because of its specificity with regard to individual enslaved people, this new information is as pathbreaking for lay researchers and genealogists as it is for scholars and historians. It is also, for me, an opportunity to think about the difficult ethical questions that surround this work: How exactly do we relate to data that allows someone — anyone — to identify a specific enslaved person? How do we wield these powerful tools for quantitative analysis without abstracting the human reality away from the story? And what does it mean to study something as wicked and monstrous as the slave trade using some of the tools of the trade itself?…

Slaves being loaded into a slaver
Slaves being loaded into a slaver

The slave traders who documented their cargo for federal authorities — producing the manifests that were the foundation of Williams’ work — were obviously not interested in the lives and experiences of their captives, except as cargo. They had no intention of preserving their identities as people. But despite this indifference, Williams said, that is essentially what happened….

“I could barely sleep the first night,” said Carlton Houston, a descendant of one of the 63,000 captives listed as part of the coastal trade to New Orleans, speaking of when he first saw the document listing his ancestor Simon Wilson, a young man sold for the purpose of “breeding” more people. “It was so compelling to see. Here’s the manifest, here’s this name, to have this visual in your head of these young people, chained on a boat, not really knowing where they were going.”

“There was not much for him to look forward to, you know, just this abysmal world that they lived in,” Houston added. “And yet, they survived, and didn’t give up.”

Read the full article here.

Read more about the conditions during the Middle Passage voyages here.

More Breaking News here.

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