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Speaker will preview online database of slave trade

ATHENS, Ohio (Feb. 23, 2007) -- By the time the last legal slave ship set sail in 1867, the transatlantic trade in humans had stripped more than 12 million Africans from their homeland. 

Photo courtesy of David EltisUntil recently, little was known about where in Africa these men and women came from and where they were shipped, or how many of them survived the voyage or tried to fight back. 

In 1999, tens of thousands of records spanning the more than 300 years of the transatlantic slave trade were compiled into a single database on compact discs. These include ship manifests, captain's logs, insurance documents and other records from many countries. 

Historian David Eltis, who helped create the database, will give a sneak preview of an expanded and interactive online version next week at Ohio University. He estimates the updated database now covers about 85 percent of the entire slave trade. 

Eltis, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, is the keynote speaker for Ohio University's commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in America. 

His lecture is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, March 1, in the Baker University Center Theatre. The next morning, from 10 a.m. to noon, Eltis will give a hands-on demonstration in the Baker University Center Multicultural Center, where computers will be set up to access the online database. 

Ohio University to celebrate bicentennial of the end of slave trade

President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill on March 2, 1807, that abolished the U.S. slave trade and Ohio University will celebrate the bicentennial of that historical day March 1-2.

Thursday, March 1

  • David Eltis keynote address on the Atlantic slave trade database
    7 p.m., Baker University Center Theatre

Friday, March 2

  • Atlantic slave trade database workshop with David Eltis
    10 a.m. to noon, Multicultural Center, Baker University Center second floor

  • Panel discussion featuring Ohio University history and African American studies faculty
    2 to 3:45 p.m., Baker University Center room 242

  • 2007 Alvin Adams Memorial Lecture: Eric Burin presents "Love of Liberty Brought Us Here"
    7 p.m., Baker University Center Theatre

Click here to see more details.

This is a special preview for Ohio University. The online database, which includes thousands of additional records that Eltis and his fellow researchers have dug up since the first version was released, is still under development and will not be available to the public until next year. 

Users of the online database will be able to pick a region in Africa and a region in, say, North America, then look at the slave trade between those regions during a selected period. 

Ohio University professors who study slavery say the significance of the database is that it reveals the full scale and geographic distribution of slave trading, right down to individual slave ship voyages, and puts it all within easy reach. 

"We now have a systematic look at where European nations were taking slaves from, who was selling them slaves in the African continent, and where they were selling them to," said Brian Schoen, an Ohio University history professor who has studied slavery in the American South. 

The records of thousands of slave ship voyages give historians hard figures to either support or modify conclusions about slavery and the slave trade that have been based largely on deductions and inferences from anecdotal or circumstantial evidence. 

For example, while slavery and its aftermath defines much of U.S. history, the records confirm that America was a bit player in the international slave trade. England and Portugal were the big traders -- together responsible for about 75 percent of all slave shipments. 

Only about 5 percent of slaves who crossed the Atlantic were bound for the United States, Eltis said. Most were sent to South America and the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. 

International slave trading was banned here before the United States became an agricultural and industrial powerhouse in the mid-1800s. On March 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed the law abolishing the trade in America. It took effect the following year. 

The law only prevented Americans from buying and selling slaves on the international market. Slavery remained legal in the United States until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and it took the Civil War to enforce it. 

England abolished its slave trade the same year as the United States, but this did little to dampen the global shipment of slaves, Eltis said. Other countries, Portugal in particular, picked up the slack. About 25 percent of the transatlantic slave trade was conducted in just the decades between 1808 and 1867. 

Ohio University history professor Mariana Dantas said the scope of the updated database is welcome news for researchers like her, who do comparative studies among different countries. Making transnational comparisons once meant hunting for records in multiple countries, which was difficult and costly, she said. Now all the records are in one place. 

The database is also a giant reservoir of answers to questions that haven't been asked yet. For example, the records reveal that the slaves on about one in 10 ships staged a rebellion, almost all of them unsuccessful. This information, Schoen said, could now be compared with slave rebellions on plantations to see if it was the same slaves from those ships who continued to fight for their freedom on land. 

The database also reveals that slave trading was an orderly business transaction, Eltis said. European and American governments developed commercial relationships with officials from African governments. Ships would set sail for Africa loaded with goods that would be exchanged for slaves. Once established, these trading patterns tended to persist, Eltis said. This helps today's slave descendants trace their ancestry to a particular region in Africa. 

One of the most frequent questions Eltis gets about the database is whether it includes the names of slaves. With few exceptions, it does not. Slaves were treated as property, not people. Their names were not recorded. The few names in the database typically come from records of interceptions of illegal slave ships.

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Media Contact: Media Specialist George Mauzy, 740-597-1794 or mauzy@ohio.edu

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