January 14, 2015
Balancing the Empirical and the Humane in Slave Trade Studies
11 min read
Gregory E. O’Malley, author of Final Passages contributes the following post.
In recent years, something of a divide has emerged in slave trade studies. In one camp, for decades after Philip Curtin published his pioneering The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census in 1969, historians of the slave trade focused on quantitative analysis. Study after study refined our understanding of just how many enslaved people crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the slave trade (and tackled related questions about sex ratios and mortality during the passage) by combing through port records, merchant accounts, and insurance ledgers. This quantitative approach culminated in Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which compiled the research of dozens of these scholars to document more than 35,000 individual shipments of enslaved people across the Atlantic in a searchable, accessible form. But just as the field reached something close to consensus on the number of people who endured the transatlantic slave trade, another group of scholars expressed misgivings with the central question animating the field.
All the focus on numbers, these critics argued, obscured the humanity of the captives and the violence of their exploitation. It was good to know how many people departed Africa in the slave trade, these critics allowed, but numbers were not nearly enough. Knowing how many people left Africa from a particular port would not tell us what knowledge, beliefs, or cultures they carried; knowing the mortality rate on the average slave ship would not tell us how people of various African backgrounds understood death at sea or carried the traumas of watching their shipmates die into their new lives in the Americas; knowing the sex ratio on the average slave ship would not tell us how the enslaved constructed gender roles on American plantations. Numbers could tell us many things about the slave trade, but scholars in this second camp (who typically focused on the cultures created by the enslaved) grew increasingly concerned about what numbers could not tell us, or worse yet what they skewed or obscured.
Many were particularly troubled by the sources of the numbers—port records, insurance documents, and merchant accounts that treated enslaved people as commodities, abstracting human beings as mere tally marks in ledgers. In playing what critics often critiqued as the “numbers game,” were slave trade historians perpetuating the dehumanization of the slave trade by using these shipping records to count the captives crossing the Atlantic? In some ways, that is the implied critique that Marcus Rediker issued in the subtitle to his riveting, The Slave Ship: A Human History.
As I began the research for Final Passages, this debate was (and continues to be) in full swing—though interestingly it is a debate that is much less explicit in print than in off-the-record conversations between scholars. Its most public airing was probably at a conference at William & Mary in 1999 for the unveiling of the first iteration of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database on CD-ROM. Many present for the arguments at that event (I was not) describe it as a traumatic event—one that continues to haunt them.
Embarking on my dissertation I gradually became aware of this divide, and it (I’ll put this as intellectually as I can) bummed me out. For one thing, I admired the work of scholars in both camps. For another, I understood my project as operating at the intersection between them. My interest in studying the intercolonial slave trade stemmed from cultural questions.
In learning about the cultures enslaved people created in various American regions, I had become convinced that historians needed to ground such research in a better understanding of the networks that delivered enslaved people to the Americas. After all, where in Africa a captive was from would profoundly shape the knowledge, beliefs, and tastes that they carried. But in looking at the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database—which focuses solely on voyages crossing the Atlantic—it struck me that we had better information for some places than others. The database can tell you a great deal about voyages delivering captives to South Carolina, for example, but virtually nothing about voyages to North Carolina because enslaved people rarely arrived in North Carolina (and many other less prosperous or populous colonies) directly from Africa.
As I began investigating the networks of human trafficking that dispersed people from the major American ports of the slave trade to myriad other sites of slave exploitation, I resisted suggestions to quantify the research at first. Inspired especially by Walter Johnson’s Soul By Soul, I wanted to focus on the experiences of captives and the meaning of this intercolonial traffic to both slaves and traders alike.
But I quickly realized that I couldn’t write about what this network of intercolonial dispersal meant if I didn’t know where it began or where it went. At a fundamental level, I didn’t know what I was talking about.
So I began to count ships and the people they carried, building a database of intercolonial shipments of enslaved people from port records and modeling it directly on the Voyages transatlantic slave trade database. It topped out at well over 7,000 voyages from British American ports to other colonies in British, French, and Spanish America. The critics of quantitative histories of the slave trade haunted me, but I did not know how else to get a grasp on the scope of my topic or its patterns.
Integrating my quantitative research with a humane portrayal of the slave trade thus became the central writing challenge for me in Final Passages. The field of slave trade scholarship felt divided between quantitative and cultural camps, but I grew increasingly convinced that this gap should be bridged. After all, an analysis of Abduhl Rahhahman’s account of surviving the slave trade carries more weight knowing that more than ten million other people endured similar journeys. And a chart showing the number of children in the slave trade comes alive when paired with Olaudah Equiano’s description of a boy’s fear on boarding a slave ship.
So in some ways, this post is an attempt to defend my choice to count people in the intercolonial slave trade, despite the discomfiting knowledge that my counting builds on the counting of the slave traders and imperialists, who profited from buying and selling African bodies as commodities. Documenting the scale of the human trafficking was simply an essential part of recovering and reckoning with the lived experience and implications of the intercolonial slave.
But more than defend my own work, I want to encourage more studies that employ both quantitative methods and vivid accounts of human experiences—not that I’m convinced I’ve always succeeded in integrating the two. Done well, this dual approach promises to offer the most impact and understanding. I also want to encourage a generous reading of both camps—cultural and quantitative—in the existing slave trade historiography. To me they are integral parts of the same important project, documenting the horror and exploitation of the slave trade so that we can begin to reckon with its legacies. Both the violence meted out on individuals and the staggering scale of the forced migration are vital parts of that story.