Interview with Alex Borucki on the Slave Voyages website

The following interview between Alex Borucki (University of California, Irvine) and H-Slavery teaching editor Norah L. A. Gharala (University of Houston) examines the Slave Voyages website. Housing the Trans-Atlantic and Intra-American slave trade databases, as well as the African Names Database, the project allows the public to search tens of thousands of slaving voyages in the Atlantic World and the Americas. Through the African Names Database, users can search personal details related to more than 91,000 African captives in the nineteenth century. This web resource is now available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. In this interview, Alex Borucki explains how this project supports classroom teaching. Norah Gharala added links to pages on Slave Voyages and relevant outside web sites following the interview.


1) How do you use the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (TASTDB) in your undergraduate and graduate teaching? Are there specific assignments that this database would support? How could educators use this tool to promote early acquisition of research skills and develop undergraduate projects? 

I combine personal stories with this database on assignments, so, students do searches on the database both to find specific slave voyages as well as to find historical patterns shown by quantitative research. A typical example is to find the slave ship that brought Venture Smith to first Barbados and then Rhode Island. I ask students to find this ship based on the autobiographical narrative of Venture Smith, which they read, and then to find the patterns of the traffic both in the region from which Venture Smith departed and in Rhode Island in order to compare and contrast his story with the most common features of the traffic in these regions at the time.

I have to tell you that since the new user interface (Slave Voyages 2.0) was launched last March, we have received at least two dozen emails from professors across the United States, and some from abroad, who use this database with their own students, and who have found glitches in the version of the interface while they were using the webpage. Since then, we were able to fix this. Not “we”, but the programmer and web designer of course. The very fast response from these professors is evidence of how widely this digital resource is employed in university courses on the history of the slave trade, and more broadly, U.S. and Latin American history.

2) In what ways does this project advance our understanding of Spanish Atlantic and Ibero-American history? Do you think the information in these datasets has influenced (or will influence) undergraduate surveys and textbooks in these areas? Where do you see your research and this project influencing how secondary and college educators teach?

The creation of a consolidated Intra-American Slave Trade Database was initially suggested by David Eltis to both Greg O’Malley and me some three years ago. Greg and I knew each other through Eltis. While the research of O’Malley was focused on the internal British slave trade during the 18th century, the British Caribbean slave routes to Spanish colonies brought him to study the Spanish colonies as well. In my case, my work on the internal slave trade from Brazil to the Rio de la Plata region sparked my interest in slave routes within the Americas more broadly, for instance, from Dutch Curacao to Venezuela. We conducted this two-year project consolidating different databases into a single dataset of intra-American slave voyages at the same time that the entire website Slave Voyages was revamped, and the results are now visible.

This interest in the internal slave trade and the traffic to the Spanish Americas also came from the work that Eltis, David Wheat and I did on a larger article on the entire slave trade to the Spanish colonies, published by the American Historical Review in 2015, which focused on this intra-American slave trade as well as the recent findings of the transatlantic traffic to the Spanish colonies in the early period by David Wheat and Marc Eagle. As a result of this, the three of us organized an edited volume entitled From the Galleons to the Highlands: Slave Trade Routes in the Spanish Americas, which will be out in 2020 by University of New Mexico Press.

These projects show the interconnectedness of the Americas through slave trading routes. Thus, Africans and their descendants who had lived years in the British, Dutch, Portuguese, and French colonies, later continued their lives in the Spanish Americas. And vice versa, what became the United States was part of a larger network of slave routes that crossed imperial boundaries. This influenced black communities in the Atlantic ports in the Americas, who were integrated with people born in Africa, in that specific American region, and in other colonies of the New World.

For instance, in the late seventeenth century, Dutch, French, and English privateers took free and enslaved Africans and Afro-Mexicans from Veracruz when they raided this port. These pirates sold most of them in Charleston, South Carolina, where they became a sizeable group within the local black community-–something that historian Pablo Sierra is examining now.

These “foreign” black communities usually were invisible to colonial authorities up to the moment that conspiracies of foreign attacks took place, and thus they became the usual suspects from the view of colonial authorities. The 1741 conspiracy of New York ended with a group of “Black Spaniards” deported from New York to Hispaniola, Cuba, and other Spanish colonies. Scholars wonder what these Afrodescendant people of Spanish American origins were doing in New York in mid-eighteenth century.

In my research, I usually find mentions by Spanish authorities in Montevideo of “Black Portuguese” who were suspected of helping slaves to run away from Montevideo to the Luso-Brazilian border in the late eighteenth century. Some of them did it help captives to run away, and they became famous as rural bandits.

Cuba is another great example, where black men and women, both free and enslaved, who had lived previously in the British and French Caribbean were part of the larger black communities in Havana, Santiago, and other Cuban cities, and they were seen as “Black English,” or “Black French”.

I would say that this project joins the study of the U.S. slave trade and slavery to the history of Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition, the project points to the porous boundaries of colonial empires in the Americas, something that has been examined from the perspective of those in power, like merchants, but less observed from the viewpoints of captives.

3) How would you characterize the relationship between this project and other global projects about slavery and diaspora, such as those describing Indian Ocean world networks?

I see the coming of future projects on both the trade of African captives in the Indian Ocean, something that scholars of the Indian Ocean have been discussing in the past years, as well as digital projects on the history of the traffic of indigenous peoples of the Americas, first by the Spanish and then by almost every European power that settled in the New World. These are not necessarily quantitative projects like the Slave Voyages website and can take their own format, for instance in the case of the trade of indigenous peoples, by charting in GIS the geography of this traffic through the Americas.

The intra-American slave trade database sometimes shows data of “Indian slaves” shipped within the Caribbean, under the variable “Afrinfo,” which is searchable when you download the database.

In the near future we hope that the slave trade database of voyages within the Americas could include more systematic information about the large nineteenth-century traffic within the United States and within Brazil. We have already made contacts with scholars Daniel Domingues and Jennie Williams, among others, for this to happen.


4) How has the "Contribute" feature changed the database so far?

The “Contribute” section is a central piece of the Slave Voyages website that allows for a curated contribution to add new slave voyages and to change information on voyages that are already listed in the site. In the past ten years, this tool has been used mostly to correct information on voyages that already appear in the database. Some of the contributors are university scholars, but others are people working in local archives who, through doing research on their own towns, find new information on slave voyages. They generally approach the database to find slave voyages arriving in specific ports in the Americas, the place where they live and work, and then they find new information in the local archives.

5) Where do biographical and qualitative data enhance the web project in new ways?

The website Slave Voyages has to be used alongside biographical and qualitative sources, or sources understood as narratives, in order to have a more complete understating of the traffic from the perspectives of both perpetrators and victims of this human tragedy. As the Slave Voyages website shows quantifiable information, such as occurrences of geographic places, the numbers of embarked and disembarked captives, and the names of the merchants and captains involved in each voyage, this, in a way, reproduces how enslaved people were seen by merchants and slavers, as numbers. Numbers are necessary to understand the ubiquity of the slave trade and historical patterns connecting certain regions in Africa with certain regions in the Americas, as well as the overall organization of this traffic over 350 years. But numbers alone are not enough of course. This digital project is intended to be used alongside other sources, and other methodological perspectives, as well.

In this era of unthinkable disregard of evidence, projects like the Slave Voyages website are even more in need to show the grueling and massive scale of the transatlantic slave trade, and now the internal slave trade in the Americas, for a larger audience.

6) What are some of the major changes that make this project more accessible and friendly to the end user?

The translations to both Portuguese and now Spanish increase the accessibility and use of this project in the United States, Latin America, Europe, and Africa. After the Portuguese translation was online a couple of years ago, Google analytics showed that for first time the second country of most visits to the site, after the United States, became Brazil, which shows the usage of this digital tool in university classes –when you teach in Portuguese to Brazilian students. We hope that a similar increase of visitors happens now with the Spanish translation.

Now the interface is simpler and more user-friendly that the previous one, which reflects the progress of web design in the last ten years. There’s an upper bar of searches, where you can see the different layers of searches, the results occupy the entire lower half or two thirds of the screen, which offer more to the reader in just a glimpse of the results. Interactive maps are now more accurate as well, all of which make data visualization more effective. The new site also incorporates a 3D video of the rendition of a slave ship, Aurore, based on the comprehensive documents on this specific vessel.

Thank you for sharing this information with H-Slavery.