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Site to Explore Slave Origins

By Nihar Thadani Posted: 04/05/2010
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Emory is hoping to unveil the product of its African Origins Project, an online database aimed at encouraging public input in order to explore the origins of roughly 100,000 African slaves involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this June, University officials announced on Mar. 23.

The project — started in January 2009 by Robert W. Woodruff Professor of History David Eltis and Martin Halbert of the Digital Programs and Systems Division in Emory’s Woodruff Library — is an Emory University Digital Library Research Initiative mainly sponsored by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“We want to see the African origins of the slaves arriving in different parts of the Americas. Who were they? What ports were they from?” Eltis said.

Much of the project’s data comes from legal records. In an effort to suppress the slave trade in 1808, the United States and Britain intercepted Portuguese and Brazilian ships and brought them to international courts. After the courts registered the names, ages and genders of the African slaves brought in to avoid future enslavement, they were freed. Nafees Khan, diaspora outreach coordinator for the project, said the African Origins Project derived much of its data from these court registers.

“There were two reasons for the project ­— that traditional African naming practices have not changed and that we wanted to tell the personal stories of the African slaves,” Khan said.

The African Origins Project has utilized data from “Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database,” a 2008 project on which Eltis and Halbert collaborated. The database holds records from the trans-Atlantic slave voyages in the 19th century. “Voyages” will supply the African Origins Project with information such as the names of the slaves and their port of embarkation, collected from registers created by International Courts of Mixed Commission in Havana, Cuba, and Freetown, Sierra Leone.

“The African Origins Project is supposed to do for Africa what ‘Voyages’ did for the Atlantic [Ocean]” Eltis said. “What happened before they got onto the boat? We want to create the profiles of African slaves before their voyage to the Americas.”

Elizabeth Milewicz, manager of the project and post-doctorate fellow in Emory’s history department, initiated the data collection technique for the African Origins Project.

The data relies on both public contributions and scholarly expertise, a technique referred to as public scholarship.

Though the project team had previous information from the international courts, about 80 percent of their data will be new and derived through input from the public.

“A member of the public will give an individual opinion on a name based on their knowledge of Africa. A reviewer sees how many of those contributions for that name converge, then puts it against his or her own historical understanding,” Milewicz said.

After the 2010 launch of the African Origins website, public contributions will be accepted.

The project team will ask the public for key pieces of information, such as the modern spelling and pronunciation of an African name and the ethnic group and language associated with that name.

In order to mitigate instances of misuse of the database, a person will only be permitted to contribute once to an individual’s online record.

“It serves as a piece of evidence and a valuable indicator for us. I think it gives more insight than individual scholars would,” Milewicz said.

Eltis and Milewicz said they felt challenged by the possible number of contributions they will receive and the fact that the database is organized by African names.

“We are looking for engaging members of the African diaspora, scholars, anyone from the public that can weigh in, but they need to know something about African practices, including naming practices,” Milewicz said. “Unfortunately, this reduces the pool of possibilities.”

Milewicz and Eltis hope to expand the information on these African profiles to include the country of origin and descriptions of markings, tattoos and more, but acknowledged the database’s potential limits.

“A major setback is that if you do not know the African name of the person, you cannot use the African Origins Project. Many Africans were given Christian names when they arrived in the Americas,” Eltis added.

— Contact Nihar Thadani.

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