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UC Irvine professor provides research that helps update database documenting the colonial-era slave trade

Alex Borucki, associate professor of history at UCI photo: Steve Zylius/UCI
Alex Borucki, an associate professor of history at UC Irvine, co-led the update of the Slave Voyages database with Greg O’Malley, an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz, to include intra-American voyages.
(Photo by Steve Zylius | UC Irvine)

With input from a professor and graduate students at UC Irvine, a database hosted by Emory University in Atlanta now provides a more holistic look at the intra-American slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Emory launched Slave Voyages in 2008 as a “digital memorial” containing thousands of trans-Atlantic slaving expedition records. The updated site now hosts videos, maps and a 3-D rendering of a slave ship.

But the most significant addition is a new intra-American database, which documents about 10,000 individual voyages — and counting. Information about the ships, their owners, captains and travel dates is aggregated along with details about the captives, their origins and survival rates.

“Now we’re able to see this all across the Spanish colonies from Mexico to Buenos Aires, this significance of internal slave trade,” said UCI associate professor Alex Borucki, who co-led the database research and contributed about 750 entries. “Ships from other places in the Americas – from British, Dutch and Portuguese colonies into the Spanish colonies. That’s something that was known but in a fragmented way. Now we have a consistent tool that we can do comparative research with.”

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As co-leader of the project, Gregory O’Malley, an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz, also provided entries with help from graduate students and at least 20 international scholars.

“I saw the transportation, where people were sent to, and the circulation and movement of human beings, and [it] was shocking,” said Katherine “Kat” Cosby, a UCI graduate student who worked on the project. “It made me rethink the scope of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

Though most are aware that Africans were enslaved and brought to North America by European colonialists, the routes — the research reminds — were not always so direct.

“When you think about the African diaspora, it’s not just a dialogue between a specific place in Africa and the Americas,” Borucki said. “It’s a vertical dialogue between different places in the Americas — Cuba, Jamaica, Curaçao. These voyages were not in the trans-Atlantic database because they were internal. Now, they’re in the intra-American database.”

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A 2016 National Endowment for the Humanities grant funded the project, which required two years of principal research. Borucki said one of the most difficult parts of the endeavor was organizing reams of slave ship data into a comprehensive database.

“This database is not the only tool about the slave trade,” he said. “It’s important, and it should be put in comparison and connected. We needed a quantitative gathering of these sources in order to have a bigger picture of the Africans and their descendants in this horrific process.”

Though the website update is now complete, Borucki said the team plans to continue adding names of captives and crew members on specific voyages already aggregated in the databases.


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