Over a four year period in the mid-1990s a team of scholars centred on the Du Bois institute at Harvard compiled a comprehensive database of transatlantic slave-trading voyages. Over 27,000 individual journeys were recorded for the period 1650-1867 covering more than 2/3 of all voyages that took place. The data includes extensive demographic (and mortality) information for the African slaves as well as similar information for the crew, details of the ship and durations of the voyages. This was an amazing feat of collaborative scholarly effort resulting in a dataset of immense value in furthering our understanding of an incredibly important (and terrible) historical episode.

So what happened to this data, was it made open, free for all, scholars and public alike, to use and reuse? Sadly not. Instead it was published on CD-ROM by Cambridge University Press priced at $250.00 (150GBP + VAT in the UK) — a rather tidy sum that one would imagine puts it out of reach, not only of the average interested citizen, but also of many schools[1].

Apart from the simple cost of access, publication in this form raises questions regarding reuse and redistribution. What happens if I want to reproduce some part of the dataset on my website, or I modify the dataset, perhaps by combining it with some other data sources? A quick call to CUP gives me the answer: apparently they have, and assert, copyright and database rights in the CDROM and I’d need to get in touch with their ‘Permissions Manager’ to see what I would or would not be allowed to do. I’ve no doubt that CUP are probably quite reasonable about this sort of thing but that’s beside the point: (a) there will still be a whole set of activities which are not permitted (including, I imagine, publishing data on a website) (b) whether I got permission or not there’d be significant ‘transaction costs’, that is time and effort simply spent checking what I can or can’t do.

Fortunately, change seems to be in sight. A look at the database’s home page on the Du Bois Institute’s website reveals that The project directors are now working to make the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database part of an open-access web site. Their goal is to create a dual-tier interface to accommodate a range of aptitudes for the internet, and, in addition to the open access feature, it offers the novel prospect of being constantly up to date in perpetuity.

No dates are given as to when exactly the database will be made ‘open access’ and one wonders why a straight database dump can’t be made available immediately[2] but this does mark a great advance over a $250.00 CDROM and the Du Bois Institute should be commended for realising that the the data’s as important as the paper[3].

[1]: It should be mentioned that the CUP package does include more than the data alone, for example there’s a teacher’s manual and additional software but this does not materially alter the point being made.

[2]: The whole raw data issue is a major one and it came up repeatedly at the recent civic information forum but I won’t discuss if further here as I plan to return to it in greater detail in a future post.

[3]: Even if they do publish it we will still need to keep our fingers crossed that they attach a suitable open license.

Website | + posts

Rufus Pollock is Founder and President of Open Knowledge.

10 thoughts on “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Is It Going to be Made Open?”

  1. Not that we know of. You could try contacting the DuBois center via one of the people listed on their staff page. If you do find out anything please let us know.

  2. Scholars at Emory are revising and expanding this renowned database of slave trade voyages—increasing the number of voyages recorded to nearly 35,000, or fully 82 percent of the entire history of the slave trade. In 2008 (the 200th anniversary of the enactment of the slave-trade abolition laws in the United States and Great Britain), the launch of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database will make the material available for free on the Internet for the first time.

    The expansion of the current database is based on the seminal 1999 work The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, a CD-ROM published by Cambridge University Press that includes more than 27,000 slave trade voyages and has been popular with scholars and genealogists alike.

    David Eltis, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of History at Emory and one of the scholars who published The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Martin Halbert, director of Digital Programs and Systems for Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library, are directing the project to create an open-access publication of this resource.

    In addition to increasing the number of slave trade voyages from the original work by nearly 25 percent, the project will allow the addition of new information to more than one-third of the voyages already included in the 1999 CD-ROM. The expanded database making its debut on the Internet will include auxiliary materials such as maps, ship logs, and manifests. It also will be presented in a format accessible to professional researchers, K-12 students, and the general public. At the end of the two-year project, researchers who discover new data about the slave trade in archives will be able to submit that new data online to an editorial board for vetting and future inclusion in the database.

    In bringing the materials online, “we are thinking about the needs of very different groups of users,” Halbert said. “Scholars and researchers in higher education will want to look at specific time periods and generate comparative statistics, charts, graphs and geographic displays of information. K-12 students have much less background knowledge so will need more context to be able to use the material effectively.”
    At the time of its publication, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database transformed scholarly research in the field. Since then it has become increasingly rare to see publications on the slave trade that do not cite the CD-ROM, and the volume of queries and suggestions its authors receive has increased every year since its publication. The database also appeals to a wide range of academic disciplines and research expertise.

    “This resource is more than a capstone to half a century of research,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research. The DuBois Institute provided $25,000 in funding for the project, on top of the $324,000 granted by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). “It is a way of marrying scholarship with the wide general interest in the slave trade that has developed,” Gates said.

    The project is part of Woodruff Library’s Digital Programs and Systems division–a group that has earned its national reputation as a leader in the fields of Digital Library research and Internet-based scholarly communication. In the past five years, the initiative has received more than $3.6 million in grant support for projects and programs that promote new ways of conducting research and scholarship in the digital age.

    For more information on this project, please visit http://www.metascholar.org/

  3. Echoing and adding to Katherine Skinner’s comments above, the online database will enable users to download the entire dataset and also to submit new data. Though Cambridge University Press never recouped the cost of developing and publishing the original CD-ROM, they generously transferred copyrights so that David Eltis could make this resource freely available online. Funding from the NEH and the DuBois Institute has also been critical for moving this project forward.

    Our current project to expand and move this database online will also incorporate a process for submitting new data for vetting and inclusion in the database. Indeed, much of the development work we are doing now attempts to encourage the type of collaboration and openness that led to the creation of the original dataset.

    If you have any questions about the project, please feel free to visit our project website or contact me directly,

    Liz Milewicz, Project Manager

  4. That’s fantastic news and Cambridge University Press should certainly be commended for their farsighted and generous assignation of the copyright back to the scholars developing the resource.

    I look forward to seeing the resource online with its associated open license and well done to everyone involved in the project.

  5. Slave trading was a rampant practice during the past and a horrible one at that. Thank God for the life of Abraham Lincoln who advocated to stop this malpractice and treat blacks and other races as equals with all the other races. If the database would be opened, it would be a good thing as it will lead to more discoveries about ancestors and records.

    Fred Homes
    architect Tucson

  6. Its good to see this information coming into the public.

    Hopefully it will only be used for good as it doesn’t represent a stellar piece of history for anyone to be proud of.

    The real horror to all of this is that the slave trade still persists today, but underground. Perhaps the more information on the topic that gets and stays in the public will have a positive benefit to influence individuals to stand up against it when they come in contact with it instead of looking the other way.

    Or perhaps that’s wishful thinking

Comments are closed.