Blacks Can Now Trace Their Roots to the Motherland

Published February 23, 2009

For the first time African-Americans can explore their African roots the same way that Whites have long been able to chart their migration from Europe thanks to a new free Internet site.

"Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database" allows those who are curious about their heritage to trace the routes that slave ships took after filling their hulls with tens of millions of kidnapped Africans between the 16th and 19th centuries and transporting them to the so-called New World.

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, researchers have spent nearly four decades compiling maps, images and other records from close to 35,000 slave-ship routes between Africa and North America, Brazil, the Caribbean and Europe.  According to the Chicago Tribune, never before has so much data on the topic been available to the public.

“Everybody wants to know where they came from, and for people from Europe, it has been possible for several centuries now to trace migrant communities," said David Eltis, a history professor at Emory and a director of the project. "Now it is possible to do the same for people of African descent."

He said that the records for people of Africa and the Americas are even better than “the records of connections between Europe and the Americas for the simple reason that slaves were property," he said. "No one cared what happened to free migrants. They did care what happened to slaves, because they were making money from them." 

Still, the researchers point out, even though the database can pinpoint “the regions slave ships launched from in Africa and where they arrived in the United States, it is generally impossible to determine which ancestors were on board because the records have African names that were changed when the slaves arrived in North America.”

"The data certainly isn't going to be helpful in tracing individual ancestors," Eltis said. "You can't say your ancestor came on this vessel, except in a tiny handful of cases. What it can do is provide context. The big advantage is that it establishes connections between parts of Africa and parts of the Americas." 

The database, which is expected to become a classroom tool, contains the records of 10.5 million slaves, more than 85 percent of the slave trade. It identifies more than 67,000 of them by their African name, age, sex, origin and place of embarkation. Only about 4 percent of the slaves who arrived from Africa actually ended up in the United States, while about 45 percent wound up in Brazil.

Written by From Staff & Wire Services

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