Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, David Eltis & David Richardson (Yale U P) $50
At a time when fresh attention is being paid to the trafficking of human beings—the second largest industry in the world today, tied with the illegal arms trade and just behind the drug trade—comes a volume decades in the making. For the first time in visual form, the more than three-and-half-century-long transatlantic slave trade comes alive in all its gruesome detail. This 336-page volume features nearly 200 maps, illustrations, poems, and journal entries, chronicling the kidnapping, deportation, and coercion of 12.5 million Africans. Below is our exclusive interview with the authors of this monumental work, David Eltis and David Richardson.
Who is your audience? Who do you hope will read this book and what do you hope your readers’ response will be?
Our expected audience is English speaking or reading at this stage, and ranges from school children to university students, from scholars to informed and socially aware members of the public, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, and nationality. We would hope in due course to produce an edition in a language other than English, if there is a demand for such. Our goal is to inform and promote greater transparency in debates over slavery and emancipation with a view to promoting national and international understanding and social cohesion through improved knowledge of the processes and legacies of what is often seen as one of the world’s greatest crimes against humanity.
What were the primary insights that stood out to you as you created this visual-geographical depiction of the transatlantic slave trade that were not as apparent in a purely verbal-textual description?
There were several primary insights that arose as a result of the new depictions of the slave trade. One was the range of European and American ports involved in trafficking slaves. A second was the heavy concentration of activity at certain ports in Africa and the strength and persistence of their ties to ports in Europe and the Americas. A third is the human costs of the slave trade as depicted in the maps showing the scale of slave arrivals in the Americas and the resulting size of slave populations. And a fourth was the capacity of traffickers to adjust to external interventions to end slavery (as in Saint-Domingue in 1791) or to end the slave trade slave (as Britain and the USA in 1807-8).
There is an artistic elegance to this book – maps, artwork, poetry, etc. How does this artistic quality contribute to your academic objectives?
Our goal from the very beginning was to track the scale and movement of enslaved Africans in ways that recognised both the numbers involved and the human aspects of the historic tragedy that they encompassed. The maps could tell the first part of the story; the other materials helped to explain the human elements within the processes and consequences that underlay the maps. When choosing contemporary images and texts we wanted to portray the violence and brutality implicit in the slave trade (as well as slavery). We also wanted to emphasise resistance by the enslaved as well as their capacity to survive and come through the ordeal. And finally we wanted to emphasise the banality of the slave trade—its widest spread acceptance as a species of trade—for much of the period before the nineteenth century, and the processes and mechanisms that produced a revulsion against slave trading from the late eighteenth century, thereby triggering change in international attitudes in support of abolition. Brutality and violence; resistance and survival; banality and change: these were the key concepts that guided us in selecting supporting texts and images. Readers and users of the atlas can judge which concept or concepts we had in mind when we chose specific texts or images.
David Brion Davis says in the Preface that greed and “Western culture’s tendency to worship the magic of the free market” more than racism drove the transatlantic slave trade. That appears to be the case today, as well.
The market for the products produced by slaves—among which sugar was clearly the most important—drove the demand for slaves and thus the scale and direction of the Atlantic slave trade, at least until abolitionist interventions from the late eighteenth century. In this sense David Brion Davis is clearly right. But the market alone did not determine that it would be Africans who, almost exclusively, would become the slaves of choice among peoples of European descent under transatlantic slavery. This decision, and the legacies that flowed from it, was as much a result of cultural factors as economic ones. In its highly racial structure transatlantic slavery was exceptional, a point underlined by the colour-blindness within most of systems of slavery before and since transatlantic slavery.
The United Nations estimates that there are 2.5 million people from 127 countries being trafficked around the world, and anywhere from 12 to 24 million slaves, more than at any other time in history. What do you hope this new volume will contribute to the abolition of contemporary slavery?
Slavery has been a robust and adaptable institution historically and has rarely ended without some form of intervention, whether driven by cultural change or politics or by slave resistance. Notwithstanding the outlawing of slavery internationally, ‘slavery’ in the form of people trafficking, child labour, debt bondage, caste systems and other forms still exists today, as it did in various forms on the past. The atlas will hopefully contribute to the abolition of contemporary slavery by reminding us that the human costs of slavery are high; that defeating slavery in any form will require organised vigilance and perseverance by states and other bodies; and that, in making efforts to inform ourselves of the circumstances under which everyday products of consumption are made, we can be agents of change in improving global labour condition.
Is the Electronic Slave Trade Database Project ongoing? If so, what is the future of the project? Are maps being made of 20th & 21st century slave trade?
The database project is ongoing. A platform has been created at Emory and Hull that will allow periodic updating of the database in response to offers of new data from the research community at large. This will expand the range of stakeholders in the project and thus its identity as a public rather than just academic resource. The Atlas is intended as an important contribution to that process.
The range and quantity of information relating to the transatlantic slave trade is exceptional relative to other trades in human beings, past and present. The fact that slave trafficking today is a form of organised crime makes it extremely difficult to track. Though there is a an ever growing list of publications on contemporary slavery, some of which provide estimates of both local and global numbers of people in slavery or conditions akin to slavery, there are no plans by the authors of the Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to produce maps of of 20th and 21st century slave trades.
Ryan Bell is senior pastor of Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist Church, which was awarded the North American Division’s Award for Most Innovative Church in 2010. Bell writes for a wide range of publications, including the Huffington Post, and works very closely with many LA-based and national organizations to promote social justice.