using digital tools to represent and memorialize enslaved africans who died on a middle passage voyage

mapping where enslaved persons died along the voyage of the Good hope

 Our map is one of the few attempts to to show where individual deaths occurred along the voyage of a single slave voyage. It recovers  geospatial data from logbook of the Good Hope, currently housed at the Connecticut State Library, visualizing its 1757 voyage from Bunce Island in present-day Sierra Leone to St. Kitts. In doing so, it departs from many previous efforts to map the Middle Passage, such as the much-publicized “Slave Trade in Two Minutes,” which tend to aggregate records from multiple slave voyages in an effort to convey the awful scope of the transatlantic slave trade.

Scroll, zoom, and interact with the map below. The black line depicts the journey of the Good Hope and the red dots represent deaths. Click on a red dots to learn more about each death.

Click here to download the source data for this map.

died a small boy

What follows is an account of one of the deaths aboard the Good Hope, that of an unnamed child only known as “small boy,” modelled on the practice of “critical fabulation,” as developed by Saidiya Hartman. The small boy is one of only a handful of enslaved persons aboard the Good Hope who is described as small in addition to the standard “boy,” “girl,” “man,” and “woman” descriptors. For us, this extra adjective provided an unintentional opening for considerations of the small boy’s ignored humanity.

At approximately 3:00 AM on the morning of May 11, 1757, on an otherwise normal sailing day, a small boy died while on board the slave ship the Good Hope. At the time of the boy’s death, the Good Hope was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, having left West Africa fourteen days prior.

Sketch of Bunce Island from
Matthews (1788)

kinship network

The Good Hope was docked off the coast of Bunce Island from April 11th to April 17th, where it was loaded with water, rice, and wood in addition to captured Africans. Many of the indigenous people of the north side of the Sierra Leone River, and consequently many of the enslaved persons at Bunce Island, belonged to the Bullam kinship network. The dialect of Bullam could also be called Kafu. The Bullams are described as being “industrious in trade and agriculture; and particularly famous for manufactory of matting … made of stained grass” (Matthews, pp. 24-25). The small boy may have been part of the Bullam community and already learning how to mat the beautiful stained grass. The Sierra Leone river also produced a great quantity of rice and salt, both of which would have been on board the ship. .

children and the middle passage

During his time on board the Good Hope, this small boy most likely would not have been shackled, but would have traveled unfettered on deck with enslaved women, separated from men (Vasconcellos). He may have been with kin; however, many children endured the transatlantic crossing without family ties, as unaccompanied minors. He was perhaps cared for by unrelated women. When he fell ill, did anyone care for him, physically or emotionally? Was he alone when he died in the early hours of the morning? At the time of his death, much of his experience of the world would have consisted of time spent in confinement. His socialization process would have been interrupted, and he would have faced exacerbated “vulnerability, grief, and isolation” (Mustakeem, p. 169).

Depending on how young he was, he might have been born somewhere along his mother’s journey from inland to the factory of Bence Island. Small could mean his age or height, as traders defined children as anyone shorter than 4’4.” Who was his mother? The pervasive culture of sexual abuse perpetrated against enslaved women suggests a higher probability that children, like the small boy, were products of rape.

Diagram of slave ship in British Library 1881.d.8 (46)

medical context

The small boy died of flux, defined as the leading cause of death among enslaved people forced to survive slavery at sea (Mustakeem, pp. 135-36). Flux can be understood to be an ambiguous medical condition. Flux can be dysentery, for instance, an intestinal infection that results in diarrhea in which blood is present in the stool. Such a condition is contracted by exposure to certain bacteria and parasites. The small boy would have experienced horrific abdominal pain and a fever. The small boy likely stopped eating and drinking.

mortuary practices

E.g. of “fresh breeze” weather conditions in the Atlantic

The small boy’s death might have gone some time without being noticed. During this time, illness would have cleaved his soul from his body. The slave ship was not an acceptable domain for humans to live, much less an acceptable site for the passage from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. The body would have been thrown overboard by the captors, left to the mercy of the ocean’s currents, to sea-dwelling carnivores.

In this respect, the impact of the death of the small boy on the remaining Africans on board is perhaps even more monumental than that of the death itself (see Smallwood, p. 140). Without the enactment of appropriate mortuary practices by his kin and social group, his soul could not effectively transition to the spirit world. The unfinished quality to his death would cause a similar rupture in his kinship and social group. After experiencing a ‘bad’ death, without the appropriate methods of burial, his soul might have taken the form of a vengeful spirit, haunting those who were still bearing the
burden of living.

our work is guided by a code of ethics

Our use of complicated sources of knowledge required that we think deeply about the ethics of our project. We collaboratively wrote an “acknowledgements” document in order to remind ourselves of our commitment to the lives of those lost in the Middle Passage.

intent and transparency

We acknowledge the narratives we choose to represent are not complete nor unbiased. Likewise, our retelling of such narratives cannot be complete or unbiased. We use archival sources as a means to recover the voices of the dead, with full awareness that the authors of such texts perpetuated the violence. We hope that the context we provide will show the humanity of the victims who have more often than not been represented as points in a database. This document is a living text; we will continue to work with intentionality, revisiting the decisions we make in representation. Finally, we pledge to be transparent about the decisions.

uncertainty and opacity

We acknowledge our obligation to leave room for silence, opacity, incoherence, and that which is untranslatable through language. We do not attempt to make coherent an experience that lacks coherence. In allowing for silence, we hope to offer resistance against an archive structured by the dehumanizing practices of enslavers. We acknowledge this silence as a space that is not empty but full of the present absence of millions of voices. We also do not attempt to generalize these experiences. Rather, we believe that it is important to disaggregate numeric representations of deaths in the Middle Passage. We also acknowledge that the technologies we use, such as mapping with ArcGIS and predictive modeling, were originally used for the purposes of surveillance and dispossession and carry a legacy of harm, a legacy we hope to undermine.

reusability of data

We acknowledge, and we hope, that our data can be useful for other researchers of the transatlantic slave trade. We will, therefore, make our data—including transcriptions, dates, names, places, and geocoordinates—available to the public. Moreover, we will format our source files in ways that are both consistent with widely used data standards and compatible across software platforms and operating systems.

honoring the dead

We acknowledge that the dead are ever present. As we handle archival materials, remnants of life and trauma, we ask ourselves “What do we owe the dead?” We know that, because the dead cannot consent, this question has no clear answer but deserves our earnest thoughts and consideration as we do this work. Respect for the enslaved Africans who suffered the Middle Passage guides our actions. We acknowledge the significance of the diverse spiritual practices from which they were severed, and through which they are still remembered throughout the Black diaspora.

attending to the present

We acknowledge that the legacy of slavery has made an indelible impact on living people. Our work within this historical mode cannot ignore the lingering debilitating effects of slavery and the forced migration of captive Africans via the Middle Passage. These effects are physical, mental, financial, and spiritual. They include generational traumas inherited by Black people, perpetuated by systemic racism, both de jure and de facto. As we work, we must consider holistically the mental, physical, and spiritual lives of current and future Black populations.

the sea

We acknowledge that the sea is a non-human ecosystem, governed by thermodynamic, chemical, and biological processes.  However, the sea has also witnessed the struggles of human history. The sea is a cultural as well as a natural landscape.  We acknowledge that enslavers used the sea as a weapon and that the sea we view today is sedimented by human violence and coercion. Nevertheless, the sea has also been the means of resistance and liberation. We hope that our work will help make these histories visible in the present.

perspective and priveledge

We acknowledge that reactions to this project will vary according to individual heritage and life experience.  Furthermore, we acknowledge that most members of the team, including its leadership, benefit from white privilege. We also acknowledge that the fact that most of us are English-speaking citizens of the United States shaped our work. From the privilege and limits of that perspective, we cannot claim to understand all the effects or consequences of this work. Finally, we acknowledge that we are doing this work at an elite institution, much of whose wealth springs from the undercompensated labor of the descendants of African captives forcibly transported via the Middle Passage. We hope that using our resources to resist the archival structures that occlude the violence and erasure of the transatlantic slave trade will be one very small step toward reparative justice.

our influences include the following works among others

BROWN, Vincent. “Mapping a Slave Revolt: Visualizing Spatial History through the Archives of Slavery.” Social Text 33, no. 4 (2015), pp. 134-41.

—. “Narrative Interface for New Media History: Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761.” American Historical Review  121, no. 1 (2016), pp. 176-81.

CAMPOS-PONS, Maria. Selected artworks.

CLIPPING. “The Deep.” Sub Pop Records, 2019.

FARROW, Anne. The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory. Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

FOREMAN, P. Gabrielle. et al. “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help.” Community-sourced document, <https://docs.google.com/
document/d/1A4TEdDgYslX-hlKezLodM
IM71My3KTN0zxRv0IQTOQs>.

HARTMAN, Saidiya. Lose Yor Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Macmillan, 2006.
—. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 26 (2008), pp. 1-4.

JOHNSON, Jessica Marie. “Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads.” Social Text 36, no. 4 (2018), pp. 57-79.

—. Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.

KANSTEINER, Wulf. “Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies.” History and Theory 41, no. 2 (2002), pp. 179-97.

LEONG, Diana. “The Salt Bones: Zong! and an Ecology of Thirst” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment  23, no, 4 (2016), pp. 798-820.

MATTHEWS, John. A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone, on the Coast of Africa. London, 1788.

MUSTAKEEM, Sowande’ M. Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. University of Illinois Press, 2016.
RUSSERT, Britt. “New World: The Impact of Digitization on the Study of Slavery,” American Literary History, 29, no.2 (2017), pp. 267-86.

PHILLIP, M. NourbeSe. Zong!  Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

SHARPE, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

SMALLWOOD, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Harvard University Press, 2008.

SHOCKLEY, Evie. “Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage.”  Contemporary Literature 52, no. 4 (2011), pp. 791-817.

VASCONCELLOS, Colleen A. “Children in the Slave Trade.” Children and Youth in History. <https://cyh.rrchnm.org/
items/show/141>.

WALCOTT, Derek. “The Sea is History.” Paris Review 74 (1978), pp. 115-17.

our work has been featured in the press and in community outreach initiatives

Publications:

Presentations:

  • Kelsey Desir and Anya Lewis-Meeks, “From Cartography to Commemoration: Geolocating the Deaths of Enslaved People in a 1757 Voyage,” Annual Convention of the Modern Languages Association (MLA), Virtual Session, January 8, 2022.
  • Isabel Bradley, Kelsey Desir, Grant Glass, Jane Harwell, Anya Lewis-Meeks, Tye Landels, and Perry Sweitzer, “Remembering the Middle Passage,” Representing Migration Humanities Lab Works-in-Progress Showcase, Durham, NC: Duke University, January 31, 2020.
  • Jane Harwell, Charlotte Sussman, Perry Sweitzer, and Daisy Zhan, “Representing Migration through Digital Humanitities,” John Hope Franklin Center Public Lecture Series, Durham, NC: Duke University, December 4, 2019.

In January 2020, we hosted “Commemorations & Reparations: Slavery’s Global Legacies & Local Contexts,” a virtual conference that brought together historians, digital humanists, and community activists to discuss important questions about the global and local impacts of slavery. Conference sessions included:

Keynote Address: Jessica Marie Johnson,La Traversée: Long Middle Passages and the Slave Trade to Louisiana”

How do we remember, study, and account for lives lost in the Middle Passage? How did Africans account for the experience themselves? This talk explores the French slave trade between the West African coast (principally Senegambia) and Gulf Coast Louisiana for strategies African women, children, and men used to describe, resist, and confront the impossible violence of their experience.

William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, “On From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century

Based on Darity and Mullen’s recent book of the same title, this talk explores the intergenerational effects of white supremacy on the economic well-being of Black Americans from slavery to Jim Crow and the present day. Darity and Mullen make the case that a comprehensive reparations program is necessary to redress these injustices, both literally and figuratively, and discuss what such a program ought to involve.

Pierce Freelon, “Haiti 2 Hayti: A Legacy of Revolutionary Pan African Culture in Durham”

Drawing upon his own work with NorthStar Church of the Arts and as a member of Durham City Council, Freelon celebrates the ongoing history of revolutionary, pan-African activism and cultural expression in our local community of Durham, NC. Particular attention is given to the importance of arts programs for local Black youth as well as the historical ties between the Haitian Revolution and Durham’s Hayti neighborhood.

rmp is the combined effort of faculty, librarians, graduate, and undergraduate students from five disciplines and four institutions

Our work began in 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the first slave voyage to present-day America, as part of experiential learning opportunities funded by the Data+ and, subsequently, Bass Connections programs at Duke University. The present iteration of the research team came together in a graduate seminar convened by Dr. Charlotte Sussman. In our early meetings, we read and discussed primary and secondary literature related to the history of the transatlantic slave trade, questions of memorialization and racial justice, and digital humanities methodologies. Gradually, we came to appreciate the ways in which existing scholarship had used maps, databases, etc. to repurpose a troubled archive and tabulate the awful scope of the transatlantic slave trade. We wanted to expand on this work by taking a different approach—by using digital tools to highlight not the aggregate mortality of the Middle Passage but the personal and communal bonds severed by these deaths.

Charlotte Sussman
Isabel Bradley
Kelsey Desir
Grant Glass
Jane Harwell
Anya Lewis-Meeks
Tye Landels

Other contributors and collaborators: Connecticut State Library, James Delegado, Alex Frumkin, Drew Keener, Perry Sweitzer, Daisy Zhan