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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A voyage to the Carter Center

See the photos from Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

One thing that consistently amazes me about Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is that no matter how much you surf through the site, no matter how much you read about the groundbreaking program, you always learn something new.

The thing that sticks out in my mind from Tuesday night’s Voyages event at the Carter Center is one of the voyages itself. For those of you unfamiliar with Voyages, please visit its website or our review of the EAA’s Voyages event in Washington, DC, in November 2009. I’ll wait.


During his 30-minute presentation, David Eltis, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of History and the founder of the database, guided the evening’s 160 guests on a journey through the site, and one of the places he stopped stuck in my mind.

Eltis pointed out Voyage No. 36990, the database’s final documented landing of a slave ship in the United States. The Clotilda docked in Mobile, AL with 110 captives onboard in 1860.

Many of the descendants of the slaves taken from that ship live in the Mobile area.

The importation of slaves became illegal in the United States in 1808, more than 50 years earlier. I’m not sure if I’m more stunned that the slave trade in North America continued so deep into the 19th century or that there was a record of the landing. I mean, if I’m going to do something illegal, I’m not going to write it down.

However, in this case, I’m glad that someone did. It puts a nice, boldface checkmark in a box that reads “Things we must never let happen again.”

Eltis made other memorable points. “What do we make of U.S. owners in the lead up to American independence who named their slave ships, ‘Liberty’? And after independence, ‘The Fourth of July’?” he said.

A fine question.

The evening’s subject matter was serious, no question, but the atmosphere was anything but gloomy. Eltis' presentation was bookended by vibrant receptions that not only included electronic tours of the website (such as the self-guided one being taken by Octavius White and Nya Karanga 03PH), but food that encouraged third and fourth visits to the table.

Other highlights included a welcome from President Jim Wagner and a reading by Kevin Young, Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing. Young, whose dramatic presentation of two poems, “Westville” and “Con” from his latest collection, Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, was noteworthy for its drama (which was palpable) and its subject matter (the aftermath of the famous mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad).

Voyages, and its follow-up, African Origins, are constantly evolving, just as the conversation about slavery in the U.S. and its aftermath does as well. I’m already looking forward to Voyages’ return. I'm just wondering what I’ll learn next.

-- Eric Rangus, director of communications, EAA

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