Associate Professor of History, Greg O’Malley, is featured in this year’s UCSC Inquiry Magazine. Published by the Office of Research, Inquiry highlights the innovative research taking place across campus. This year’s issue recognizes the import of Humanities research by exploring O’Malley’s work to develop “a deeper understanding of the African slave experience in the Americas.”
Beyond the Middle Passage: Intra-American trafficking magnified slavery’s impact
By: Robert Pollie
Between the early 1500s and the mid-1860s, millions of Africans were captured, sold into slavery, and transported to the New World to live out their days in bondage. The African diaspora is believed to have been the largest forced migration in human history, though “mass abduction” might be more apt. Nothing conveys the scale of it better than the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (TSTD). Hosted at slavevoyages.org, the TSTD provides details of almost 36,000 slave-trading shipments that took place over three centuries. It’s the most complete record we have of transoceanic slave routes and an essential tool for researchers. One prominent historian likened its impact on the study of slavery to that of the Hubble Space Telescope on astronomy.
But like the Hubble—before it was repaired by the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour—the TSTD suffers from a kind of myopia. True to its name, it only includes voyages that made the transatlantic crossing from Africa, the infamous “Middle Passage.” But slave shipping didn’t stop there. It continued full throttle on this side of the Atlantic, with thousands of vessels and voyages ferrying enslaved people to and from points within the Americas.
The TSTD isn’t alone in overlooking that second stage of slave shipping. “For a long time, most research on the American slave trade focused on the shipments coming into major slaveholding colonies, and those were almost all arriving directly from Africa,” said UC Santa Cruz associate professor of history Greg O’Malley. “It missed a big piece of the overall picture.”
The missing piece—the bustling intra-American slave trade—played a critical role in spreading slavery across the Western Hemisphere and embedding it deep in the economic and social foundations of the New World. To grasp the full scope of that commerce is to gain a broader understanding of the way slavery shaped life in the Americas, with repercussions that are still playing out today.
O’Malley has spent much of his career as a historian advancing that broader understanding. The work began in graduate school, when he built his own database of thousands of slave shipments in British Colonial America (the 13 North American colonies and British Caribbean islands) as part of his Ph.D. thesis. He expanded on that research in his 2014 book, Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619–1807, a wide-ranging look at intra-American slave trading and its economic, political, and cultural consequences.
Now he’s taking another step, pooling his data with that of fellow historians to compile an even larger database, to be added to the slavevoyages.org site later in 2018. With information on more than 11,000 voyages, the new Intra-American Slave Trade Database will fill a crucial gap in the historical record and provide an essential complement to the TSTD.
“The Intra-American Slave Trade Database will give us a far richer picture of the slave experience,” said David Eltis, professor emeritus of history at Emory University and one of the creators of the TSTD. “I think it will inform a wide range of historical scholarship.”