A new online database presented at the 2022 APSA conference offers a groundbreaking new way to record stories of slavery.
Enormous numbers of people were enslaved during the colonization of the Americas. In Brazil, slavery lasted some 300 years, and slavers imported approximately 4 million enslaved persons over the course of that period. With such large numbers of slaves, one would expect there would be a treasure trove of information on these individuals. But the lives of most of these individuals are a mystery. Sparse records were sometimes kept of them, but many of their stories have seemingly been lost to history.
Professor Daryl Williams (History), Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at UC Riverside, aims to recover some of those stories using the available data. At the biannual APSA (American Portuguese Studies Association) conference, hosted this year at BYU on October 6–8, 2022, Williams presented on a groundbreaking new database called Enslaved.org, which aims to share data-based stories of slaves in the Americas. Williams was a keynote speaker at the conference, which brought together scholars of Portuguese and Luso-Brazilian culture from across the world.
Enslaved.org is essentially a digitized database of individuals involved in the slave trade in the Americas (mostly Brazil), stories about these individuals, and raw data sourced from period documents. As Williams explained, it is the “the culmination of many years of data-driven and machine-based slavery studies.”
Much of the data on Enslaved.org comes from transcriptions of period documents. Williams explained that digitizing the data was a tedious and long process involving spreadsheets, interpretation of handwriting, and cross-referencing data with other records. But the results of their work have been extraordinary, allowing Williams and his team to piece together the lives of slaves that were once invisible. “We use data-driven approaches to explore people (and scholarship) written out of history and/or scrubbed from the dataset,” Williams explained.
Williams cited an example of an individual he studied in his research: Cyriaco, an enslaved person-turned free African in the 19th century in Brazil. Cyriaco’s story came to light when Williams discovered a blurb in a newspaper published in Rio in 1857 that reported that Cyriaco had gone missing. The blurb didn’t provide much more than that, but thanks to the rest of the archival data Williams had access to, he learned that Cyriaco had been previously enslaved in Angola before ending up on a Portuguese slave ship that made landfall in 1834. Williams found that Cyriaco (under a name spelled slightly differently) had in fact made his way to the coast and boarded a ship of free Africans some years later. All this he pieced together from the existing datasets, starting with just a few sentences in a newspaper.
The website continues to grow—with over 670,000 individuals recorded in the database—and frequently collaborates with other organizations such as FamilySearch to further flesh out their datasets. Williams hopes Enslaved.org can continue to bring the stories of slaves to light. “Our history is short, but it’s one that is deeply meaningful,” Williams says. “We humanize enslavement by centering named individuals.”
If you are interested in learning more about this groundbreaking site, Enslaved.org has been covered on NPR, Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. It is freely accessible to the public.