O’Malley on Balancing the Empirical and the Humane in Slave Trade Studies

George E. O’Malley discusses balancing quantitative analyses of slavery with understanding slaves’ experiences of bondage:

“In learning about the cultures enslaved people created in various American regions, I had become convinced that historians needed to ground such research in a better understanding of the networks that delivered enslaved people to the Americas. After all, where in Africa a captive was from would profoundly shape the knowledge, beliefs, and tastes that they carried. But in looking at the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database—which focuses solely on voyages crossing the Atlantic—it struck me that we had better information for some places than others. The database can tell you a great deal about voyages delivering captives to South Carolina, for example, but virtually nothing about voyages to North Carolina because enslaved people rarely arrived in North Carolina (and many other less prosperous or populous colonies) directly from Africa.

As I began investigating the networks of human trafficking that dispersed people from the major American ports of the slave trade to myriad other sites of slave exploitation, I resisted suggestions to quantify the research at first. Inspired especially by Walter Johnson’s Soul By Soul, I wanted to focus on the experiences of captives and the meaning of this intercolonial traffic to both slaves and traders alike.

But I quickly realized that I couldn’t write about what this network of intercolonial dispersal meant if I didn’t know where it began or where it went. At a fundamental level, I didn’t know what I was talking about….”

Read the rest: Balancing the Empirical and the Humane in Slave Trade Studies – Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

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