Construction of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Sources and Methods

David Eltis (Emory University), 2010


Orthography is also a major issue in any historical database. For most voyage entries in the new data set, we maintained the spelling or wording of the names of vessels, captains, and merchants. Exceptions include corrections of obvious mistakes arising from the fact that the recorder of the information was often less than fluent in the language of the nation to which the vessel belonged. And in the Portuguese and Brazilian cases we took the more drastic step of standardizing all entries according to modern Portuguese conventions. Even without these problems, variations of spelling were, of course, common before the nineteenth century and, as discussed below, we have standardized some spellings to facilitate sorting. We removed the definite article from vessel names in all languages. Occasionally sources reported different names for the same vessel. The Pretty Betty is also identified, for example, as the Pretty Peggy. In such cases, we separated the two names with "(a)" to indicate an alternate name/spelling, as in Pretty Betty (a) Pretty Peggy. We attempted to maintain the consistency of captains’ and owners’ names throughout their voyage histories to facilitate the user’s sorting of the file. Again, for some entries we placed alternate spellings after "(a)."

We included three variables for captains in the data set. The ordering of these names indicates the order these men appeared, chronologically, to be associated with the voyage. For some British and French voyages, sources list different captains during the ship’s outfitting. A slave vessel may have cleared customs under the command of one captain but sailed to Africa under a subsequent captain. Evidence from the British trade suggests that for some voyages the first captain, rather than leaving the vessel, worked as a supercargo for the voyage. Therefore, we decided to keep the names and their ordering in the data set. The user will not be able to determine which captains were in charge of the vessels on the Middle Passage for all voyages. Some of the captains died before slaving on the coast; other captains’ listings include the man who commanded the vessels on the homeward passages from the Americas. We kept all abbreviations in captains’ names, consistent with the documentary evidence. From the Mettas-Daget catalog of French slave voyages, we attempted to maintain a consistent spelling of captains’ names as indicated in the index to the two-volume French set. Double surnames and indicators of rank (Sieur, Chevalier, de, de la) pose problems singular to the organization of the French subset. In short, the spelling of names is not fixed in the French language. We followed the spellings preferred in the index, though we transcribed first-name abbreviations as indicated in the documentary evidence. To facilitate sorting the Voyages Database’ file by captains’ names, we maintained the ordering of surnames as indicated in the published index.

Similarly, we followed, as closely as possible, the spelling and ordering of ship owners’ names given in the documentary evidence. The user will note some voyages "owned" by the RAC, Compagnie du Sénégal, or other monopoly trading groups. For these voyages, companies hired the vessels from ship owners and a group of partners or shareholders invested in the trading cargoes. The names of these individuals are not known. For most of the slave voyages in the data set, however, merchants owned fractional shares of the vessel and trading cargo. The listing of merchants in the set probably reflects the size of each shareholder, though this fact can be confirmed only for a few voyages. For some voyages we only know the principal owner "and Company." This is true particularly for many Bristol (England) voyages. To indicate the fact that the voyage was owned and/or organized by additional owners, we placed an asterisk, *, at the end of the last recorded merchant’s name, as in "Jones, Thomas*" (read: "Thomas Jones and Company"). For some other British voyages, father–son partnerships are listed, as in "Richard Farr, Sons and Company." For such voyages, we included the second owner with surname "Farr" as "Farr (Son)" and indicated that subsequent partners may be present by adding an asterisk after the third owner, "Farr (Son)*." Similarly, for the Dutch firm Jan Swart & Zoon (son), we entered the second owner as "Swart (Zoon)."

Ownership information contained in the French slave trade documents presents additional problems for the researcher. Unlike the British trade, in which many records of extended partnerships survive, French documents usually list single armateurs who organized slave voyages. According to Stein, an armateur was "the merchant who organized and usually financed a large part of the slaving expedition."(8) Other merchant-investors, therefore, are not recorded in the documents. In cases in which additional owners are suggested by the words "company" (Compagnie or Cie.) or "associates" (consorts), we inserted an asterisk. Many French slave voyages were organized by family members. French documents include these familial relationships: brother(s) (frères), father (père), wife (épouse), widow (veuve or vve), eldest son (fils aîné), and son(s) (fils). These relationships are integral to the archival record and have been maintained in the Voyages Database. Because the French words frères and fils can imply multiple brothers and sons, we inserted an asterisk in the second ownership column, as in "Portier (Frères)*." In some cases, the document may record owners as "Brunaud Frères et Compagnie." For these few cases, we inserted a double asterisk as in "Brunaud (Frères)**." Some documents report the names of the propriéteurs who hired out their vessels to the armateurs, the affreteurs who freighted the slave ships, or the local agents who transacted business for absentee armateurs. We excluded these names from Voyages Database. French owners’ names often include complex double surnames and aristocratic titles. As in the case of French captains’ names, we attempted to preserve the spelling in the original documents while following the Mettas-Daget index to standardize the basic spelling and name ordering. We did this to allow the user to analyze ownership patterns easily through an A–Z owner–variable sort. The user should refer to the index of volume 2 of Mettas-Daget’s Répertoire for a complete listing of the variant spellings of French merchants’ names.

The common multiple Iberian names-- whether vessels, captains or owners—causes particular problems for researchers. Spanish and Portuguese names often incorporate the surnames of both the father and the mother. In the case of ship’s names, length stemmed from the habit of introducing multiple saints’ names and objects of religious veneration into the name of the vessel - at least before 1800. Length is a problem in this context because the official record of the vessel (and person), as well as the common usage of names by sailors and owners often recorded and employed only fragments of the full name, but unfortunately not always the same fragments. Users are consequently warned that it is often more difficult to track and eliminate double-counting of Iberian vessels and people than it is of their non-Iberian counterparts. Upward bias from double-counting is thus more likely in the records of the Iberian than of the non-Iberian slave trades.

Dates Imputed Variables
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