ATLANTA - Historians hope a new Web database will help bring millions of blacks closer to their African ancestors who were forced onto slave ships, connecting them to their heritage in a way that has long been possible only for white Europeans.
"Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database" was launched yesterday in conjunction with a conference at Emory University marking the bicentennial of the official end in 1808 of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Emory spearheaded the two-year interactive project, which is free to the public.
"Voyages" documents the three centuries of slave trading from Africa to the New World - between the 1500s and 1800s - and has searchable information on nearly 35,000 trips and the names of 70,000 humans who were the cargo.
The voluminous work includes data on 95 percent of all voyages that left ports from England - the country with the second-largest slave trade - and documents two-thirds of all slave-trade voyages between 1514 and 1866.
"It's basically doing for people of African descent what already exists for people of European descent in the Americas," said Emory history professor David Eltis, who helped direct the project.
"It's not a super tool for genealogists because you cannot make that connection from ancestor to voyager, but it does give a context," he said, explaining that because the database lists the slaves' African names - later Westernized - researching an ancestor by name is difficult.
Still, for people who know that an ancestor was enslaved in a certain part of the South, the database might help them trace from where in Africa they most likely came, said Emory history professor Leslie Harris, author of the book
In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863.
Harris explained that the database could be most helpful to those who have an understanding of their families, in that it could add layers to ancestors' stories.
"Not that everyone will now be able to point to a name and say, 'That's my great-great-great-grandfather,' but it helps give a greater sense of who these folks were or the culture they came from," she said.
Chronicling voyages that ended in Europe, the Caribbean, North America and Brazil, visitors to the site can search the database by voyage or name, or look at estimates of how many people were transported and enslaved.
Scholars who discover new information are invited to submit it for the database.
Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates said "Voyages" sheds an important light on the hidden history of 12.5 million slaves.
"Their ancestries, their identities, their stories were lost in the ships that carried them across the Atlantic," Gates said. "The multi-decade and collaborative project that brought us this site has done more to reverse the Middle Passage than any other single act of scholarship possibly could."