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Reconstructing the Lives and Genealogies of Enslaved People: Maxwell, iSchool Faculty Partner on Searchable Database on the ‘’Cuse Conversations’ Podcast
Beginning as early as the 15th century, the lives of more than 12.5 million men, women and children of African descent were forever altered as they were forced into the trans-Atlantic slave trade, uprooted from their homes and brought against their wills to territories around the world, including the British Crown colonies and the colonies in the United States.
When these slaves were brought to former British Crown colonies in the Caribbean, territories including St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Dominica and Grenada, oftentimes their arrivals were marked with entries into detailed registries that documented their first and last names, their ages, occupations, specific places of origin and even familial connections to others enslaved on the same plantation or in the same household.
Tessa Murphy is an associate professor of history in the Maxwell School whose research and teaching interests concentrate on the history of the colonial Americas, including the Caribbean, Central and South America.
Wanting to capture the important details found in these registries, to both broaden our understanding of slavery and explain the experiences of people who rarely had the opportunity to leave a record of their lives, Murphy collaborated with Michael Fudge, a professor of practice in the School of Information Studies, and student research assistants on a unique, interdisciplinary research project to create a publicly accessible, searchable database of more than 16,000 former enslaved people in St. Lucia in 1815.
“Slavery in the Age of Abolition” reconstructs the life histories and genealogies of people enslaved on the expanding frontiers of the British Empire in what is commonly referred to as the age of abolition.
“The database is going to be such a powerful research and teaching tool. I used examples from the database in an upper-level history seminar that I’m teaching right now, where I distributed examples to different students and had them analyze these as primary documents. I asked them ‘What do you get from looking at this sheet that you didn’t know before about the realities of slavery?’ There are multi-generational family trees that you can derive from these. They’re quite bureaucratic documents, and when you look at them, they might seem to be just listing facts, but when you really engage with what they’re telling you, they’re testifying to the violence that underlay this system. And that really informed the daily lives of the people whose names are being recorded here,” says Murphy, who recently was awarded a 2023 faculty fellowship from the Syracuse University Humanities Center in support of her work.
“This was a really unique opportunity to practice what we really talk about in the School, which is being interdisciplinary and being transdisciplinary, where we crossover and help work with other disciplines that need to have their data and their information made more accessible and easier to interpret and understand. What’s really fascinating about this particular project is the amount of data. The traditional inaccessibility of the data from a search perspective and the effort that we put into making it much more accessible and searchable. It’s going to be transformative for a lot of people,” adds Fudge, who is also the program director for the iSchool’s Information Systems master’s program.
On this “’Cuse Conversation,” Murphy and Fudge discuss how the project came to be, the arduous task of compiling their database, the challenges of digitally capturing historical records from more than 200 years ago, how this database can serve as a teaching tool for the descendants of these former slaves, and how the project provided students in both Maxwell and the iSchool with valuable real-life experience.
Note: This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Check out episode 135 of the “’Cuse Conversations” podcast featuring Tessa Murphy and Michael Fudge. A transcript [PDF] is also available.
01Why was this research project so important for you?
Tessa Murphy: I felt compelled to learn more about the enslaved people who constituted the majority of the population of those British islands throughout the colonial period, but whose histories remained very little known to us because they were denied access to literacy. They were unable to therefore leave first-person accounts, and also because they were largely treated as property rather than as people. And so, one way that we can learn about their lives and experiences are through these registries that the British imperial government created beginning in 1814 in Trinidad and continued all the way to the emancipation of enslaved people in the British Empire in 1833. The registries contain a real wealth of information, and Michael has been instrumental in helping me organize a really big amount of information here.
02When Tessa reached out to you about collaborating on this research project, why did you want to get involved and help compile this database?
Michael Fudge: What really attracted me to this was the potential impact that we have there. I just had a vision of a family member somewhere trying to track down a long-lost relative and how difficult that would have to be if you’re looking through digital pages of information. As part of this digital humanities project, we’re making this information more accessible. It actually brought up a very unique challenge: the actual nitty-gritty of transcribing the data is non-trivial. And if it were trivial, Tessa wouldn’t need me and there would be other ways to do it. But this was a distinct challenge and we had to come up with some creative ways to make it happen. So that’s what really got me into it, not only was this project purposeful and the epitome of doing good, but it was also a very fascinating problem that just didn’t have an easy solution.
03How did you get your hands on the registries, and how detailed was the information they contained?
Tessa Murphy: The ledgers themselves like the registries are these large bound books that are held in the British National Archives, just outside of London. Luckily, photographs of those documents are digitized on ancestry.com and are available through Syracuse University’s library subscription, but they’re handwritten and the quality of the photos was not great. To add another wrench, although St. Lucia was a British colony, 90% of this particular registry is in French, because it had been a French colony until it was conquered by Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. So the people who are registering their enslaved people are French-speaking. It was imperative to hire student transcribers who could read 19th-century French handwriting.
These registries are incredibly detailed, and this is because Crown colonies didn’t have elected assemblies. So officials in England were able to say, this is the information that we want to be documented. These Crown colonies kept nine columns in the original registry: first name, last name, height, color, occupation, age, distinguishing physical characteristics, family ties, and then corrections. Then we engineered other columns to give us more information about those individuals and families.
04How challenging was it to interpret the data from the original files and compile this database?
Michael Fudge: Most people’s approach might have been to try Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, but that didn’t work when we tried it, and while you can maybe run some of that through some correction software, now you’re in a situation where you could be rewriting history. And what we didn’t want is to rewrite history. We wanted to be very careful that the information we acquire from each page is transcribed as accurately as possible into our database registry. We had to figure out a way to allow the students as they went through and transcribed the data to put it in a common format so that we could then write a program that reads all of these individual transcriptions from each page and then compiles them into a larger data set.
There was a lot of review done between my graduate student and Tessa’s students who were doing the transcriptions. There was a lot of collaboration where they would review inconsistencies and any inconsistencies they couldn’t figure out, they would ask Tessa to review. That’s how we tried to maintain the data integrity as we were going sheet to sheet. We were very careful in the completed database to indicate which columns came from the original page and which columns we manufactured from the original page.
05How do you think the project turned out, and where do we go from here?
Tessa Murphy: It’s a big task, but it’s also just the beginning. We have the goal of including other equally detailed registries. What’s great is now we have this template of what this information looks like and how it might be entered, and so hopefully that will facilitate getting other searchable databases completed from other registries. I’m really excited about the prospect of continuing to use this for teaching. I found it really useful in terms of helping my students grapple with the realities of slavery as a lived experience, having them look at this data to see what you can deduce about the lives of the people whose names you’re seeing here. For many of our students, slavery can sometimes remain an abstraction. They’ve learned about it since they were very young, but being able to give a voice and a name to people who are enslaved is not necessarily something that they’ve been able to do.
As far as members of descendant communities, we want to make this information freely available. But I’m also very conscious that this is a very painful history. And so descendants may or may not want to find their ancestors here because it’s one thing to maybe know that your ancestors were enslaved. But it’s another thing to know that your enslaved ancestor was forced to bear the child of a white man when she was 15. Or that your ancestor was missing a limb, whether as a result of an accident or as a punishment. You really see the brutality of slavery in these documents, and I’m very aware that people might prefer not to see that. We hope to make this information as accessible and interactive as possible, and then allow individuals to decide whether and how they want to interact with that information.