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The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in World History: Using the Voyages Database in the Classroom

Jane Hooper


     In recent years, the records from almost 35,000 slave trading voyages became publicly available in a fully searchable, open access database, Voyages: the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.1 The Website allows researchers to consult the work of a wide range of historians and major sources on the slave trade between Africa and the Americas between the sixteenth and late nineteenth centuries. In addition to allowing the download of the voyage records listed in the database, the database also includes estimates about the presumed size and shape of the slave trade. The database provides researchers with a vast amount of information and helps to guide them in creating complex research questions that seek to understand the patterns presented by these voyages, such as explaining shifts in the trade from one disembarkation point to another or the variance in mortality rates.2

     As the Website developers remind us, the creators and supporters of Voyages are hoping to reach an audience beyond academia and bring the "work of historians to a primary and secondary school audience, allowing students to engage in the process of historical inquiry."3 Thanks to outreach projects and the availability of lessons plans targeting secondary-school instructors, the database has been used successfully by a wide variety of teachers.4

     In my experience, Voyages is equally useful in college-level world history classes in introducing students not just to the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but also in guiding them through the process of creating and implementing a historical research project. The database enables students to directly engage with sources, answer research questions, and articulate the shortcomings of this research process. Using Voyages allows students to accomplish a research project in the space of one or two classroom sessions. Furthermore, the use of digital sources engages students and appeals to their interest in using new technologies to supplement the learning process.

     I have used the following lesson plan in several of my introductory world history classes and, in each of them, the students have enjoyed the lesson and performed measurably better on exam questions involving the slave trade than other topics we have studied in class. I have also described this lesson to other world history instructors. None of them had used Voyages prior to our discussions and the instructors frequently voiced uncertainty about implementing an in-class project using the online database. After a brief period of instruction, however, they were able to implement similar lesson plans in their own world history classes. Teaching about the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the Voyages database does not simply introduce variety into the classroom experience, but also provides college-level students with direct access to the sources used by historians. This lesson, with minor alterations, would also work well with advanced secondary school students.

Understanding the Database

The Voyages database is open access and is relatively easy to use, although you should plan on spending an hour or two examining the different features before class. The Website organizers provide a lengthy introduction to the various features of the database.5 There is also a five-minute introductory video available on YouTube.6 Even if navigating the Website seems confusing at first, I can attest from personal experience that college students have little difficulty in negotiating Voyages after a very brief introduction.

     The Website has five major components. Under "Voyages Database: Search the Database," users can access the records of 34,946 voyages (Figure 1).7 This list is fully searchable and can be used to generate a variety of graphs, maps, and other formats for displaying data. You can click on individual records and examine the information provided by the database. Each voyage has a separate entry, which lists all of the available data for a given voyage, typically including information about the ship owner, ship size, number of slaves carried, dates of the voyage, slave mortality, and final destination(s) in the Americas. Along with a list of voyages, this page provides summary statistics, tables, a timeline, maps, and the opportunity to construct custom graphs based on the data that has been selected.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: List of Voyages, available online at Voyages,  

     In this section, users also can search by different variables on the left hand column to reduce the number of voyages displayed to the right. For instance, if a user is interested in focusing on the slave trade to Brazil, they first choose, under "Voyage Itinerary: Principal place of slave landing," to only view voyages sailing to Brazil. Now 9,764 voyages are displayed in the table to the right. The tables, timeline, maps, and custom graphs also reflect this new list of voyages (for an example of a custom graph, see Figure 2). Likewise, a user can choose to focus on voyages of the nineteenth century, or any other time period, by changing the search criteria under "Select time frame."

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Bar graph displaying the number of slave voyages to Brazil from various regions of Africa, generated online at Voyages,  

     Under the portion of the Website entitled "Assessing the Slave Trade," researchers can find estimates about the actual size of the slave trade.8 This information can also be focused by changing search criteria by national carriers, embarkation regions, and disembarkation regions. There is a timeline in this section that plots the number of captives embarked and disembarked alongside influential events on both sides of the Atlantic, such as the American and Haitian revolutions (Figure 3).

Figure 3
  Figure 3: Timeline, available online at Voyages,  

     Instructors can also examine the various other resources available on the Website. The introductory maps, under "Assessing the Slave Trade," are useful references for lectures introducing students to various aspects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.9 The "Images" found under "Resources," can be used to provide students with examples of the manuscripts used in building the database. There are also other images under this section, including drawings of captured slaves and slaving vessels.

The Lesson Plan

Prior to studying the trans-Atlantic slave trade, my students learn about the dramatic expansion in early modern global trade and the subsequent industrialization of portions of Europe. I introduce them to debates between scholars about the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on the Industrial Revolution and global trade, as well as the impact of this trade on African societies. In class, my students also examine discussions about the origins of the slave trade.10 I have found it helpful to ask students to answer a number of questions before our lesson using Voyages, including:

1. What region of the Americas imported the largest numbers of slaves from Africa?

2. Which countries participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade?

3. Why did the trans-Atlantic slave trade end?

4. How did European and American slave traders obtain slaves?

These answers will likely reveal that your students have substantial gaps in their knowledge and provide a starting point for your study.

     Before we use Voyages in the classroom, I assign the students to read a short overview of the slave trade and complete a brief worksheet. The introductory essay available on Voyages, written by historian David Eltis, provides students with adequate background to begin formulating questions and identifying patterns in the database.11 After this introductory reading, my students are instructed to complete a short worksheet (see Appendix A) and bring it with them to class.

     For the lesson, students must have access to a computer with an Internet connection. I have held my class in a computer instruction lab or I have asked my students bring their laptops to class, as most classrooms have Wi-Fi access. As students will work in small groups of 2–3 individuals, it is unnecessary to have a computer for everyone in the class.

     Once the computers are turned on, I describe our goal of the lesson: each group will develop and answer a single research question of their choosing by using Voyages. I first have students compose a list of three or more issues about the slave trade that interest them from their readings, their personal experiences, or our classroom discussions. These questions might include: What country imported the largest number of slaves? How much money did slave traders make? How many women were sold as slaves?

     After several groups share their questions with the class, I direct students to open the Voyages database, going to the "List of Voyages" found under "Voyages Database."12 We briefly examine the types of information available for various voyages and discuss how to formulate research questions that we will be able to address using the database. For instance, the first example given above, of identifying the largest importer of slaves, is simple to achieve with Voyages, but the question of profits for slave traders would be difficult to answer from the available data. Each group is then asked to choose a single research question and begin their research. I try to push them beyond the "What" and "Who" questions and lead them in identifying "Why" or "How" questions. For instance, I might encourage a group interested in uncovering the largest importer of slaves to examine the shifts in the trade over time, comparing these changes to other events we have discussed in class. They also might examine trends in voyage length, identify the different regions in Africa that provided slaves, or compare the number of slaves dying during the Middle Passage. I circulate around the classroom throughout this phase to ensure students can find the necessary information in the database.

     After they have spent twenty or thirty minutes conducting their research, I ask each group to prepare for presentations. Students will come to the front of the classroom and, briefly, share their findings with the class using the graphs, tables, timelines, and maps they developed on the database Website. I urge other students to ask them questions about their research methods and their data.


After the last presentation, we debrief as a class. Students reveal what they found most surprising or noteworthy about their findings. We also discuss the types of questions that they would like to answer but were unable to do so using the data found in Voyages. Questions about profits and slave prices, for instance, frequently interested my students, so we discuss the other sources scholars might use to research these topics. We note the questions that are almost impossible to answer using written sources, which are typically from a European or American perspective. In a future lesson, we use other sources such as Olaudah Equiano's account of enslavement to help address this shortcoming. Students are frequently interested in the African Origins Website, an associated project which attempts to identify the historical origins of Africans transported in the slave trade, so we spend some time discussing the goals of that project as well.13 One of the main points I try to underscore that that these seemingly abstract numbers represent human lives and I use other sources in future lessons to ensure they cannot forget this fact.

     In my experience, this lesson is memorable for students as well as instructors. Students enjoy getting directly involved in historical research and being allowed to choose their own path to knowledge. The use of online sources and technology in the classroom further attracts their interest. This lesson also points to the usefulness of other online databases in the classroom. These possibilities include digital newspaper archives, image searches, and historical movie clips found on open-access Websites. Historians increasingly use these tools in their own research, but these databases have tremendous potential to introduce students to historical research methods. For students in an introductory world history class, most of whom will never set foot in an archive, using such databases in class provides them with a taste of the excitement of historical research.

Jane Hooper was the David H. Burton postdoctoral fellow in the history department of Saint Joseph's University between 2010 and 2013. She developed this lesson plan as part of her fellowship and she would like to thank the members of the history department at SJU for their invaluable feedback. She is now an assistant professor of history at George Mason University. She can be contacted at


Appendix 1:

Worksheet for Students to Complete Using Voyages

* go to

* click on "Voyages database" and then "Search"

1. Go to "summary statistics." How many slaves were loaded onto slave ships in Africa? How many were unloaded in the Americas?

2. What percentage of these slaves were female?

3. Go to "tables," change rows to "100 year periods," and change the column to "Embarkation regions." Where were most of the slaves bought during the 1500s? 1600s? 1700s? 1800s?

4. Change columns to "Flag." Which country loaded the largest number of slaves in the 1500s? 1600s? 1700s? 1800s?

5. Go to the timeline and give a brief description of the pattern of trade over time.

* Go to the top menu and click on "Assessing the slave trade" and "estimates."

6. How many slaves were brought to the Americas, according to this estimate? How does the estimate compare to the summary statistics on the previous pages?

7. Click on "timeline." Compare the events describe on the timeline to the changing volume of the slave trade. What events had the most substantial impact? Why?


Appendix 2:

A Sample Lesson Plan


1. Students will understand the overall chronology of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and major features of the trade.

2. Students will work with primary source material and develop their own research project

The Lesson:

1. Have students work in pairs—they can share a computer. Have them open the internet browser to At the computer in the front of the classroom, open up the database and briefly show students the searchable database ( Explain what the database is (a compilation of every voyage that arrived at the Americas carrying slaves) and how it was created.

2. Students formulate research questions. This is a three-stage process:

- First, students list the issues that interest them about the trade. Tell them to list at least 3 or 4 aspects of the trade they had learned from the homework reading. Write a few of these on the board.

- Next, show them the database and what you can search for. The variables include: countries of origin and destination, years, resistance, mortality, gender, and overall volume. Give them a few minutes to explore the database.

- Finally, have students decide on a research question. Make sure these questions can be answered using the database (some issues such as profitability, value, and slave occupations may interest the students but cannot be addressed using Voyages). Ask for an example - for instance, where did most of the slaves heading to Brazil come from in Africa?

3. Students search for answers to their questions. Encourage them to start using the database and change their question if necessary. They also can build their own graphs and charts to display the answers. They should use some of the introductory essays in the database to help with their responses.

Briefly, to search in the database:

- Change variables in the "Basic Variable" column

- Choose the variable in the current query section, then hit search

- See the answers to the right

- You can also change the years of the voyages and hit search

Note: You must refresh your query EVERY time. And never use the back button in the browser - instead tell the database to go back to the list of voyages (at the top left in the database).

Circulate around the room and make sure students stay on task and can find answers to their questions.

4. Students share their responses. This can be done in multiple ways. If I have an overhead projector displaying a computer screen, I have students present their findings and show some graphs, charts, and figures to illustrate their research. If there is less time, you could have the students write a paragraph describing what they found or simply ask for a few volunteers to describe their research results.

5. If time remains, you can take a few minutes to remind students of the drawbacks in taking a purely numerical approach to understanding the slave trade. Ask them to reflect on the inhumanity of the trade, looking at the high mortality rate on the Middle Passage, for instance. You can also ask if they found anything about this lesson surprising. Many of them reveal they had no idea that such large numbers of Africans were sent to Latin America and the Caribbean, for instance.

Next class:

Go over the overall chronology of the trade and link it with economic developments in the Americas and Europe. You can also highlight the contrast between Enlightenment thinking in Europe and the Americas versus the continuation of the slave trade well into the nineteenth century. It is also useful to bring in primary sources that highlight the experience of enslaved Africans during the Middle Passage and in the Americas.


1 Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, <>.

2 For more information on the database, see David Eltis and David Richardson, "A New Assessment of the Transatlantic Slave Trade," in Extending the Frontiers: Essays on the New Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, ed. Eltis and Richardson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 4-9. Details on the formulation of the estimates can be found on a downloadable spreadsheet, see Voyages, <>.

3 Voyages, <>.

4 Lesson plans targeting middle and high school students are available for download at <>

5 See the introduction on Voyages, <>.

6 "The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database," Emory University, available at <>.

7 Voyages, <>.

8 Voyages, <>.

9 See also David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

10 I use a variety of sources found in The Atlantic Slave Trade (Problems in World History), ed. David Northrup, 3rd ed. (Florence, KY: Wadsworth Publishing, 2010).

11 David Eltis, "A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade," available at <>.

12 Voyages, <>.

13 African Origins, <>.

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