The robust, sustained interest in the history of the transatlantic slave trade has been a defining feature of the intersection of African studies and digital scholarship since the advent of humanities computing in the 1960s. The pioneering work of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, first made widely available in CD-ROM in 1999, is one of several major projects to use digital tools in the research and analysis of the Atlantic trade from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Over the past two decades, computing technologies have also been applied to the exploration of African bondage outside the maritime Atlantic frame. In the 2010s, Slave Voyages (the online successor to the original Slave Trade Database compact disc) joined many other projects in and outside the academy that deploy digital tools in the reconstruction of the large-scale structural history of the trade as well as the microhistorical understandings of individual lives, the biography of notables, and family ancestry.
André do Couto Godinho was born in 1720 in the Brazilian captaincy of Minas Gerais, in the town of Mariana, and died in the Kingdom of Kongo, probably around 1790. Born not only a slave but the slave of a slave, he went on to obtain his freedom, becoming literate, later studying at a university, and finally going on to serve as a missionary in Africa. Between the beginning of his life, in Brazil, and its end, in Africa, he spent a number of years in Portugal, in the cities of Coimbra and Lisbon. While his life story is certainly extraordinary, it provides a window into the possibilities of, and strategies for, social and geographic mobility of free and freed black people in different parts of the Portuguese Empire during the second half of the 1700s. Retracing André Godinho’s footsteps is an exercise in micro-history, a technique that, when used as a counterpoint to a more global analysis, offers fresh insights into familiar subjects, with the seemingly insignificant details of an individual life raising questions that would have gone unnoticed in a strictly macroscopic analysis. André’s path in life, as a free man of color helps understand the larger historical contexts that defined the possibilities, choices, and limitations of his personal history. Godinho’s story provides insights into African descendants’ possibilities for social ascension, also clarifying the limitations imposed by emerging social hierarchies based on skin color and slave origin.
Archaeological examination of the transatlantic slave trade in West Africa largely began with investigations of European trade posts and forts on the coast and on major West African rivers. The predominant focus of subsequent work has been on African states and societies affected by or involved in Atlantic commerce and the slave trade. Major themes of research include African–European interactions and trade, political and economic effects in African societies, and the integration and consumption of Atlantic goods in daily life. Work has also expanded geographically beyond West African towns and states into hinterland and frontier landscapes far from the coast. Archaeological investigations of Atlantic era slavery developed in dialogue with the archaeology of the African diaspora in the Americas, yet their foci and objectives have not always been completely aligned. Slavery is more of a central theme in African diaspora archaeology—being the primary formative historical force in the creation of the diaspora—than it is in West African archaeology, where it is more often examined as a major feature of social, political, and economic life with uneven regional and societal effects. Archaeologists are also involved in the study, interpretation, and politics of African diaspora heritage tourism. Emerging approaches to the archaeology of Atlantic era slavery in West Africa include maritime archaeology and the archaeology of the formerly enslaved that returned to West Africa.
In 1652 the Dutch East India Company founded a “refreshment station” in Table Bay on the southwestern coast of Africa for its fleets to and from the East Indies. Within a few years, this outpost developed into a fully-fledged settler colony with a “free-burgher” population who made an existence as grain, wine, and livestock farmers in the interior, or engaged in entrepreneurial activities in Cape Town, the largest settlement in the colony. The corollary of this development was the subjugation of the indigenous Khoikhoi and San inhabitants of the region, and the importation and use of a relatively large slave labor force in the agrarian and urban economies. The colony continued to expand throughout the 18th century due to continued immigration from Europe and the rapid growth of the settler population through natural increase. During that century, about one-third of the colony’s population lived in Cape Town, a cosmopolitan harbor city with a large transient, and overwhelmingly male, population which remained connected with both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. The unique society and culture that developed at the Cape was influenced by both these worlds. Although in many ways, the managerial superstructure of the Cape was similar to that of a Dutch city, the cosmopolitan and diverse nature of its population meant that a variety of identities and cultures co-existed alongside each other and found expression in a variety of public forms.