One poignant example for Niven was the story of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua, who was enslaved in Benin in 1845 and brought to Brazil. He served on a ship that brought him to New York City, where local abolitionists helped free him in 1847. He then lived as a free man in Haiti, upstate New York, Canada, and England, Niven explained, but, “Sadly we don’t know if he ever succeeded in returning to West Africa.”
This spring, the Hutchins Center and Enslaved.org researchers plan to make more biographies available to read for free on the website, focusing on entries from the Dictionary of Caribbean and Latin American Biography. The leaders of this project also plan to develop podcasts and videos to highlight stories found in the database and explain the archival processes in an effort to educate more people about the importance of digital humanities in historical research.
“Data science and the humanities are really not necessarily as far apart as you might think they are,” said Williams. “History often works at scale, telling individual stories and, for example, the story of the nation. Data science, statistical social history, and more modern forms of digital humanities tools can help us focus on the human level.”
He pointed to machine learning programs that pick up a person’s name in different datasets, indicating stages of a life, as well as advanced tools that disaggregate entries by certain keywords for easier viewing.
“The rows and columns on a spreadsheet may look fragmented, but they tell a story as a whole,” said Williams. “You might find a particular woman’s name in a birth record, then again in a slave inventory, and then in a marriage document. Data science helps you find the records, and you can try to construct a narrative of a whole life.”
Enslaved.org was funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and also includes the founding of a corresponding academic publication, the Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation.