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Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record

Jerome S. Handler, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Michael L. Tuite, Jr.

Reviewed by:
Joan Bristol
George Mason University
July 2003

These 1,000 images depict Atlantic slavery. Images are divided into 18 categories, including “Maps”; “Pre-Colonial Africa”; “New World Agriculture and Plantation Labor”; “Music, Dance, and Recreational Activities”; and “Military Activities.” The smallest categories have nine images (”Family Life, Child Care, Schools” and “Emancipation and Post-Slavery Life”) while the largest category has 182 (”Pre-Colonial Africa: Society, Polity, Culture”). The majority of the images are contemporary with the Atlantic slave trade, 17th century through the 19th century, although there are some recent images, such as 20th-century sculptures from Haiti and Barbados. Images include engravings, paintings of events and people, portraits, photographs of slave forts, and photographs of artifacts such as ritual objects and punishment devices. Maps from the period as well as recent maps illustrate such topics as African ethnic groups and the numbers of people involved in the trade over time.

The search engine allows viewers to sort images according to places or concepts. Images cover a broad geographic range, with the majority from West and West Central Africa, the English and French Caribbean, Brazil, and the United States. By providing many images from the African side of the trade, the site encourages viewers to see slavery as an Atlantic system rather than a phenomenon limited to one region. In examining the social, political, economic, and cultural practices of Africans and their descendants on both sides of the Atlantic, the authors provide a broad view of people’s lives rather than defining them by their labor and status as slaves.

The site is well organized and easy to use and the quality of the images is very good. In a few cases, text on the images is difficult to read (such as a map of African ethnic groups), but this problem is rare. The origin and location of each image is provided, with citations where appropriate, along with a brief description. In many cases, additional information is also provided. There is little interpretation of the images, which could be a boon to teachers hoping to use them in assignments (students can do their own research on the images). Teachers with limited knowledge of the subject will have to do further research to use images in the classroom.

Teachers can use this site in a number of ways. It provides a great starting point for independent projects, since the images are cited and the authors provide ideas for additional sources of information. Students could be assigned an image and be asked to do research on it and interpret it, or they could be assigned a category with the goal of explaining how the images fit together to form a narrative about an aspect of Atlantic slavery. The site could also be used in classroom exercises, with teachers asking students to interpret images based on other materials they have used in class to study the topic. This truly impressive collection of images provides students and teachers with many opportunities to discuss the history of Atlantic slavery and its significance today, as well as visual representations of slavery.

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