Ethical Challenges

     Given the high mortality rates on the ships, the regimes of violence and terror found there, and the conditions for enslaved people, it’s not clear how we can even begin to visualize the subjective experience of “captive time” on the slave ship: the fear, anxiety, confusion, illness, despair, and death that necessarily shaped the experience of time on the slave ship.                                                                                                                                                                     Britt Rusert, 2017

 

While readers peruse this website and explore the various models and visualizations that we have generated, it is absolutely imperative to keep in mind that these visualizations represent hundreds, thousands, and millions of deaths of real people. Although we think these data visualizations can help expand our exploration and understanding of the Middle Passage and the mortality patterns of captive Africans, and are therefore worthy of making publicly available, we want to remind readers of the individual tragedies underlying these graphs. Therefore, we include this section as a space to reflect on the ethical issues inherent in any attempt to represent the Middle Passage with data.

Representing Tragedies of Individuals with Data

One problem we face is whether it is ethical to represent individual tragedies with data points and plots. First, the colorful graphs and small scattered dots do not show the weight of the deaths of these once-lively individuals forced into exploitation and violence. They do not communicate the pain, struggles, and despair experienced by these once-free human beings who were deprived of their humanity, who spent the last few years of their lives in filthy and over-crowded cabins with too many diseases and too little food.

Second, these data visualizations cannot tell the full story. They often direct our attention towards specific locations and years with higher numbers of deaths or mortality rates. However, we need to question ourselves: is a location or a year where more enslaved people died worth more attention and analysis than those where only one enslaved person died?  With the directions these data visualizations may lead us, many stories, which are already scarce, may be lost and buried in time.

For instance, below is an image of page 5 of the log book of the Black Prince, a British slave ship in 1762.  One line says “7 March … Died the Ring Leader of the Insurrection …,” which indicates deaths of enslaved Africans who revolted against oppression. However, we cannot tell this story from just data visualization.

BCC Library Service, 2003/2003. Page from log book of the Black Prince. Retrieved from http://www.discoveringbristol.org.uk/browse/slavery/page-from-log-book-of-black-prince/

Problems with Our Data’s Sources

Another ethical challenge is the nature of the data and archive within which we are immersed. Most of the historical information that serves as the bedrock of the two databases we draw on is taken from the logbooks of slave ship captains, doctors, and financiers. While we can use this data to generate visually arresting and powerful stories, do not take these to be the complete story. Our data does not, and in fact cannot, speak to the disposition of the enslaved people held captive during the Middle Passage. The nature of our sources and archival materials also raise a question of the reliability and consistency of our data. For example, differentiations by gender and separating youths from adults represent classifications that were often performed on the basis of size (see Spillers 1987). There is a peril latent in this project of reinforcing the perspectives of slave owners, which is why we have been precise and careful with the language used throughout the visualizations and this website.