What’s In a Name?

Or How SlaveVoyages Got Its Name and Why It Matters

April 7, 2023, 8:03 a.m.


SlaveVoyages is named after its website domain, slavevoyages.org.

Previously, it was called Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Before 2008, when the website first launched, it was called The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Some still refer to the project as simply “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database,” or TSTD, the acronym widely used in the literature predating the website and the CD-ROM.

Why has the name changed over time? Basically, because of two reasons.

First, the domain voyages.org (or net, com, edu, etc.) had already been taken when the project team finally decided to register the website. This is now considered a rookie mistake only because many, like ourselves, failed to quickly grasp the importance of registering a domain as they were naming a project in those early Internet days.

Researchers have since learned from those mistakes and are now better coordinating their projects’ naming with their respective domain registration. We wanted the term “voyages” to figure in our domain because that is our database’s basic unit of analysis. Consequently, we registered our website under the slavevoyages.org domain, the term “slave” preceding “voyages” to indicate that the database was about a specific type of voyage.

SlaveVoyages is a website that hosts a huge database of voyages of ships that carried, or were outfitted to carry, enslaved people. Although the website also contains information about individuals (both enslaved and enslavers), all these individuals are connected to specific voyages listed in the database.

Second, the project has expanded beyond the trans-Atlantic trade. Since 2019, we have aggregated a growing number of records of ship voyages sailing from one point in the Americas to another. We have referred to this new set of records as the “Intra-American Slave Trade Database.” However, they are, in fact, part of a massive inter-relational database of voyages, which also includes voyages between Africa and the Americas.

This geographic expansion will only continue in the future. We have yet a lot of ground to cover before the intra-American trade is as well represented in our database as the trans-Atlantic one. Also, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities the database will soon be able to cover the traffic across the Indian Ocean and parts of maritime Asia. Who knows what will come next? The Pacific? Riverine trade?

In any case, it did not make sense anymore to describe the database as trans-Atlantic only. We needed to update the project’s name and, after extended discussion, we settled on SlaveVoyages because it had been our website domain since the beginning.

Can the project’s name change again? Yes, absolutely.

As we have previously seen, the website was originally named Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and launched under the slavevoyages.org domain. Therefore, the project’s name does not have to necessarily match its website domain. It is entirely possible for us to create another name.

Could the project change its website domain? That is a trickier question.

A few years after we first launched the website, public sensibility around the term “slave” changed significantly. Scholars and members of the public questioned the term, privileging “enslaved” instead to describe those trapped into slavery and, at the same time, denounce the institution’s injustice.

We sensed the shift and registered the enslavedvoyages.org domain. However, when the time to point the website to that new domain came, we ran into some difficult questions to resolve. From the language point of view, the new domain initially appeared as an awkward construction.

Additionally, we have been tracking the website’s access since it was launched. The information we collected has allowed us to better gauge our audience’s interests and make improvements to the website. It has also been crucial in our efforts to seek support from funding agencies and institutional partners. Losing that information could result in a serious setback to our project.

Finally, several research, educational, cultural, and news media organizations around the world use our website. School materials and museum exhibitions, for example, rely on or refer to our website through its current domain. Some institutions are now making live connections to our resources and we fear the interruption a shift in domains might cause to their services. Imagine, for instance, the frustration of museum visitors when they encounter a redirect message or a bleep in the transmission of our videos or time-lapse. It would certainly kill the experience.

In conclusion, behind SlaveVoyages’ name there is a history of decisions, changes, modifications, adaptations, and trials and errors common to any other project. Our project’s remote origins trace back to the late 1960s, so we are not generally opposed to changes. We would not have leaped into the Internet era had we been intolerant to modifications. However, we also face challenges for which we have yet to find adequate solutions. As we have seen, changing names is not really a problem, but changing domains is proving to be more complex. In any case, we welcome suggestions and new challenges. How should we call our project? Should we risk changing our domain? What strategies can we implement to minimize those risks?  We are listening and hope you will join the conversation.


Daniel B. Domingues da Silva is an Associate Professor of History at Rice University. He is the author of The Atlantic Slave Trade from West Central Africa, 1787-1860 (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and the host of SlaveVoyages.org.


The post “What’s In a Name?” first appeared in Echoes: The SlaveVoyages Blog