Friday, September 2, 2011

Numbers as People

Rethinking the Historical Records

Numbers or people?

19,000. 1,800. 50,000,000. What do numbers mean anyway? I for one always hated math or anything having to do with numbers. (This was yet another good reason to become a historian.) However, after reading Stephanie Smallwood's Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, I have come to more fully realize the importance numbers can have in illustrating historic events and their significances. The numbers above? American deaths in the Battle of the Bulge, deaths in Hurricane Katrina, and fatalities resulting from the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, respectively. What can they tell us beyond, "Wow, those are big numbers"?

In a study that chronicles the tumultuous and heart-rendering tale of the 300,000 plus Africans who were transported from the Gold Coast in chains, Smallwood's book uses numbers to surprisingly illustrate the deeply human tragedy of the African slave trade. She notes, "By tallying the dead to measure the toll the voyage took on African life, we have made that body count the most potent symbolic measure of the horrors of the middle passage" (132). This goes back to reveal yet again that history is not the memorization of dates and the recording of data. It is the story of people. And numbers can illustrate that.

Numbers are thrown around sometimes loosely in the history world - and often inaccurately. Having worked at one of America's bloodiest battlefields, I can attest to the fact that many visitors come to a site of historic tragedy often with only a hazy allusion of the cost associated with something like the Battle of Gettysburg or the Johnstown Flood. However, when they see the faces of the lost or read the names of the dead, the emotional investment and numerical comprehension become much more vivid. Furthermore, in learning of the pains resulting in these costs, the shear horror of a historical occurrence can become far more real and eye-opening beyond comfort. Smallwood writes in her study that slaves enduring the middle passage voyage were forced to deal with more than mortal death. They had to endure "social death," having their humanity, their culture, their rituals, and their families ripped away from them. How might have we acted in the face of losing our homes, loved ones, and ability to properly mourn these losses? Luckily, most of us will never know. That said, this terrifying scenario happened to millions of people over the course of multiple centuries, with repercussions inflicted upon millions of others as a result. The human face of numbers. Millions.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this particular slavery situation was how slave traders and merchants themselves viewed numbers. Taken from the records of English Royal African Company, a merchant business established in 1672, numbers and ledger books present a very harsh depiction of life in the slave business. Smallwood writes, "The language of [merchant] accounting thus rationalized shipboard mortality portraying the European agent of commodification as the passive victim of Africans who died - as in investor robbed of his property by that property" (139). Upon the death of a slave, a trader was likely to have acted as a car salesmen might have reacted upon the theft of an automobile from his lot. In this dire situation, humans were viewed not only as numbers in a ledger book but also as merchandise. In moments like this, stats and numerical records truly can speak to us on a very personal level - and change the way we reflect on the past.

Numbers as people. Think about it.

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