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OCAD U’s Professor Martha Ladly and colleague Katrina Keefer of Trent University are using visual analytics to help reconstruct the lives of individuals who were victims of the mid-Atlantic slave trade. 

Their project, Decoding Origins: Creating a Visual Language of Marks, is based on the rich history of applying permanent body marks, such as scarification and tattoos, to represent individual’s membership in African kin groups and local societies. The Project seeks to trace origins of enslaved peoples of Africa, and to address the obliteration of identities for enslaved individuals, which is one of the lasting legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The researchers received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Working in archives in the UK, the US and Sierra Leone, the team is engaged in data gathering, digitization, interpretation, and visualization, using both historical and contemporary data and imagery, cross referenced with records from the 1880s Registers of Liberated Africans.

The researchers are working with these endangered records collected from the archives of Freetown, Sierra Leone, along with open source data, using research analysis tools employed in the Digital Humanities. Ladly’s team is adapting technologies such as Optical Character Recognition, Machine Learning, and eventually, Artificial Neural Networks to build an interlinking relational database, which will assist in analysis, visualization, and reconstruction of events in the lives of African individuals who were enslaved.

This work may assist scholars, and eventually members of the public, to identify enslaved individuals who were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean, and potentially to trace their origins back to homelands in Africa, in an attempt to uncover identities lost in the mid-Atlantic slave trade.

Project collaborators and researchers are a multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic team of designers, technologists and artists, including graduate research assistants Kartikay Chadha, Georgina Yeboah and Maria Yala (OCAD University) and historians Eric Lehman and Michael McGill (Trent University), working with scholars of the Mid-Atlantic Slave Trade, including collaborators  Paul Lovejoy (York University, Tubman Institute), Dean Rehberger (Michigan State University), Mohammed Salau (University of Mississippi), and Abubakar Babajo Sani (Umaru Musa Yar'adua University, Katsina).

The project is featured on CBC News.

Photos submitted by Katrina Keefer

Drawings of faces detailing markings
Three people seated in front of a screen


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