With newly digitized slave ship logs, Berkeley Geography student examines race, power — and literacy

Berkeley Geography student Will Carter

Carter hopes to finish his dissertation by 2027. His preliminary findings have unearthed events aboard slave ships that have never before been known — events he hopes to one day publish papers about.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

June 25, 2024

William Carter was in a National Archives reading room in the United Kingdom staring at a box of tattered pages covered in cursive writing, sea water stains and smears of blood. It smelled musty, and his hands became smudged turning the soot-covered pages. 

Carter, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate in geography, was mining these centuries-old slave ship logs in 2020 as part of his research into the transatlantic slave trade and what lessons from then might apply to our own understandings about race, literacy and power today. 

But there was a problem: He couldn’t read a single sentence.

For even the most skilled readers, the faded, swooping lettering would be nearly indecipherable. But it was especially inaccessible for Carter, who has dyslexia and whose screen reader tools for written notes and published books didn’t work on 400-year-old slave ship logs.

So in collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program (DSP), Carter created a first-of-its-kind research solution to allow him to read these centuries-old materials. Carter finds logbooks and takes digital photos of the pages, which he then shares with DSP’s accessibility experts. That team works with a company to digitize the files in a layout mirroring the original documents, almost as if a deckhand in 1691 pulled out a typewriter or opened a Google Sheet.

The result is a file that Carter’s screen reader can interpret. For the first time in their history, these handwritten stories are available for Carter — and one day, he hopes, others — to listen to, analyze and write about. 

“What I wanted to study had never been studied in the way I needed it to,” Carter said. “I wanted to study the geographies of the slave trade and the history of it, but the research process hadn’t been invented yet. 

“We’re reconstructing history here.”

Read the full article in Berkeley News