Summer break for history professor starts in Spain

Posted on June 12, 2018

Dr. John Harris relaxes at the conclusion of the conference.

Assistant Professor of History Dr. John Harris, who began teaching at Erskine last year, traveled to Spain for an international conference on “The Transnational Networks of the Illegal Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century” at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Organized by Harvard University and Pompeu Fabra University, the meeting took place May 21-23.

The slave trade, which continued well after most nations had abolished slavery in the early 19th century, is the subject of Harris’s research. His focus is on the United States side of the transatlantic slave trade.

“The slave trade continued all the way to the 1860s, illegally, linking places as diverse as the United States, West Africa, Brazil, and Cuba,” Harris explained. “Recent estimates suggest that traffickers forced as many as 1.6 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean after abolition.”

Harris’s research requires some detective skills. “Researching this traffic is challenging, [because once the trade was illegal], slave traders went to great lengths to hide their work,” he said. “For instance, they destroyed records of their voyages and even their ships, after voyages had been completed.”

Harris, second from left, on a panel discussing illegal slave ships 

The young professor welcomed the chance to work with other scholars at the conference. His own presentation highlighted “the shipboard experiences of African slaves and crews during illegal crossings,” exploring “how their experiences compared to those of captives and crews on legal voyages during previous years,” and drawing on records found in Cuba, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The conference in Spain was a follow-up to a meeting in Havana in 2016. “I was invited to that one, too,” Harris says. “Meeting Cuban historians and just experiencing Havana was definitely a highlight of my career so far.”

Harris called the Barcelona conference “an exciting opportunity for specialists in this area of research, who are normally so spread out geographically, to put our heads together for a few days.”

Mount Montjuic Castle, Barcelona