Monday, February 6, 2012


      This February, I’m featuring daily posts on the History of Slavery on Rita Bay’s Blog ( has always been an area of interest, even took two college courses and own several books on the topic. You can imagine my chagrin, therefore, when I began to research a post on the slave trade route in North Africa and couldn’t locate data I knew existed.
            Timbuktu was a thriving community, a center of Muslim scholarship in North Africa. Timbuktu’s wealth, however, lay in it’s location at the crossroads of trade routes. The main products that passed through the city were salt and slaves. For hundreds of years, slaves taken in sub-Saharan Africa suffered the march along the route that passed through Timbuktu on their way for sale in the markets of North Africa and the eastern markets of the Muslim kingdoms and Empires.
            When I searched the internet, however, Timbuktu’s role in the slave trade had disappeared from Timbuktu’s main page. Salt remained, but the slave references had been removed. Lots of money to be made in salt. How could this happen?
Without getting too boring, there are the several different sources used for historical research. Primary sources are contemporary records, eyewitness accounts or diaries, photographs and physical evidence from the period.  More recently, you can add DNA data to that category. None are perfect – the writer might have held a grudge or was an enemy. Julius Caesar, for instance, wrote a very damning account of the Celts and their foul customs to justify conquering and enslaving them. (See pic of Celts burning people in the Wicker Man as a sacrifice-only Caesar described this)
Secondary sources include books based on primary sources, usually written by researchers or historians. Secondary sources, regardless of how objective the writer may attempt to be, are written through the prism of the writer’s perceptions, biases, nefarious intentions or cultural perspectives. Which brings us to the sad tertiary source. Textbooks, often produced by a writer who is more familiar with textbook construction than history, are based on secondary sources.  In the United States, textbook content falls prey to the writer’s level of expertise in the subject and the state course of study, usually that of Texas which has the largest book order. Like I said, sad. So much for historiography.
            The lesson to be learned?  Evaluate the source when you’re researching. Look at multiple sources. Avoid textbooks. Sometimes, however, the prejudices that you find in primary and secondary sources provide valuable insights into the subjects/characters, you’re researching.  Next month, Avoiding the Dreaded Anachronism. 

Rita Bay
"Celebrating Romance Across the Ages" with Rita Bay’s Blog
"Into the Lyon's Den" Champagne Books, August, 2012


Jude Johnson said...

Great post, Rita. Reads right along with nonfiction versus fiction writing. In fiction, you can extrapolate feelings and impressions as dramatic license. But in presenting fact, you have to be able to document your sources and defend them--the more, the better. Don't forget to look at the context of the era in which they were written; that speaks volumes on perception.

The saying that "the victors write the history" is true; looking for what textbooks omit is what can be quite enlightening.


Rosemary Gemmell said...

Great post, Rita - it's so important to use as many primary sources as possible.

Rita Bay said...

Y'all are so right about using primary sources and looking at context. The internet has certainly affected the availability of primary sources. Universities and others (including Google) have scanned primary and made them available to the general public. RB

Allison Knight said...

Oh, you are so right! I've found a couple of things on the internet that defy the facts I found just looking at a time line of history.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

These days a lot of "sources" are rewriting history. It is sad. We are ashamed of our slave period in American history. Some are sweeping it under the rug. Political correctness has nothing to do with accuracy.

Excellent post.

Rita Bay said...

So true, Julie & Martha. Later this month on my blog, I'll share some early American primary sources to show that slaves and slavery had different rules and paths to freedom vary. Rita Bay