Two Plantations: Enslaved Families in Virginia and Jamaica

Two Plantations: Enslaved Families in Virginia and Jamaica is quite the digital and historical marvel. From a historical standpoint, it uses comparison to assess an incredibly popular and hotly debated topic: In what ways were the slave systems of the Caribbean different from that of mainland North America? Using Mesopotamia–a sugar plantation in Jamaica–and Mt. Airy–a tobacco plantation in Virgina–as examples, the site explores how slaves in these two regions were both subject to immense suffering but through very different means.

As a quick overview, slavery in mainland North America–particularly in Virginia–differed greatly from Caribbean slavery. For example, most of the islands in the Caribbean were comprised of large sugar plantations with absentee landowners. The process of harvesting sugar cane and then preparing it for travel required intense labor, leading to an incredibly high death rate. To keep production going, the plantation owners were therefore required to import slaves regularly. In contrast, Tobacco production in Virginia was much less labor intensive allowing for a natural increase in the slave population. However, because of this increase, there was often a surplus of Virginia slaves. As a result, slaveowners bartered and sold their unneeded slaves at a high rate, splintering and disbanding slave families with every exchange. Two Plantations documents how the slave families of Mesopotamia and Mt. Airy were broken up and forced to deal with high rates of death and exportation by reconstructing as many of their family trees as possible.

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Sally Thurston’s Family Tree

 

In terms of its digital properties and abilities, the site is really quite amazing. It opens up to homepage that directs the user through a quick overview of the site. However, the introductory pages will quickly collapse if the user clicks on the tool bar or scrolls to the bottom of the page. When the user scrolls, family trees immediately appear, situating the user at the core of the site. Yet, even here, the tool bar remains accessible, and the user can quickly navigate to other family trees, diagrams, and a quick analysis. If the user continues to scroll, without stopping, he or she will find a short bio of the sites creator and chief researcher–Richard Dunn–and list of books for more information about the two plantations.

Overall, the site is incredibly interactive and it appears to be “well made,” but is it too much? There is so much going on in the site and so much initial movement, that it could be difficult to use for a first time user. So much so, in fact, that it may inhibit someone from understanding what is being relayed in the family trees. It also seems a tad unorganized. The bio and selected reading sections could have their own pages, but instead they occupy a space on the main page. I am in no way insinuating that it is a bad site. Quite the opposite really. I only aim to use this site as an example of how, when working with digital history, content and design have to have a congruent relationship. One cannot be greater or more overwhelming than the other.

To access the site, follow the link below:

http://www.twoplantations.com/

 

The Living New Deal: Still Working for America

If you have grandparents  who were born prior to the 1950s then you know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a four term king and his “New Deal” put America back to work. Hindsight and historical inquiry has since proven that it was actually World War II that drove America out of the Great Depression and into the Modern Era but don’t tell that to any of my elder relatives. One of my great aunts (who is still alive and well at age ninety-five) still tells the story of her standing at the depot with a tear in her eye as she watched the train pass by carrying FDR’s body from Warm Springs, Georgia back to Washington D.C.

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Map of the Living New Deal site

 

From stories like my aunt’s, it is obvious that Roosevelt’s legacy and memory lives on. But what about his crowning executive achievement? Sure people know the New Deal as Roosevelt’s progressive economic policy designed to jump start the American economy, but do they know its lasting effects?

The Living New Deal: Still Working for America is a site devoted to making sure the products of the New Deal never gets forgotten. It consists of an interactive map that catalogs and locates its creations. At its core, Roosevelt’s economic plan was a domestic program aimed at reform and public works. Many of the public works created by the W.P.A. and other similar agencies are still around and in use today. In fact, I think I am currently writing this blog post while sitting in one of its buildings. According to the The Living New Deal, laboratory #2 of the University of Georgia was created as a result of the New Deal. What is so cool is that  laboratory #2 looks eerily similar to what is now Park Hall–the home of UGA’s English Department.

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Laboratory #2

 

But The Living New Deal is not just a map. It also provides information as well as an image for each documented site. Its founders–a team from UC-Berkley–went great pains to make the site accessible for all users. Unlike some sites, it is not overly academic. Instead of being designed for intense research, it is created for non-academic use. It is also aimed at keeping people connected and informed about the New Deal sites. It offers a newsletter as well as a tab devoted to press releases pertaining to the locations.

To view the site click on the following link:

http://livingnewdeal.org/

Google Ngram Viewer

Ok, so this post is going to be a tad different. Instead of looking at a digital history project, I thought it would be neat to write about a digital resource anyone interested in books, words, thinking, and learning would enjoy. The resource is the Google Ngram Viewer, and what it does is track word use frequencies over time by using Google’s massive collection of digitized books (Google books). You can literally search any Ngram–computer language for “term” or “phrase”–and a graph appears displaying its use frequency during particular years. Multiple terms can even be searched to compare and contrast their frequencies.

As a resource, the Ngram viewer is invaluable. When thinking about History and conducting Historical scholarship, it usually behooves one to not be ahistorical or anachronistic. What I mean is that you want to use the correct terminology used at the time. Also, one of the best ways to discover how a topic was thought about is to find out what kind of words were used to describe it and how often it was written about.

For an example of how the Ngram viewer works and how it can be used, consider the words republic and democracy. One would think that the word democracy has always been used to describe how our country is governed, but it was actually a negative term in the 18th and much of the 19th century. It held a connotation of “mob rule.” Republic, on the other hand, was much more dignified and characteristic of our early government. Around the early to mid 1800s with the emergence of Jacksonian democracy, however, the term democracy underwent an evolution. It slowly lost its “mob rule” connotation and became much more popular particularly in the twentieth century. Try charting the two in the Ngram viewer to see the evolution of the two words. You will see a long decline in the use of republic and slow increase followed by a giant spike in democracy’s popularity. To see other neat word experiments click on the following link: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/google-ngram-experiments/

To perform your own experiments, access the Google Ngram Viewer here: https://books.google.com/ngrams

Voyages: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

Slavery, as many Americans know it, holds a place only in discussions about the Antebellum period. It was, after all, the period’s defining characteristic, and its presence in the South generated secession and the Civil War, forever altering the racial and ideological framework of American society. Yet this approach to understanding slavery through Antebellum periodization is a faulty way of thinking about American slavery that could, if not paid careful attention to, perpetuate historical inaccuracies.

The most obvious problem with restricting slavery to just the Antebellum  period is that it excludes the other two hundred years or so of slavery taking place on what would later become U.S. soil and the other three hundred years of slavery taking place in the wider Atlantic World. In other words, slavery’s history is not solely an American story that begins in Jamestown, Virginia and ends with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Slavery’s history runs deeper and wider than that. Its roots can be traced in the Atlantic as far back as the 15th century, prior to Columbus, when Portuguese merchants began setting up mercantile enclaves along the West African coastline and as recently 1888 when Brazil’s Golden Law banished the institution forever. Its geographic reach was just as spacious, stretching from the African interior, to the mines of central Mexico, the wharves of New England, the sugar fields of Brazil, the European port cities like Liverpool and Marseilles, and the many Caribbean Islands in between.

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Map of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

 

Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database attempts to track some of this History. The project began as a joint effort between renowned historians David Eltis ( Economic Growth and The Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), David Richardson (Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery) as well as Stephen Behrendt, and Henry Louis Gates in 1993.  Under the primary direction of Eltis and Richardson, the project compiled scores of data and records pertaining to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The post-1999 surge in research has seen the project expand. Whereas early data focused primarily on British records, recent research has uncovered vast amounts of information on slave voyages directed by the Spanish and the Portuguese, making the project more inclusive.

The size of this project can be seen whenever user visits the database. From the homepage, a user can find a particular voyage by keyword searching through the databases 34,946 documented voyages. A user can also search by using either a ships name, its captain’s name, its year, its region of purchase, and its destination region. From this page, as one edits his or her searches, a series of downloadable tables and statistics are simultaneously updated. The ability to download data is part of what makes this project so unique.  Everything is very much geared toward helping other researchers use this data in their own scholarly and research pursuits. It even has downloadable lesson plans and essays for teachers to use at all levels when preparing to discuss Atlantic Slave Trade. It is already a huge project that encompasses lifelong amounts of research by professionals, but, at the same time, it is built to be very accessible and usable by people on varying intellectual, mathematical, and historical levels.

The project also does a great job of humanizing the slaves. What I mean is that by charting particular slave’s by their names, ages, sex, and city of disembarkation, city of embarkation, date of travel, and even their height, the project becomes something more meaningful than mathematical or statistical project. The data, in essence, becomes something more than data. It becomes people, complete with their own story and own individual set of experiences. With the right amount of luck and some successful research outside of this project, historians can then use this information to reconstruct the experiences of these slaves, ensuring that the horrors and the victims of the Slave Trade will never be forgotten.

You can access the site by clicking on the link below:

http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/index.faces