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Henry Lovejoy Digital Dialogue | March 8, 2016

West Africa Historical GIS and the Liberated Africans Project

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  1. On March 8, 2016, Henry Lovejoy joined us to discuss his recent digital humanities work using GIS technology to map patterns in the African diaspora. This is the second talk this semester which was selected in conjunction with our Mellon-funded project on African American Studies and the digital humanities, entitled Synergies among Digital Humanities and African American History and Culture: An integrated research and training model.
  2. Lovejoy started off by stating that his talk was structured around two primary research questions: 1) where West Africans came from and when, and 2) where they went in diaspora. To start off, he pulled up an April piece from the online magazine Slate, which displays an animation of 20,000+ voyages over a period of two minutes. Lovejoy pointed out that the animation represents only half of the story (only known voyages).
  3. This interactive piece, as well as Lovejoy's work, largely builds on the methods of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, one of the more significant DH contributions to studies of the African Diaspora.
  4. The database is significant, and was originally built upon the 1969 book by Philip Curtin on the Atlantic Slave Trade, which was the first real attempt to quantify the slave trade.
  5. By 1978, early electronic data was available for use in projects like the database, by way of a very early version of SPSS predictive analytics software.
  6. By 1999, the Slave Trade Database contained data on over 27,000 voyages, which was made available on CD-ROM. Several years after that, the voyages went up online. More data has and continues to be added over time as researchers dig through archives. It currently represents information about 12.5 million people people over a 350 year period. Downloads of the various data sets over time are available on the project website here:
  7. The database also contains data on 100,000 Africans liberated from slave ships after 1807, which is the topic Lovejoy's current research centers on. Here Lovejoy moved into talking about two separate projects on this subject. In the first - West Africa Historical GIS - he is attempting to catalog geo-political transformations of pre-colonial sub-Saharan West Africa. The second, entitled The Liberated Africans Project, is a reference resource containing data on over 200,000 enslaved Africans liberated from slave ships, canoes and baracoons after 1808.
  8. Lovejoy explained that one major issue with projects like those he is taking on is that historic maps of Africa didn't always evolve in a way that represented indigenous cultures and Africa's internal geography, but were instead updated to reflect European concerns about the trading ports and African coastline. Up until the age of colonialism, cartographic details about large sections of West Central Africa were mostly unknown.
  9. After colonialism took hold, maps started to display more toponyms in these regions, but reflecting mainly new regions which were less than 100 years old. Only after WWII did African history scholars start to explore what pre-colonial Africa looked like. More details emerged over time, but were mostly localized so that big-picture visualizations weren't as easy to create. Lovejoy's DH work is meant to address some of these problems by allowing transformations over time to be represented. He walked through some of the ways these changes have occurred in the Oyo Empire.
  10. In finishing the part of his talk about West Africa Historical GIS, Lovejoy detailed how the technology he used - in this case QGIS - influenced the way he conducted his research. Limitations of QGIS mandated that Lovejoy create custom labels so that toponyms displayed in the correct places, and more.
  11. He also detailed lessons he's learned in getting this project off the ground: 1) it requires more input from African universities to gather more data; 2) the project requires online GIS software from various sources; 3) this will require input from programmers to customize and therefore fundraising; 4) he will need geographers' advice on mapping uncertainty for populations with largely unwritten histories; and 5) funding will also need to cover the building of an online platform which will link to other websites.
  12. Starting his talk on the second project, the Liberated Africans Project, Lovejoy discussed the importance of registers as archival resources for pulling research data on the international courts which processed and registered liberations.
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