Visualizing the Data of the Eighteenth Century French Caribbean

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the French crown transformed its Atlantic colonies from a loosely administered archipelago of buccaneer outposts into France’s most dynamic economic region. By the end of the century, the Caribbean colonies were the cornerstone of France’s prosperous empire and the envy of European rivals. Increasingly aware of the political and economic importance of the region, the crown sought to harness and command the tremendous productive potential of the islands and their inhabitants. To do so, royal administrators relied on two essential types of data: censuses and maps. These records became the basis upon which the French government and colonial officials visualized and governed the population and wealth of the French Caribbean during the tumultuous eighteenth century. In the present day, these census records and maps remain critical sources for understanding French political and administrative ambitions and how these metropolitan aspirations intersected with local social and economic developments to produce the plantation complex, a dramatic increase in transatlantic slavery, and the advent of new racial ideologies in the French Atlantic. These developments ultimately generated a revolutionary impulse that culminated in two world historic events: the French and Haitian Revolutions. The effects of these revolutions rippled across the Atlantic and influenced events across Europe, the Americas, and Africa well into the twenty-first century.

Visualizing the Data of the Eighteenth Century French Caribbean offers contemporary researchers the opportunity to use the same census records and historical maps commissioned by the French royal government to analyze the dynamic transformations that occurred in the Caribbean colonies in fine detail. It does so by providing these sources in formats suited to today’s digital and visual technologies. When complete, the database and website will offer scholars open access to eighteenth century census records of the French Caribbean in digital formats that can be used alone or with georeferenced historical maps and GIS software. Equally important, the project will provide scholarly tools that will help investigators better understand the ways these sources blurred the imaginary and the objective quantitatively and visually, but with real-life implications for those who lived and toiled in the colonies. Together these digital formats and analytical resources will allow scholars at all levels to assess, visualize, and critically analyze the demographic and economic changes that occurred in the eighteenth century French Caribbean and generate new understandings of this revolutionary era and region.

Scroll down to get a better sense of the materials that are being compiled for this project and the insights that they provide.

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Analyzing the Data

To aid scholars in their analysis of these censuses and maps, the website will also provide interpretive tools in the form of critical essays, timelines, and bibliographies with suggestions for further reading and research. The essays will be the essence of this analytical armory. The purpose of the essays is to explore the ways that census records and maps may masquerade as “objective fact” whereas closer analysis reveals a tumultuous world of data that, in turn, points to larger transformations that occurred in the French Caribbean over the eighteenth century. (more…)

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Teaching the Data

Finally, the website will include teaching tools to help instructors at the high school and college level incorporate the database into their curricula. High school level lesson plans and sample assignments will make it easy for teachers to integrate primary evidence about the history of the Caribbean and the Haitian Revolution into their history courses. Similarly, resources will be provided for college courses, particularly introductory-level courses that will encourage deeper student engagement in the history of the Caribbean. A bibliography and a list of sources for additional research will be included to promote research projects.

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About the Project

This digital humanities project is directed by Elizabeth Heath (Associate Professor, Baruch College-City University of New York) and Julia Landweber (Associate Professor, Montclair State University).


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Reflecting on the Data of the Eighteenth Century