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.
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