Trading Consequences: Digging into commodities histories

Jim Clifford and Colin Coates


We are embarking on a new research project, supported by a Digging into Data grant, to investigate the environmental and economic histories of the rapid expansion of commodity frontiers and trade in the British Empire and Canada during the nineteenth century. This is a unique opportunity to work with leading computational linguists and visualization specialists in Scotland and to experiment with new digital methods of historical research. In the process we hope both to assess the value of data mining for asking new questions from the growing digital archive and advance our knowledge of the growing importance of commodities in Canada and the wider British Empire during a period of rapid economic and environmental transformation.

The term “globalization” has become a catchphrase for current times, and the increasing exchange of ideas and goods is held to be a hallmark of contemporary society. Yet some economic historians point out that the late nineteenth century witnessed another key period of economic globalization. Transnational trade, often conducted within the formal and informal bonds of imperial influences, focused on a growing range of raw materials harvested from forests, plantations and mines. The global economy expanded as European and American nations colonized frontiers rich with natural resources. Because of the scale of demand from urbanizing and industrializing core economies, the extraction of these commodities led to noticeable, sometimes dire, environmental consequences.

Europeans began to reshape the global environment as they voyaged across the oceans, introducing plants and animals into new ecosystems, and transporting natural resources back to consumer markets at home. While this process started long before the nineteenth century, increased demands for a wide range of natural resources accelerated industrial activity. New transportation technologies and the concurrent expansion of European empires further intensified the pace of global trade in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This collaborative project between environmental historians in Canada and computational linguistics and computer science scholars in the UK will use text mining techniques to explore hundreds of thousands of pages of historical documents related to trade in the British Empire during the nineteenth century. Although our research will have a global scope, it will particularly emphasize the role of Canadian natural resources in the network of commodity flows. The data for our study will be large corpora of digitized documents from the period in question, and we will use information extraction methods to transform unstructured text into a relational database. This newly created digital resource will allow historians to discover new patterns and to explore new hypotheses, both through structured query and through a variety of visualization tools.

Our hope is to create a database accessible to others interested in the history of commodities. As we begin developing this project, we would like to hear from fellow historians with shared interests to help us develop a wide range of historical questions which will help shape the development of the database and the visualizations. Please contact Colin Coates and Jim Clifford: and!/digtrade

Teams: York University, Canada: Prof Colin Coates (PI), Dr Jim Clifford, Prof Gillian McGillivray University of Edinburgh, UK: Prof Ewan Klein (PI), Dr Claire Grover, Dr Beatrice Alex,
Dr James Reid (EDINA) University of St Andrews, UK: Prof Aaron Quigley (PI)

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Assistant professor of environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan.

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