Historical GIS as Reparative Environmental History of the Global North Atlantic

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This is the final post in a five-part series showcasing the research coming out of three projects hosted at Nipissing University’s Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP) and supported by Kirsten Greer, Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies of the Semi-Peripheries.

Last week, historian and Emerita Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History at University College London, Catherine Hall, delivered an online lecture at Nipissing University, which put into sharp focus the role of slavery in the world capitalist system. Reflecting on her call for reparative histories, I think one of the most powerful outcomes of using HGIS is in the potential to re-assemble (in part) the British North Atlantic “archive” through the historical-socio-biophysical-ecological processes that shaped a region, including the shared histories of colonialism, as well as the histories of “mobile natures” (i.e. migrant animals, ocean currents, hurricanes).

I consider myself a critical historical geographer interested in the geographic tradition of global environmental history, and in the practice of interdisciplinarity in global environmental change research. I believe that critical historical geographical approaches attend to both the temporal and spatial relationships in the past, drawing from a wide variety of archival materials (broadly conceived), theoretical frameworks, and methods. Most of my research focuses on the histories and legacies of the 19th century British Empire, and how these histories and spatialities were embedded in different colonial projects across Britain’s empire. I am currently in the second term of my CRC in Global Environmental Histories at Nipissing University.

It is hard for me to pinpoint exactly when research projects begin, and when they end. Many of the Historical Geographic Information System (HGIS) projects coming out of the Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP) are still works in progress, highlighting aspects of our larger and collaborative research endeavour and findings. One of the most unexpected outcomes of the first term of my CRC (2105-2020) has been collaborations with the geophysical and natural sciences, including dendrochronology (Adam Csank, University of Nevada, Reno), historical climatology (Cary Mock, University of South Carolina), glaciology (Laura Thompson, Queen’s University, and Krys Chutko, University of Saskatchewan), remote sensing (John Kovacs, Nipissing University), hydrology (April James, Nipissing University), soil science (Nathan Basiliko, Laurentian University), and field ecology (Mark Outerbridge, Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Bermuda, Donald McAlpine, New Brunswick Museum, and Mark Peck, Royal Ontario Museum).

mage 1: In 1934, the University of Chicago geographer, Robert S. Platt, brought his students to northern Ontario to teach “a field approach to the region,” which he published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers in 1935.[1] We used his fieldwork photographs from the American Geographical Society Archives to experiment with the Story Map Tour option. The video displays the chronology of Platt’s 1934 field excursion from Moosonee to Toronto.

As Karl W. Butzer[2] (1934-2015) once described: “Better, in my experience, a small-scale but intensive collaboration among researchers each of whom master several sets of skills, and who discuss issues on an almost daily basis for weeks at a time. In this way individuals broaden their perspectives, allowing for cross-disciplinary appreciation as well as integration of information and ideas” (Butzer 2005, 1773). I agree with Butzer, and I would add that using HGIS as a relational tool critically and with care (i.e. not all cross-disciplinary projects are done in a good way or without harm) serves as an important avenue to connect to the research process, and to build conversations across multiple audiences (i.e. researchers, partners, public).

Image 2: Our research team actively engages in “boundary crossing” across the humanities, social sciences, and humanities in our research projects on past environments. For our Empire, Trees, Climate project, I learned how to core Bermuda cedar trees, served as a field assistant, and learned how conduct dendrochronology lab work. One of the benefits of using HGIS is to archive the research process, which now spans almost 10 years.

HGIS as Exploratory Research I started using HGIS as an exploratory research tool to think about research projects and questions. Back in my doctoral days at Queen’s University (2007-2011), my classmates used to make fun of the large map of the world in my office, adorned with pins, yarn, and post-it notes. I used this process to imagine the movement of peoples, commodities, and migrant animals across the British Empire, and to identify sites of connection for my first book, Red Coats and Wild Birds. This process helped me to define the Mediterranean as a site of intersection for the movements of transient British military ornithologists with migratory birds across (and beyond) the 19th century British Empire. Here, I conceptualized spatially the Mediterranean as a strategic militarized semi-peripheral region, which connected Britain (the metropole) to its colonies such as India, British North America, Bermuda, and the West Indies (the peripheries).

Image 3: Red Coats and Wild Birds (2019) focuses on a group of British military ornithologists that contributed to the field of zoogeography while stationed in the British Mediterranean. Through their fieldwork and bird collections, they helped to define the boundary-line between the Palearctic and Ethiopian regions, and to shape ideas on what constituted a “British” migrant bird, which, I argue, continues to reverberate in the politics bird hunting in Malta.
Image 4: A watercolour sketch of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Ireland Island, Bermuda, in 1847 by Captain Sir Michael Seymour. Seymour served on the NAWI Station when commanding HMS Vindictive (1845-1848).[3]

HGIS became part of my research process at Nipissing University when I began collaborating with my dendrochronologist colleague, Adam Csank, on a project that combined historic approaches in both historical geography and dendroprovenancing. As part of my CRC, I was able to hire Megan Jee (MESc student at Nipissing at the time) to work with us on how to use HGIS as a tool for the dissemination of our SSHRC research project. Megan had a strong geomatics background, and used historical records (surveys, reports, gauging data from the 1920s) to examine historical water levels of the French River for one of my graduate courses. Inspired by the Historical Atlas of Canada (1987-1993), we used ArcGIS in our initial work, and then switched to ESRI’s Story Maps after learning about the new software at the CAG conference in Halifax in 2016.

Image 5: An example of the early work using ArcGIS Image of Savage watercolours overlaid on image of Bermuda.
Image 6: We used the historical photos of the geographer, Robert S. Platt, who studied Bermuda for his PhD in 1919, to work with Story Map’s potential. Megan produced two tours (one of Platt’s work in Bermuda and one in northern Ontario), which formed the basis of our HGIS Reconfiguring the Region prototype. One of the most powerful results of using HGIS, and ESRI’s Story Maps in particular, is the ability to layer archival materials, historical narrative, and geophysical/geospatial data into one interactive site to examine landscape change.
Image 7a: A screenshot of the major areas impacted by the 1839 Reid Hurricane from our HGIS Hurricane prototype described by Cary Mock. Hamilton was hit heavily.
Image 7b

We continue to use HGIS as an exploratory platform for our research projects (i.e. how to resound the archive and incorporate sonic landscapes into HGIS as outlined by Katie Hemsworth), including some of our preliminary work on “The Historical Geographies of McGill University’s Field Stations,” which brings together three field sites: Axel Heiberg, Schefferville, and Barbados. This project started as a pilot project looking at the historical geographies of interdisciplinary research on past environments through the lens of the Department of Geography’s “Caribbean Project” in Barbados (Greer, Hemsworth, Farish & Smith, 2018 ). Inspired by Peter Adams’s book, Trent, McGill, and the North (2007), which Krys Chutko “loaned” me (I say this loosely because I still have the book!), and my own undergraduate geography training at McGill University, I thought about how important it is to put all the histories of McGill’s field stations into one analytical framework. Since then, the project has expanded to include Axel Heiberg in the High Arctic, through a SSHRC New Frontiers grant project, Rekindle the Past to Spark the Future: Frontiers in Glacial Research, led by Dr. Laura Thomson at Queen’s University, and, in the coming months, contributions from Jean-Sébastien Boutet and Arn Keeling at Memorial University, who visited to the Subarctic research station in Schefferville (Knob Lake) for their research in May 2019.

Image 8: These three stations, and the researchers associated with them, were instrumental in re-defining the Humid Tropics, Subarctic, and Arctic Climatic Regions during the Cold War era.
Images 9 and 10: Thinking broadly about the creation of “the archive” and its afterlife, shaped by place and time.  A photo of the “library” at the Subarctic field station in Schefferville, Labrador, by Arn Keeling in Mary 2019. A similar photo was taken of me in the library of the Bellairs Research Centre in Barbados in June 2018 with Katie Hemsworth.
Image 11: We spliced the 1959 film footage created by F.R. “Budge”  Crawley to examine landscape change over time, and to compare and contrast field techniques “then” and “now”. Crawley is best known for producing the Academy Award-winning documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest.
Image 12: Early experimentations with Survey123 for ArcGIS to see the potential to crowd-source for content from those people connected to the research stations to share their stories and photographs.[4]

HGIS as Reparative Environmental History

I would like to end my piece with one of my favourite quotes by Thomas Raddall in his Pride’s Fancy (1946): “I live in a small Nova Scotia seaport [Liverpool, Nova Scotia] which in colonial times had a great deal to do with the West Indies. More than one garden blooms actually in West Indian soil, brought north as ballast in the days of the Caribbean trade. Street corners are marked by half-sunken canon, muzzle down, which once upon a time spoke sharply for their owners in the Caribbean waters.” I came across his work during a trip to Nova Scotia (which included Liverpool) and New Brunswick for research, and for a CHESS conference at St. Andrew’s in 2011 . While conducting research on the ornithological collections at the New Brunswick Museum of Natural History, Donald McAlpine told me about some the natural history connections between the West Indies and Atlantic Canada at his museum, including corals found in the St. Andrew’s harbour from the Caribbean that were used as ballast in trading ships during the triangular trade era.

Image 13: In the summer of 2018, we drew from David Watts’s 1963 PhD dissertation, Plant Introduction and Landscape Change in Barbados, 1625– 1830, and his focus on “trade-winds as an agent of power” by experimenting with historical maps of Barbados to retrace the island’s windmills, which were central to the slave and sugar plantations and production.[5]
Image 14: The track of the 1839 Hurricane as it impacted what is now Atlantic Canada. I really enjoyed this research as it brought into focus other imperial ships navigating the North Atlantic at the time of the storm, as well as the HMS ships that were part of the NAWI Station. Some of these HMS ships were surveying coastlines, patrolling for slave ships, and used as convict ships during this time frame.
Image 15: Using Governor William Reid’s (1791-1858) original map of the track of the 1839 Bermuda hurricane, we included the historical American Eel collections from the New Brunswick Museum (thank you to Donald McAlpine for sharing this data set), and the collections from the Smithsonian Museum and Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, which are both available on IDigBio.[6]

Raddall’s attention to the connected landscapes of Nova Scotia and the Caribbean, speaks directly to Hall’s call for action among historians, and draws attention to the historical materialities and the legacies of colonialism that shaped both sites in what constituted a British North Atlantic region in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Originally used as a seasonal camp by the Indigenous Mi’kmaq peoples, the Liverpool harbour, or Ogomkigeak (dry sandy place) and Ogukegeok (place of departure), took on global significance as part of the Atlantic triangular trade of timber, fish, sugar, rum, and enslaved peoples in the North Atlantic. Perhaps in time, these HGIS prototypes can help to illuminate the connected histories and legacies of the triangular trade in the global North Atlantic, which connects the histories of slavery and enslavement with settler colonialism.

Image 16: In 2019, we explored different ways to exhibit the research creation using Story Maps, including incorporating Margot Maddison-MacFadyen’s work on Mary Prince and Cavendish House.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Andrew Watson and NiCHE for inviting us to reflect on the HGIS that was part of the first term of my CRC. Thank you to my collaborators Cary Mock, Adam Csank, and Katie Hemsworth for writing pieces for this series. I dedicate this piece to all of the CUSP collaborators and partners, and especially to Megan Jee, who created these state-of-the-art HGIS prototypes through her vision, hard work, and technical skills for over the last 6 years. Thank you, Megan. I also would like to acknowledge all of the hard work that went into our Reparative Environmental Histories ‘in Place’ intervention as part of the ASEH in Ottawa last spring, which was cancelled due to COVID-19. I am currently writing this piece on the traditional territory of the Nbisiing Nishnaabeg, and the lands protected by the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850.

Image 17: A British Red Coat overlooks the Mersey River in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. I visited Liverpool after attending the CHESS meeting in St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick, with Sinead Earley in 2011.

[1] The concept of “semi-periphery” (e.g. Bermuda, Ontario’s “Near North”) as a spatial construct draws from political geography, geopolitics, and ”new imperial histories” to reflect its centrality in connecting the core/metropole (i.e. Britain, Toronto) with the periphery (i.e. West Indies, Ontario’s Far North). As I argue elsewhere, regions are not ahistorical nor apolitical, but used strategically in territorial expansion, resource extraction, and naturalizing colonialism. In this sense, region-making is an instrument of the colonial state (e.g. Greer 2013; Greer & Cameron 2015).
[2] The geographer, Karl Butzer, is best known for his work on Pleistocene environments and geoarchaeology. He spent most of his career in the Department of Geography and the Environment at University of Texas at Austin. What most people do not know is that Butzer’s graduate supervisor was Kenneth Hare from McGill University, who is featured in our project on the historical geographies of McGill Universities field station research. Butzer completed his master’s degree in Meteorology and Geography at McGill in 1955.
[3] I incorporated Bermuda – and the seasonal movement of military manpower, naval personnel, and ships – as part of my analytical framework for my postdoctoral work (2011-2013). While in Bermuda, I became interested in the role of imperial infrastructure and timbers in the building of the Royal Naval Dockyard, and how these timbers might have originated from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which formed the basis of the Empire, Trees, Climate project (2014-2016) with Adam Csank.
[4] The image above reflects our integration of the iDigBio natural history specimens, and how we can use them to tell different stories of place. For example, many of the early lichen samples from Axel Heiberg were collected by the Austrian lichenologist, Roland Ernst Beschel (1938-1971), who determined the use of lichens as sensors for air pollution. These specimens could also be incorporated into art-science creation projects.
[5] Known as a biogeographer, Watts trained with two major historical geographers at the University of California, Berkeley (Carl Sauer and James Parsons), and pursued his PhD in historical geography and biography at McGill University. He would later publish, The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change Since 1492 (1990).
[6] While in Bermuda in 2011, I became interested in the migration of American eels from Eastern Canada to Bermuda, and how these animals “catch a ride” on the Gulf Stream to return back to their freshwater homes (Greer 2015). Thank you to Kimberly Monk, our marine archaeologist, for providing historically accurate ships for this work

Feature image: Thomas Driver’s watercolour of shipbuilding activity by enslaved men or free Blacks on December 2, 1816 from the Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection, Bermuda Archives (National Museum of Bermuda).

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Kirsten Greer is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Geography and History at Nipissing University, and the Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies. Her CRC program addresses specifically reparations “in place” from Northern Ontario to the Caribbean through interdisciplinary, integrative, and engaged (community-based) scholarship in global environmental change research. As a critical historical geographer, she is interested in human-environment relations in the past; the environmental histories and legacies of the British Empire; and the politics of biodiversity heritage in the global North Atlantic. Greer is the past chair of the Historical Geography Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers (2016-2019). She is of Scottish-Scandinavian descent, from the unceded lands of Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. She currently lives and works on the traditional territory of the Nbisiing Nishnaabeg, and the lands protected by the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850.

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