Maps, Stones & Plants: Agents of Empire and the Ecology of the Atlantic Trade
"The first step to understanding man is to consider him as a biological entity which has existed on this globe, affecting, and in turn affected by his fellow organisms, for many thousands of years."
As archaeologists across the world repeatedly affirm, human groups leave enduring traces of their labor and behavior in the sands and sediments of time. Some of these traces are monumental in scale. Like the Great Wall of China or the Egyptian Pyramids they are "written in stone." In fact, many of these structures are now visible from satellites in space. By contrast, other traces are smaller than the human eye can see and can only be viewed through a microscopic examination of plant pollen and biological residues in topsoil and sediments.
The “Maps, Stones & Plants” display explores historical maps, drawings of plants, images of garden plots and people from the 18th century in conjunction with present-day satellite photography from space. It invites participants to reflect upon some fundamental features of European maritime empires.
Some questions that occur include:
• How much energy (man-power) was required to build the stone forts in Africa that supported the Atlantic slave trade?
• What was the source, quantity and nature of the food and water supply necessary to fuel this human labor?
• How were African agricultural practices and settlement patterns changed?
• How were coastal, riverain, estuary, and forested ecosystems transformed with the arrival of new tools, novel armaments and the unprecedented demand to provide manpower, food and fresh water for thousands of ships in the Atlantic slave trade?
Listen to Tim Weiskel discus some of these questions by viewing the video linked to the image of the forts below. Read more specifically about this topic here. Learn more by exploring video clips like this one on his website. And of course, see this exhibition on display in the 2019 History Design Studio Exhibition: Footprints Across Time, opening May 17!
By way of conclusion:
As different cultures struggled to cope with the abrupt changes in the plant, animal and disease communities in which they found themselves immersed, what was the enduring impact of humans in the history of the trans-Atlantic world? On one level, of course, all humans behave as a conscious species executing explicit plans with deliberate intentions.
Understanding these plans, intentions and conscious acts, however, is not sufficient to account for human history. The reason for this is simple: in addition to conscious actors humans need to be understood as biological organisms often acting as an unconscious vector-species in complex ecosystems, most often completely unaware of the enduring impact of their immediate or long-term cumulative behavior. This, too, can now be examined through the ethno-botany and archaeology of the slave trade. Attention to these details and this approach can lead to a more complete understanding of humans and their biological associates as agents of empire.
For additional reading, explore the following related links:
• Maps, Stones & Plants: Agents of Empire and the Ecology of the Atlantic Trade
• Recalling Some Aspects of America’s Immigration Policies in Black History Month
• A Tribute to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. …a Cambridge~Global Living Legend
• Old Maps & New Narratives: Digitizing Historical Maps to Analyze New Dimensions of the Atlantic Trade
• The Globalization of Food Production and the Origins of Africa’s Food Crisis
• Castles and Dungeons on the Coasts and Islands: Retracing Some Steps in the Atlantic Trade
• The Atlantic Trade and Africa: The Portuguese, the Spanish & the Dutch – Part 1
• The Atlantic Trade and Africa: The Portuguese, the Spanish & the Dutch – Part 2
• Old Maps, Picks and Shovels: Steps Toward An Archaeology of the Atlantic Slave Trade
• Historical Cartography and the Archaeology of the Atlantic Trade