Maps, Stones & Plants: Agents of Empire and the Ecology of the Atlantic Trade | History Design Studio

Maps, Stones & Plants: Agents of Empire and the Ecology of the Atlantic Trade

Tim Weiskel Aug 09, 2022
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"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."

— Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange (1972)

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.

An annotated 18th-century print of the English fort at Dixcove on the Gold Coast in West Africa

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

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About the Authors

Tim Weiskel

Tim Weiskel is an anthropologist and historian of Africa. After completing his undergraduate work at Yale, Mr. Weiskel received a Rhodes Scholarship for graduate work in Oxford, Paris and West Africa. He earned a graduate degree in Social Anthropology and received his D.Phil from Oxford after extended field and archival-work in the Ivory Coast. His initial research focused on French colonialism in West Africa, and his first book was published by Oxford University Press on “French Colonial Rule and the Baule Peoples: Resistance and Collaboration, 1889 to 1911.” In 1976 Professor Weiskel returned to the United States, and he has been teaching college and university graduate courses since then, concentrating his research upon the ecological legacy of colonialism and the environmental justice and environmental ethics dimensions of current development strategies in the global South.  Most recently his work has focused upon the impact of global climate change and its impact on agricultural, social and political systems in the face of changing weather patterns and the accelerating rise of sea-level. 

As we are now all learning, one of the most obvious, enduring and potentially tragic impacts of European maritime colonialism has been the social impact they have had over the last five hundred years by tending to concentrate human populations along coastlines, ports and estuaries around the world. This historic transformation has left many African populations dangerously exposed to the changes in global sea-level and severe weather patterns that are expected to become ever more pronounced in the coming years. Case studies in these global trends and forthcoming challenges to the human community are documented in the online resource known as “Transition-Studies.Net,” founded and operated by Mr. Weiskel for the purposes of global citizen education. Further, these themes continue to be the basis for Mr. Weiskel’s courses conducted now online through the Internet.