Site Review: Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761

I appreciate that this site begins with an acknowledgement—perhaps even a confession—that there is difficulty in representing the complexities of slave revolt cartographically. The question then is: does this site rise to the challenge of these representations or does it succumb to simplification? In some ways this is a trick question because the “Principal Investigator and Curtaor” himself states in the opening paragraph of the website that “it does not examine major themes such as belonging and affiliation among the insurgents or the larger imperial context and interconnected Atlantic world “focusing instead on the spatial dynamics of the military campaign.” The site is described as a “cartographic narrative” and while I found the map interesting and engaging and narrative in some senses, most of the narrative came to me through non-cartographic text. Specifically, the project description page gave me the most helpful information, context, and generative discussion of the slave revolt. I think this is actually one of the strengths of the site, in that it provides both visual and textual information allowing a viewer/reader to piece together the full narrative from whatever medium of communication he/she/they might find most useful.

A point of interest for me was the emphasis on the limited resources of archival information about the revolt. The site notes that “the written record skews our understanding toward the insights, fears, hopes, and desires of slaveholders.” The map project thus seeks to supplement this absence of a robust written historical record with spatial understandings of the revolt. I was both optimistically intrigued by this goal while still somewhat skeptical about what kind of conclusions could be drawn from military strategies represented as physical movement and locations. Overall, I appreciated the attempts to reconcile the vague and perhaps unreliable data with reasoned articulations and self-awareness of the limits of the archive. This comes out in the explanation of the map’s symbols. The mapmaker eschews such definitive graphic markers as pushpins and deploys a set of color coded symbols as well as indications of traces and blurred symbols of the ultimately unknowable. As the sites states, “The graphics attempt to balance intelligibility with uncertainty, while maintaining viewers’ sense of the interpretive character of the database.” I also like that the uncertainty of data is not only described as a problem for historical record but an actual advantage and intentional tactic of those revolting: uncertainty is an integral part of guerilla warfare. This raises many questions for me about the use of a legible archive in general. Whom does a written record benefit? I found questions of this sort the most generative aspect of the site—that is besides the educational and historical context the cartographical narrative provides of military tactics and the interpretation of such. While the latter might be of greater interest to a larger audience, I think the site does valuable work in raising questions about how we understand the past, whether through space, language, history, etc. Indeed, it seems that much of the projected aims of the mapping project are to create generative space between what can be mapped and what can not. The last sentences of the project summary are: “Yet if the map draws a clearer picture of the extent and contours of the insurrection, it cannot convey the ambition, hope, desperation, shock, dread, alarm, cruelty, bloodlust, and sheer mayhem of the experience.  These are matters left to the historical imagination of viewers and readers.” The map then becomes an inspiration for the dual viewer/reader subject to project into the gaps of what cannot be represented in strictly spatial terms.

Having read the project description and with all the previous questions and ideas in mind, I headed into the map, supposedly the centerpiece of this site. I clicked play and watched the color-coded lines track movements and moments across a map I was not familiar with. Perhaps this speaks more to my nature as a generally non-visual learner and a spatially-challenged person but I found myself continuously drawn to the written text on the sidebar of the map. That being said, the visual aspects were compelling and easy to navigate. I was also very aware while watching the interactive map play out that my interaction is very different than someone who is actually familiar with the island and who would have more substantial and meaningful associations with the places and routes being indicated. That being said, I found the visual effects of the map a kind of interesting accompaniment to the written narrative supplementing it. As I said, this probably says more about me as a non-visual learner but it is a strength of the site that it provides an entry point into this important historical moment through multiple genres of communication. I would be curious to know whether those who are more visually or spatially oriented than me were able to make the sort of broad imaginative or interpretive leaps from the spatial representation of the revolt. This seems to be the promise of the site but I found these imaginative leaps much more possible from the written record of accounts.

Because the experience of the map was not as enriching as I had initially hoped, I took the most from the site in terms of what it probed me to consider in regards to historical record, mapping, and digital representations of the two. Thus, I would like to conclude with some of the questions this site generated for me and for which I am grateful to the project for. First, would there be another way to use this cyber-space to deconstruct rather than reify the colonial map and the subsequent ideologies it is borne from and reproduces? What would a cartographic narrative of the slave revolt look like from the episteme of those enslaved? The historical aesthetic of the map was immediately resonant for me and evoked a kind of Risk board feel. I imagine maps of a different kind would be difficult if not impossible to read for most of us so used to the fixed material and political points of the maps we see in classrooms and text books. It is obvious that a project of this kind would be difficult to replicate outside the space and capabilities of an internet website. I wonder though if this digital space, somewhat distanced from yet never quite free from fixed points in the physical world, might be an imaginative arena for refiguring what a map is and how it works.

2 comments

  1. Lindsay, I’m finding this review really helpful for me as I think about how to most effectively map out (pun not intended) my final project — though I’m primarily trying to “map” an archive rather than an event, I think a lot of your comments and criticisms could be applied to my project. You ask, “[f]irst, would there be another way to use this cyber-space to deconstruct rather than reify the colonial map and the subsequent ideologies it is borne from and reproduces? What would a cartographic narrative of the slave revolt look like from the episteme of those enslaved?” and provide the partial response that “[i]t is obvious that a project of this kind would be difficult to replicate outside the space and capabilities of an internet website. I wonder though if this digital space, somewhat distanced from yet never quite free from fixed points in the physical world, might be an imaginative arena for refiguring what a map is and how it works.”

    It’s interesting that your comments attribute a functional (or formal/formalist?) unlimitedness to the Internet. Are there things that the Internet can’t do yet in terms of refiguring maps in the way you suggest here? (Almost certainly yes.) Are there things the Internet will never be able to do? A harder question, I think…

    Also, after reading both this review and Jeff’s response to it, I’m thinking about place-name-changes occurring after post-colonial/post-revolutionary disruptions (notably, this happened/is ongoing in India; I think it also happened in Namibia, among other places; and in the temporal rather than spatial sense, there’s also the French revolutionary calendar of the 1790s). What causes certain of these changes and disruptions to stick, and others to be reverted back to their colonial predecessors? Is it as simple as shifting centers of power and control, or is there something more to it?

  2. I’ve just re-read this post. Part of the problem in mapping a disruption is that, I guess, somewhat similarly to the “dynamic generation” Alex described, it is un-mappable until it occurs. Guerrilla strategies rely on an unexpected & radical re-mapping (or reworking of the map). But they also rely on a critical mass of people “understanding” the new language– the new meanings for the landmarks or boundaries (I don’t know why, but I keep thinking of that horrible Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot”). Aaron asked how we can “translate” old maps– I think this is the challenge of knowledge itself (how do we know one fruit is poison and another food). Too much work is done with an eye towards “modernizing” the past– finding how such-and-such idea or image can “apply” to today’s world. A “guerrilla” strategy recognizes the currency (in both senses) of the “past,” which is often code for “physical.” After all, what is more primordial, more ancient, than Physis itself? …In other words, the “map” is eradicated/supervened on by the physical topography of the location, upon which human life itself is bounded/dependent.

    In any case, the “intelligibility” of the revolutionary “map” is the end of the revolution, one way or another. And (in this way) it seems the slave revolt is ongoing, which may be part of the point.

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