The last post explained how to use QGIS and historic census data to map population density. This post gets to that tricky “so what?” question.
So why map population density in 1800? My current project examines the social, cultural, and physical transformation of the American coast (my shorthand for coast of the United States of America) over the course of the long nineteenth century. I’m primarily interested in the oceanfront between ports, harbors, and the huge natural bays and sounds, that many a European explorer thought led to China, and how they became such a central—arguably essential—part of the American experience.
I’m currently slogging through the first chapter, a survey of the American coast on the eve of its transformation. It’s partly inspired by Marcus Rediker’s magisterial first chapter in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and similarly favors fruitful generalization over burdensome qualification. An important subargument of the chapter is to establish the 1800 American coast as a frontier. Well…maybe I do a bit of hair-splitting in the chapter. In any case, one of the many ways to define frontier is through population density. Hence, our maps.
You can imagine my surprise yesterday morning when, mired in 1830’s marine salvage research, I found out the day’s post had been Freshly Pressed. Sweet — over the next hour this blog had more hits than it has in an average week! In fact, it would be impossible to exaggerate how much being Freshly Pressed has bumped up my stats. It’s actually absurd — check out this graph of ‘daily clicks’ and you’ll get the picture:
So I want to truly thank everyone who took a few seconds to click, a minute or two to read, or five to comment on yesterday’s post. I hope you check back from time to time. All this traffic has its benefits–I’ve found dozens of new blogs from everyone who has left a comment or liked a post. It’s inspiring to see so many fantastic blogs out there.
But on to today’s post. A friend recently asked me about the banner pic heading this blog. Here’s the story:
Enjoyed the trailer? You can watch the entire documentary by noted director Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte online here for free courtesy of SnagFilms (but it’s definitely worth owning). While no shipwrecks grace this film, it vividly portrays life and labor along a sliver of the modern American coast. Here’s the synopsis from the film’s website:
CHARLOTTE is a film about an extraordinary boatyard, the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, located on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin established the boatyard in 1980 with the purpose of designing, building, and maintaining traditionally built wooden boats, and in the process they transformed Vineyard Haven harbor into a mecca for wooden boat owners and enthusiasts. After a long career of designing and constructing boats for others, Nat embarks on building a 50 foot gaff rigged schooner for use by his family and friends — her name is Charlotte. Through close observation of the everyday activities of the boatyard, the film emerges as a meditation on tradition, craftsmanship, family, community, our relationship to nature, and love of the sea.
For another great coastal documentary see this earlier post about Ray: A Life Underwater.
Nigeria has a shipwreck problem. According to Leadership Sunday, a prominent Nigerian newspaper, the country has become “a dumping ground for old ships and abandoned marine vessels.” By their account, 100 shipwrecks and derelicts litter Nigeria’s 530 miles of coastline. That’s a lot of wrecks in a small space and rumors of conspiracy are in the air. One merchant captain told the paper that some Nigerians may have connived with the owners of the ships to dump them in Nigeria. Nigerians own about 40 of the wrecks.
Despite being obvious navigation and environmental hazards, few wrecks are likely to be removed anytime soon because of the staggering cost of salvage. Experts estimate that it will cost approximately 70,000,000 naira (about $450,000) to dismantle each vessel, a heavy burden during an economic downturn. Chief Philip Asiodu, president of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, told the paper that the shipwrecks are time bombs waiting to explode, concluding: ““It would be an act of monumental irresponsibility for us to close our eyes to this issue.” Judging from the article, it appears that awareness to the “shipwreck problem” is growing. Action can’t be too far in the offing, at least that’s the hope.
For more see this and this.
Maps and charts are some of the best historical sources out there. For studying the coast and shipwrecks, they’re indispensable–the first sources I look for when starting a research project. (For a great introduction to the history, problems and politics of charting the American coast see Mark Monmonier’s Coast Lines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change.)
You can find many charts and maps online (and for free). I’m a big fan of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey Historical Maps and Charts Collection, which includes more than 35,000 high-resolution scans of everything from nautical charts and bathymetric maps to city plans and Civil War battlefield maps. Another place to look is American Memory, the Library of Congress’s digital content portal. (more posts coming about these soon!)
The chapter I’m writing now focuses on the stretch of the New Jersey shore bounded by Barnegat Inlet and Wreck Pond. Fortunately, there are a lot of New Jersey maps and charts that are readily available–Rutgers University has collected many and linked to them here. The image on the left, taken from an 1833 state map, offers a unique window onto the coast at the time it was made. Zoom in (image on the right) and we can clearly see the landscape as well as the roads (not all of these had actually been built), taverns (house with a flagstaff), and settlements (few and far between) that defined life on the nineteenth-century coast. Invaluable knowledge for any understanding of shipwrecks or coastal life during this or any time.