A Quick Exploration of Ten Nineteenth Century British Imports

During the 19th century, Britain imported hundreds of commodities from all over the world. Ten of the most important were cotton, wool, wheat, sugar, tea, butter, silk, flax, rice and guano. Below are graphs depicting the number of mentions of each of these commodities by decade and pie charts breaking down the number of mentions of each commodity by continent.

The Trading Consequences relational database and visualization tools represent extraordinary new research opportunities for historians and historical geographers. A large amount of data is presented at a glance, allowing researchers to pursue obvious lines of further inquiry as well as more obscure connections that might otherwise have been missed. The visualization component is also complemented by the ability to follow up curious or novel relationships with a read of the primary sources that populate the visualizations.

Let’s take a look at the ten commodities listed above to get a sense for what these visualizations can tell us. Both in terms of what is commonly understood about these trade items, but also in terms of new research questions, the Trading Consequences database and visualization tools provide exciting insights – even at just a glance.

A couple of notes should be borne in mind when reviewing the graphs and pie charts below. First of all, the sources are all in English. The provenance of the sources means the statistics related to mentions tend to privilege places in Britain and North America. Because most of the sources were created in Britain and North America, they also tend to privilege the consumption end of the commodity chain.

Second, the main corpus of documents used to populate the database relate to the years 1800-1900. Several collections of documents include sources from earlier and later dates, but mentions related to years before 1800 and especially after 1900 are unreliable. A decline in the number of mentions after 1900 reflects the smaller number of documents after 1900, not necessarily a decline in the significance of a given commodity.


For a little context, below is a graph depicting the top twenty commodity imports to Britain ranked by value during the second half of the nineteenth century. Some commodities, such as wool and wheat are consistently in the top twenty. Others, such as guano, appear just once. Cotton remained the most important commodity by value throughout this period, while others declined (flax) or rose (butter).

top twenty

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Official Launch of Trading Consequences!

Today we are delighted to officially announce the launch of Trading Consequences!

Over the course of the last two years the project team have been hard at work to use text mining, traditional and innovative historical research methods, and visualization techniques, to turn digitized nineteenth century papers and trading records (and their OCR’d text) into a unique database of commodities and engaging visualization and search interfaces to explore that data.

Today we launch the database, searches and visualization tools alongside the Trading Consequences White Paper, which charts our work on the project including technical approaches, some of the challenges we faced, and what and how we have achieved during the project. The White Paper also discusses, in detail, how we built the tools we are launching today and is therefore an essential point of reference for those wanting to better understand how data is presented in our interfaces, how these interfaces came to be, and how you might best use and interpret the data shared in these resources in your own historical research.

Find the Trading Consequences searches, visualizations and code via the panel on the top right hand side of the project website (outlined in orange).

Find the Trading Consequences searches, visualizations and code via the panel on the top right hand side of the project website (outlined in orange).

There are four ways to explore the Trading Consequences database:

  1. Commodity Search. This performs a search of the database table of unique commodities, for commodities beginning with the search term entered. The returned list of commodities is sorted by two criteria (1) whether the commodity is a “commodity concept” (where any one of several unique names known to be used for the same commodity returns aggregated data for that commodity); or (2) alphabetically. Read more here.
  2. Location SearchThis performs a search of the database table of unique locations, for locations beginning with the search term entered. The returned list of locations is sorted by the frequency that the search term is mentioned within the historical documents. Selecting a location displays: information about the location such as which country it is within, population etc; A map highlighting the location with a map marker; A list of historical documents and an indication of how many times the selected location is mentioned within each document. Read more here.
  3. Location Cloud Visualization. This shows the relation between a selected commodity and its related location. The visualization is based on over 170000 documents from digital historical archives (see list of archives below).The purpose of the visualization is to provide a general overview of how the importance of location mentions in relation to a particular commodity changed between 1800 and 1920. Read more here.
  4. Interlinked Visualization. This provides a general overview of how commodities were discussed between 1750 and 1950 along geographic and temporal dimensions. They provide an overview of commodity and location mentions extracted from 179000 historic documents (extracted from the digital archive listed below). Read more here.

Please do try out these tools (please note that the two visualizations will only work with newer versions of the Chrome Browserand let us know what you think – we would love to know what other information or support might be useful, what feedback you have for the project team, how you think you might be able to use these tools in your own research.

Image of the Start page of the Interlinked Visualization.

Start page of the Interlinked Visualization.

We are also very pleased to announce that we are sharing some of the code and resources behind Trading Consequences via GitHub. This includes a range of Lexical Resources that we think historians and those undertaking historical text mining in related areas, may find particularly useful: the base lexicon of commodities created by hand for this project; the Trading Consequences SKOS ontology; and an aggregated gazeteer of ports and cities with ports.

Bea Alex shares text mining progress with the team at an early Trading Consequences meeting.

Bea Alex shares text mining progress with the team at an early Trading Consequences meeting.


The Trading Consequences team would like to acknowledge and thank the project partners, funders and data providers that have made this work possible. We would particularly like to thank the Digging Into Data Challenge, and the international partners and funders of DiD, for making this fun, challenging and highly collaborative transatlantic project possible. We have hugely enjoyed working together and we have learned a great deal from the interdisciplinary and international exchanges that has been so central to to this project.

We would also like to extend our thanks to all of those who have supported the project over the last few years with help, advice, opportunities to present and share our work, publicity for events and blog posts. Most of all we would like to thank all of those members of the historical research community who generously gave their time and perspectives to our historians, to our text mining experts, and particularly to our visualization experts to help us ensure that what we have created in this project meets genuine research needs and may have application in a range of historical research contexts.

Image of the Trading Consequences Project Team at our original kick off meeting.

Image of the Trading Consequences Project Team at our original kick off meeting.

What next?
Trading Consequences does not come to an end with this launch. Now that the search and visualization tools are live – and open for anyone to use freely on the web – our historians Professor Colin Coates (York University, Canada) and Dr Jim Clifford (University of Saskatchewan) will be continuing their research. We will continue to share their findings on historical trading patterns, and environmental history, via the Trading Consequences blog.

Over the coming months we will be continuing to update our publications page with the latest research and dissemination associated with the project, and we will also be sharing additional resources associated with the project via GitHub, so please do continue to keep an eye on this website for key updates and links to resources.

We value and welcome your feedback on the visualizations, search interfaces, the database, or any other aspect of the project, website or White Paper at any point. Indeed, if you do find Trading Consequences useful in your own research we would particularly encourage you to get in touch with us (via the comments here, or via Twitter) and consider writing a guest post for the blog. We also welcome mentions of the project or website in your own publications and we are happy to help you to publicize these.

Image of Testing and feedback at CHESS'13.

Testing and feedback at CHESS’13.

Explore Trading Consequences

Comparing Apples with Oranges

This Friday we will officially launch Trading Consequences this Friday (21st March), with publication of our White Paper and the launch of our visualization and search tools. Ahead of the launch we wanted to give you some idea of what you will be able to access, what you might want to view and what you might want to compare with these new historical research tools. Professor Colin Coates has been exploring the possibilities… 

The “Trading Consequences” website literally allows us to compare apples and oranges.  Both fruits became the objects of substantial international trade in the nineteenth century, as in the right conditions they can remain edible despite being shipped great distances.

Screen shot of a visualisation of Apple Trades

They are complementary fruits in many ways, as apples are grown in temperate climates whilst oranges prefer warmer conditions.  They may overlap geographically, but typically we associate different parts of the world with each fruit.  In the context of the British world, apples grew in the United Kingdom, of course, but they also came from Canada, New Zealand and the United States, among other locations.  Oranges from places like Spain, Florida or Latin America entered the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century.  The two maps which result from entering “apple” and “orange” into the database show, at a glance, how oranges appeared more often in reference to warmer zones than apples.

Screen shot of a visualisation of Orange Trades

The chronological distribution of commodity mentions was roughly similar in both cases.  Increased attention from 1880 to 1900 reflects in part the expansion of the documentation in that period, but it likely also reflected growth in trade and consumption.  Historian James Murton has pointed out that regular trade in apples developed from Canada to Great Britain in the 1880s, focused primarily in Nova Scotia.  On average, one million bushels of apples reached British markets (Murton, 2012).

In contrast, both apples and oranges show sudden spikes in the 1830s, for entirely different reasons.  The spike for apples points the researcher to a useful “Report from the Selection Committee on the Fresh Fruit Trade” in 1839.  But the mid-1830s spike in oranges points instead to the activities of Orange Lodges in Ireland.  The other visualisation shows this anomaly even more clearly, as IRELAND takes on a prominence in related geographical terms in the 1830s that it did not occupy afterwards.

Screenshot of Visualisation looking at trades in the 1830s

This project entailed teaching computers to read as an historian might, and there are distinct advantages to being able to deal with such a wide range of documentation.  However, all historians must be critical of the sources we use. The visualisations in “Trading Consequences” point towards useful sources for further study, and to suggest that historian may wish to consider some regions in their analysis.  The importance of the United States in the discussions about apples is noteworthy, for instance.  Australia has a large number of mentions of oranges, though it is important to note that a small city boasts the same name and could account for part of the number.  (Interestingly enough, Orange, New South Wales, did not grow many oranges according to the Australian Atlas 2006! But it does have apples.)

"Fruit" by Flickr user Garry Knight / garryknight

“Fruit” by Flickr user Garry Knight / garryknight

The increase in mentions of both apples and oranges from the 1880s on may reflect improving living standards in Britain in that period.  Britain’s decision to adopt free trade had led to an increase in a wide variety of imported foodstuffs (Darwin, 2009).  As the heightened attention to both apples and oranges probably shows, these fruits were part of that movement.

The “Trading Consequences” visualisations show some instructive comparisons, some that may point to different ways to conceive of trade in these resources, and others which illustrate the care with which researchers should approach results.


  • John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  •  James Murton, “John Bull and Sons: The Empire Marketing Board and the Creation of a British Imperial Food System” in Franca Iacovetta et al., eds., Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 234-35.
  • New South Wales Government, Agriculture – Fruit and Vegetables in the Atlas of New South Wales, Available from: http://www.atlas.nsw.gov.au/public/nsw/home/topic/article/agriculture-fruit-and-vegetables.html

Text Mining 19th Century Place Names

By Jim Clifford

Nineteenth century place names are a major challenge for the Trading Consequences project. The Edinburgh Geoparser uses the Geonames Gazetteer to supply crucial geographic information, including the place names themselves, their longitudes and latitudes, and population data that helps the algorithms determine which “Toronto” is most likely mentioned in the text (there are a lot of Torontos). Based on the first results from our tests, the Geoparser using Geonames works remarkably well. However, it often fails for historic place names that are not in the Geonames Gazetteer. Where is “Lower Canada” or the “Republic of New Granada“? What about all of the colonies created during the Scramble for Africa, but renamed after decolonization? Some of these terms are in Geonames, while others are not: Ceylon and Oil Rivers Protectorate. Geonames also lacks many of the regional terms often used in historical documents, such as “West Africa” or “Western Canada”.

To help reduce the number of missed place names or errors in our text mined results, we asked David Zylberberg, who did great work annotating our test samples, to help us solve many of the problems he identified. A draft of his new Gazetteer of missing 19th century place names is displayed above. Some of these are place names David found in the 150 page test sample that the prototype system missed. This includes some common OCR errors and a few longer forms of place names that are found in Geonames, which don’t totally fit within the 19th century place name gazetteer, but will still be helpful for our project. He also expanded beyond the place names he found in the annotation by identifying trends. Because our project focuses on commodities in the 19th century British world, he worked to identify abandoned mining towns in Canada and Australia. He also did a lot of work in identifying key place names in Africa, as he noticed that the system seemed to work in South Asia a lot better than it did in Africa. Finally, he worked on Eastern Europe, where many German place names changed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Unfortunately, some of these location were alternate names in Geonames and by changing the geoparser settings, we solved this problem, making David’s work on Eastern Europe and a few other locations redundant.  Nonetheless, we now have the beginnings of a database of  place names and region names missing from the standard gazetteers and we plan to publish this database in the near future and invite others to use and add to it. This work is at an early stage, so we’d be very interested to hear from others about how they’ve dealt with similar issues related to text-mining historical documents.

Bootstrapping (for historians)

Disciplines have their own vocabularies, and these may sometimes appear obscure to people who peek into the new areas.  My word-processing package used to tell me that it didn’t recognise “historiography” as a word, for instance.  We historians use this word, which denotes the study of historical interpretations, rather frequently, and we normally begin our academic studies with an historiographical discussion in order to situate our analysis in the context of previous studies of similar questions.  So my computer was wrong to insist, with its dramatic red underlining, that “historiography” was not a word.  But more surprisingly, it has stopped doing so now.  Someone, and I know it wasn’t me, must have told Microsoft Word that this is a fully acceptable English-language term.  But its built-in dictionary still doesn’t know what it is.

When we began working with computational linguists on this project, one word that really stuck out for me was “bootstrapping.”  Not surprisingly, I had never come across some words and acronyms that computational linguists use.  “OCRed data,” for instance, is one example.  But such acronyms and their usage made sense once I learned them.  Bootstrapping was somewhat different:   I knew this was an English word, so I did not mentally have to underline it in red.  The phrase “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” was familiar, at least grammatically, even if it does seem illogical and impossible.  And I could visualise what a bootstrap looked like.  But I didn’t fully understand how it fit into the sentences we exchanged – it was not a word, after all, that I used very often.  In contrast, computational linguists seemed to bootstrap fairly frequently, or at least their sentences did.  As an outsider, it seemed rude to ask the meaning of words that I thought I should know.

Image of a pair of Dr Marten shoes.

“A bootstrap”: Photo taken by Tarquin, 2005. (shared under CC-SA via Wikipedia)

Fortunately, Jim Clifford explained the term to me:  teaching the computer to teach itself, to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, I suppose.  The processer should recognise when a new circumstance occurs, and then apply that rule when it next encounters the same issue.  Or as the Wikipedia entry puts it:  “a self-sustaining process that proceeds without external help.”  In this context, we humans are, I guess, that external help. Bootstrapping struck me as a key component of the approach that computational linguists take to their studies.

The importance of “bootstrapping” for this project led me to wonder if some of the people whose writings we were studying used the word.  So I decided to check the Early Canadiana On-line collection.  A simple word search turned up only one instance.  (Of course I know that such a search may have missed many references in the documents that were poorly OCRed – see how quickly I caught on!)  The one example appeared in an 1884 issue of the Canada Medical & Surgical Journal (p. 496), which reprinted an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association on the topic of a “New Form of Saddle-Crutch.”  This saddle-crutch used “boot-strap webbing” made of leather which allowed the user, in this case an over-weight man with a fractured leg, to vary the height of the crutch.

Image of a description and illustration of the "Saddle Crutch" from Canadiana.org.

Image of the “Saddle Crutch” – with thanks for Canadiana.org.


There undoubtedly is an appropriate metaphor about the merits of “bootstrapping” as a way of dealing with over-sized subject material, such as the vast amounts of printed data that we are attempting to study in the Trading Consequences project.

Plant Diseases in the 19th Century


A word cloud of diseases found in The Diseases of Tropical Plants by Melville Thurston Cook

During the 19th century British industrialists and botanists searched the world for economically useful plants. They moved seeds and plants between continents and developed networks of  trade and plantations to supply British industries and consumers. This global network also spread diseases. Stuart McCook is working on the history of Coffee Rust (Hemileia Vastatrix) and there are a few books that examine the diseases that prevented Brazil from developing rubber plantations. Building on this work, we’re using the Trading Consequences text mining pipeline to try explore the wider trends of plant diseases as they spread through the trade and plantation network.

We need a list of diseases with both the scientific and common names from the time period. The Internet Archive provides a number of text books from the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. They were written by American botanists, but one book in particular attempts a global survey of tropical plant diseases (The Diseases of Tropical Plants). Because these books are organized in an encyclopedic fashion, it is relatively easy to have a student go through and create a list of plant disease. We’re  working on expanding our list from other sources of the next few weeks. Once the list is complete we’ll add them to our pipeline and extract relationships between mentions of these diseases, locations, dates and commodities in our corpus of 19th century documents. This should allow us to track Sooty Mould, Black Rot, Fleshy Fungi, Coffee Leaf Rust and hundreds of other diseases at points in time when they became enough of a problem to appear in our document collection.

[This post also appread on JimClifford.ca]

Presenting Trading Consequences at CHESS’13

On June 1st, we presented the Trading Consequences project as part of CHESS’13, the Canadian History & Environment Summer School that took place in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, Canada, from May 31-June 2, 2013.

CHESS provided us with the unique opportunity to present our progress on Trading Consequences to a wider audience of environmental historians to gain feedback on our current prototype, and to engage in a broader discussion on our general approach of combining text mining and information visualization to support research in environmental history.

As part of CHESS, we ran a half-day workshop. We first presented the goals of Trading Consequences and introduced the idea of leveraging computational methods (in our case, text mining and information visualization) to support history research and research in the humanities in general.

We then introduced our current visualization prototype to the CHESS participants (all environmental historians). We explained the visualizations’ core functionalities and how the underlying document corpus can be explored along geographical, temporal, and topical (i.e., commodity terms) dimensions.

For the rest of the workshop, historians freely interacted with the visualization prototype in groups of 2-3 people. We gave them small pointers of what to focus their exploration on. For instance, we asked them to explore the commodities “cinchona” and “cheese” and to zoom into locations that seem of interest in the context of these commodities. Explorations were always followed by brief discussions with the entire group.

As part of their exploration, some historians immediately started to focus on Vancouver Island as the geographic location where CHESS took place, and verified the mention of commodities there that had been discussed as part of other workshop presentations. Others experimented with commodities and locations related to their own research, and from, there, tried to assess the capabilities of the visualization and underlying data.

Workshop discussions focused mostly around 3 different themes: (1) the general functionality of the prototype and what the visualizations actually represent, (2) the underlying dataset and, closely connected to this, what kind of insights can be drawn from the visualizations, and (3) the potential of our approach in general.

Comments about the Visualizations: The historians quickly understood the general purpose and functionality of the visualizations. The basic visualization components, the geographic map, the temporal bar chart, the commodity tag cloud, and the commodity graphs were easily understood from a high level. There was some confusion, however, about lower level details represented in the visualizations. For instance, the meaning of the size and number of clusters in the map was unclear (e.g. do they represent number of documents, number of occurrence of a particular commodity, number of commodity mentions?). Some historians tried to drill down further into the visualizations and watch changes to make sense of these questions – sometimes this strategy clarified things, sometimes it added to the confusion. We gathered all comments and suggestions regarding the visualization design and are currently working on improving the prototype. One important part will be the addition of tooltips and legends to clarify the meaning of the represenations.

Insights Gathered from the Visualizations: A large part of the discussions focused on what kind of insights can be gathered from the visualizations and from the data set that we are generating in Trading Consequences. Some historians made a point that what the visualizations really represent is the rhetoric around commodity trading in the 19th century: what is shown is where and when a dialogue about particular commodities took place; the visualizations do not necessarily provide information about the occurrence of commodities in certain locations or amounts that were traded from one location to the other. This raises the question of how we can clarify what the visualizations represent exactly and what kind of data they are based on (e.g., by adding more elaborate legends). One perceived strength of the visualizations that was mentioned is the fact that they provide an overview of the documents from a meta-level, in at a scale that humans do not have the capacity of.

Reactions to our Approach: The historians at CHESS were generally positive about our approach of combining text mining and visualization to help research processes in environmental history and they clearly saw the potential. There was some skepticism of how much a tool like this can actually produce profound outcomes (e.g., because of the noise in the data), and the stability and performance of the visualization prototype has to be improved to support a fluid “dialogue” with the data. Some historians appreciated the use of visualizations as a visual search engine that can help to identify relevant documents in the corpus. Others suggested to add visualizations that can help to analyze particular patterns in the data (e.g. relations between different commodity terms and how these have change over time. We are currently working on visualization prototypes that focus on this latter aspect.



Invited talk on Digital History and Big Data

Last week I was invited to give talk about Trading Consequences at the Digital Scholarship: day of ideas event 2 organised by Dr. Siân Bayne.  If you are interested in my slides, you can look at them here on Slideshare.

Rather than give a summary talk about all the different things going on in the Edinburgh Language Technology Group at the School of Informatics, we decided that it would more informative to focus on one specific project and provide a bit more detail without getting too technical.  My aim was to raise our profile with attendees from the humanities and social sciences in Edinburgh and further afield who are interested in digital humanities research.  They made up the majority of the audience, so this talk was a great opportunity.

My presentation on Trading Consequences at the Digital Scholarship workshop (photo taken by Ewan Klein).

Most of my previous presentations were directed to people in my field, so to experts in text mining and information extraction.  So this talk would have to be completely different to how I would normally present my work which is to provide detailed information on methods and algorithms, their scientific evaluation etc.  None of the attendees would be interested in such things but I wanted them to know what sort of things our technology is capable of and at the same time let them understand some of the challenges we face.

I decided to focus the talk on the user-centric approach to our collaboration in Trading Consequences, explaining that our current users and collaborators (Prof. Colin Coates and Dr. Jim Clifford, environmental historians at York University, Toronto) and their research questions are key in all that we design and develop.  Their comments and error analysis feed directly back into the technology allowing us to improve the text mining and visualisation with every iteration.  The other point I wanted to bring across is that transparency in the quality of the text mining is crucial to our users, who want to know to what level they can trust the technology.  Moreover, the output of our text mining tool in its raw XML format is not something that most historians would be able to understand and query easily.  However, when text mining is combined with interesting types of visualisations, the data mined from all the historical document collections becomes alive.

We are currently processing digitised versions of over 10 million scanned document images from 5 different collections amounting to several hundred gigabytes worth of information.  This is not big data in the computer science sense where people talk about terrabytes or petabytes.  However, it is big data to historians who in the best case have access to some of these collections online using keyword search but often have to visit libraries and archives and go through them manually.  Even if a collection is available digitally and indexed, it does not mean that all the information relevant to a search term is easily accessible users.  In a large proportion of our data, the optical character recognised (OCRed) text contains a lot of errors and, unless corrected, those errors then find their way into the index.  This means that searches for correctly spelled terms will not return any matches in sources which mention them but with one or more errors contained in them.

The low text quality in large parts of our text collections is also one of our main challenges when it comes to mining this data.  So, I summarised the types of text correction and normalisation steps we carry out in order to improve the input for our text mining component.  However, there are cases when even we give up, that is when the text quality is just so low that is impossible even for a human being to read a document.  I showed a real example of one of the documents in the collections, the textual equivalent of an up-side-down image which was OCRed the wrong way round.

At the end, I got the sense that my talk was well received.  I got several interesting questions, including one asking whether we see that our users’ research questions are now shaped by the technology when the initial idea was for the technology to be driven by their research.  I also made some connections with people in literature, so there could be some exciting new collaborations on the horizon.  Overall, the workshop was extremely interesting and very well organised and I’m glad than I had the opportunity to present our work.



Professional success for Trading Consequences team member

Dr Jim Clifford, postdoctoral fellow at York University on the Trading Consequences project, has accepted a tenure-track job at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon beginning 1 July 2013.  Jim’s work on this digital humanities project undoubtedly contributed to his success.  Hired as an Environmental Historian, Jim joins the History Department and contributes to their existing strength in environmental and digital history.  He will remain a core researcher on the Trading Consequences team after he takes up this new position, and we will apply to have him listed as a co-applicant on the SSHRC component of the grant.

In addition to this career success, Jim was also awarded a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship, which he has declined, in order to take up the position in Saskatoon.  He also recently received word that he has been offered a visiting fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich.   Congratulations, Jim!