Commodities, Vampires and Fashion: Making Connections in Victorian Research

By Colin Coates,

Earlier this year, Jim Clifford and I were invited to present the Trading Consequences project to a group of scholars, many of them from English Departments in the Toronto region, who are interested in the Victorian period.  We contributed to the workshop, “Making Connections in Victorian Research”, held at York University in Toronto, on 19 October.

Our paper was sandwiched between talks about clothing reform in Victorian Britain and the pornographic elements of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Not surprisingly, we were concerned that our discussion of computer-assisted analysis of trading patterns and associated environmental consequences in the British empire might appear tangential, maybe even irrelevant, to the cultural concerns of this audience of scholars.

However, one of the advantages of historical studies is that issues within the same chronological time frame do have ways of connecting.  As Barry Commoner suggested, a key principle of ecology is that “everything is connected to everything else.”  The same is true when one approaches matters historically.

We presented the methodology of the Trading Consequences project, discussing the collaboration with computational linguists and computer scientists, and we showed some preliminary visualisations of the research findings.  The map we showed illustrated the global geographical locations associated with references to natural resources in Canadian government documents from 1860 to 1900.  In presenting these data, we are hoping to understand the mental geography of Canadian decision-makers (politicians, government officials and businesspeople) in this time period.  A feature of the exploitation of natural resources is that extraction activities can shift fairly quickly from one part of the globe to another.  In other words, a fisher off Nova Scotia may have to keep in mind what fishers in the North Sea are doing.  The production of lime for fertiliser in Ontario may be influenced by developments in Florida or Algeria.  The map was based on an experiment with visualisation techniques.  Much of what it illustrated was fairly commonsense:  concentrations of references to the United Kingdom and the United States.  France seemed more prominent than we would have expected, as were Nepal and the Philippines, possibly illustrating some problems with the data which we will need to explore.  China seemed under-represented.  However, to our mind, the emphasis on the Caribbean seemed one angle worth pursuing.

Colleagues provided useful comments on the project.  One expressed concern that a great deal of effort may go into proving what we already know — a problem with any research project.  But some interesting connections were apparent in the comparison between our project and the papers on clothing and Dracula.  Bram Stoker’s novel also contributed to a certain mental geography of Victorian Britain, where some regions were classified as exotic and unknown, and they haunted the imagination of a large reading public.  More directly, one of the issues in clothing reform was the use of whalebone, a product that could be fairly easily tracked through the database.  The overhunting of whales in the nineteenth century is an obvious example of resource demand having dire and measurable environmental impacts.  Thus, a public critique of women’s corsets in England could have some long-term consequences on the population of whales in the Canadian Arctic.  Everything is connected to everything else.


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