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Sailing with the French: Labour, Trade, and Mobility in the 18th-century Indian Ocean

Sailing with the French: Labour, Trade, and Mobility in the 18th-century Indian Ocean

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Sailing with the French: Labour, Trade, and Mobility in the 18th-century Indian Ocean

Faculty Member Name: Margaret Schotte
Faculty Member email:
Department/School: Department of History
Project Title: Sailing with the French: Labour, Trade, and Mobility in the 18th-century Indian Ocean

Description of Research Project:

“Sailing with the French: Labour, Trade, and Mobility in the 18th-century Indian Ocean” is a comparative, transnational historical project that employs novel data visualization techniques to shed light on the understudied French imperial presence in the Indian Ocean world (IOW). The 18th century was marked by the inter-imperial rivalry of Britain and France, which played out across the globe. While this is a staple of Atlantic world scholarship, the French enterprise in the Indian Ocean world is much less well known. This project will help shift the conventional Euro-Atlantic focus in this history of Anglo-French competition and, therefore, will build a fuller picture not just of the IOW but of global history. More than a new geography, the project emphasizes the numerous ways that Anglo-French conflicts were shaped by the agency of non-European actors who crossed paths with the French. Little is known about Europeans, Asians, and others who worked as skilled sailors and marines employed by the French East India Co. (FEIC), or how demand for this labour shifted over the century. What technical and navigational expertise did these men have? And what of other, often racialized, passengers on board these ships? This project will mine archival materials from France, England, and India to give voice to a wider range of maritime travellers, in turn complicating the narrative of French presence in the Indian Ocean.

To analyze and contextualize these understudied bureaucratic records, “Sailing with the French” will use a series of innovative methods. Both comparative and transnational, the project foregrounds the Indian Ocean as a realm of engagement rather than a barrier. Digital humanities (DH) tools will generate new knowledge about the French activities in the IOW. Drawing upon accounts of more than 550 voyages from the FEIC (1719-1793), the project team will produce a historical GIS database. Mapping the trajectories of vessels, crew, soldiers, and passengers will reveal patterns relating to mobility, health, and the shifting multinational communities aboard these ships. This “blue DH” geospatial analysis will be paired with a narrative case study that delves into rich documents that fortuitously survive from one such voyage. This microhistory will showcase the tight connections among histories of commerce, labour, skill, science and race.

To carry out these ambitious archival and computing goals, the project will train research assistants in archival research, historical analysis, data visualization, and bilingual scholarly communication. This unique combination of methodologies will make our nuanced reinterpretation of the French colonial presence in the Indian Ocean World accessible to more researchers and readers. This is a five-year project, for which I am seeking SSHRC Insight Grant support. This summer project is phase 1 (building on a pilot project completed in summer 2021), and will focus on producing a database of the geographic and personnel records, which will enable us to develop cartographic visualizations. The combination of DH methods, maps, and accessible narrative history will vividly reanimate the diverse groups who interacted on the decks of these French ships in the first age of global trade.

Undergraduate Student Responsibilities:

Phase 1 of “Sailing with the French” will generate a relational database and dataset that can be openly licensed using a Creative Commons license. To that end, I am seeking an undergraduate research assistant to convert archival sources into a usable open-source dataset this summer. I will train the student in standardizing and entering the archival material. She or he will also gain hands-on experience with best practices for DH visualizations.

Project steps include:
1) Data extraction: process pdfs using Tabula, then clean data with OpenRefine.
2) Populate Excel database: plot geographic data points using open-source gazetteers.
3) Visualization: explore different methods and platforms for displaying this data, including Scalar and ArcGIS Online.

Extrapolating from the 2021 pilot project, each rôle takes approximately 2-4 hours to process. Each location must be converted into latitude and longitude coordinates; the individuals on board must be tagged according to profession, place of origin, and degree of research significance. After receiving training on how to identify potentially significant individuals, the student will process a selection of the total data set of 550 rôles. The project team (myself, my collaborators, and the summer RA) will then query the database to find patterns among groups of labourers (which crew members worked together?), events on particular routes, births and deaths, the careers of various mariners, wages, and how quickly they rose through the ranks.

Depending on time, qualifications, and interest, the student may assist with preliminary data visualizations and maps, which will be created using Scalar, ArcGIS Online and/or Tableau (licensed for York faculty and students), with support from York’s Map Librarian and the Digital Initiatives Team. These visualizations will focus on selected voyages from three pivotal periods during the 18th century: the 1720s, when the FEIC was first engaging in trade with India; the 1750s as the Seven Years War led to conflict between the French (allied with Spain) and the English, causing the French to lose their commercial and territorial claim on the Indian subcontinent; and the 1770s and 1780s, when the French attempted to ally with Mysore and also shifted to forced plantation labour on islands like Mauritius.

The student will gain concrete skills in data cleaning and data entry during this summer. He or she will also be included in virtual project team meetings, which will provide insights into how technical details and archival findings can be situated in their larger historical context as well as embedded into the diverse scholarship of the IOW (history, anthropology/archaeology, linguistics, and environmental studies).

Qualifications Required:

This project requires a student who is comfortable with Excel and meticulous with data entry. Preference will be given to a history major. Ideally the student will have coursework experience and/or personal interest in several of the project themes: the Indian Ocean World, migrant or enslaved labour, maritime history, DH, HGIS. Some knowledge of French or an Indian language would be beneficial but not mandatory for this phase of the project.

Approximately 15-20 hours per week. Can be done remotely, with meetings, training, etc. via Zoom; therefore a stable internet connection is required.

Interested in this project posting?

Submit your resumé and unique cover letter for this projects to the faculty supervisor. Deadline: February 6, 2023 by 4 p.m.