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Navigating Encounters w/ Neatline: Geotemporal History and the Battle of St. George's Key

Navigating Encounters w/ Neatline: Geotemporal History and the Battle of St. George's Key

Miriam R. Martin


From Panel #36 - Pushing Productive Limits: Creativity and Anxiety in the Digital Humanities


Thanks Don, Zoe and Annette, for the great introduction and for being a wonderful team to work with at Vanderbilt.

The title of my presentation today is “Navigating Encounters with Neatline: Geotemporal History and the Battle of St. George’s Key.” When I first envisioned this paper, it was going to be a seamless exchange of my process with Neatline, the Omeka plugin, and a particular point in my dissertation, the Battle of St. George’s Caye.  

As it happens, and as our panel title so aptly captures, my project has taken on new forms and is, in many ways, both unformed and incomplete and yet simultaneously on the verge of greater breakthroughs. I hope that through this panel and the larger conference, I can work through some of the problems that have been plaguing my project, but also perhaps address some of the pitfalls that I believe we all encounter on our journal in the digital arts.

To begin, however, with some general background, let me explain the Battle that I am attempting to digitize. 

Haitian Revolution and the Black Auxiliary Troops


                  The world’s first successful slave revolt in Saint Domingue in 1791 sent shock waves throughout all of the Atlantic World.[1] The rebellious slaves who rose against their white masters and overthrew the island powers transformed all the fears of the colonial slave societies into reality. The consequences of this revolt altered the Atlantic World empires of Spain, France, and Great Britain, producing new alliances, economies and political realities. Empires and individuals drew ideological lines during this civil war where white colonists battled African slaves and free black descendants for control over the land, their lives and freedom. The conflict escalated when external colonial powers such as Spain (which occupied Hispaniola’s eastern half called Santo Domingo) sought to influence the war’s development, negotiating, bribing and inviting alliances from the black leaders of the revolt. These black troops needed ammunition, supplies and money in order to continue their fight against the French, and the Spanish knew that an alliance with the rebels would facilitate a Spanish conquest of the whole island. In 1793 important leaders of the revolt accepted Spanish medals and titles to become the Black Auxiliaries of Carlos IV. It was a mutually beneficial partnership, until the Spanish lost.[2] All Spanish citizens and military, including the Black Auxiliary troops, were ordered to leave Saint Domingue, and in 1797, the troops and their families were dispersed across the territories of Spain’s Empire. Some were destined for Spain’s port city of Cádiz; some settled in St. Augustine in Spanish Florida, and some took the shortest journey across the Caribbean Sea and landed along the Central American coast. Of these, the largest group landed at Fort Trujillo in modern day Honduras.


British Account of the Battle of St. George’s Key

On the morning of September 3rd, 1798, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Barrow, commander of the regular troops in British Honduras (modern Belize), awoke to a letter informing him that five Spanish boats were that very morning attempting to pass over Montego Key Shoals on the southern end of British territory in the hopes of surprising the British troops and taking Belize fort as a prize [see Fig. 2].[1] Barrow quickly marshaled his troops and the colonists’ militia, an easy task since the Baymen had been assembling at the mouth of the Belize River since early spring 1797, causing all cutting of wood and all trade to be at a standstill, in order to cause the Spaniards “a warm reception if they make an attack upon this settlement.”[2] The Spanish were expected, and Barrow was most likely pleased to finally put his military preparations into action, which included destroying all the houses on St. George’s Key.[3]

(Omited - A lengthy piece on the Battle's military maneuvers)

By September 20th, 1798, it had become clear to Lt. Col. Barrow that the Spanish had fallen into full retreat, and he considered relaxing the militia law that was over the Belize fort. The Spanish had collected their forces at Cape Catouche (or “Cabo Catoche” which is in the northernmost tip of the Yucatán Peninsula), and it did not appear that they would attempt another offensive until after the winter season.   

Critical Anxieties or Navigating the Problems with Neatline'

My goal with “Neatlining” the Battle of St. George’s Cay was twofold. First, I wanted to visualize the course of the Battle within an historical map I have here (Figure of Walix Map) which is really just one example of some of the gorgeous maps we have of the 18th century.


So here is the map. And as you can see here, there is a legend of ten places that illustrate the geographic area of the Bay of Honduras. This map (in Spanish) is incredibly interesting, for a number of reasons. First, let me remind you that the north here is an English colony, today Belize but in the 18th century British Honduras. The south here and here are two Spanish forts, Omoa and Trujillo, today in Honduras but in the 18th century part of the Kingdom of Guatemala, under the Audiencia of Honduras. So, I can speak more on naming but I want to draw you attention to the illustrations on the map.

What do they tell us? Well, upon first glance, they might tell us that Walix/Belize is a large fort, at least compared to Trujillo or Omoa. The northern English fort looks well constructed, well defensible, surrounded by these mountains, and bounded to the south by these shoals here (or what I know to be shoals but what appear to be tiny islands on this map). The Belize river here is heavy handed outlined, suggesting it is a large river, and we can compare all of these features in the northern fort to the relatively spare and poor area of these southern forts of Omoa and Trujillo.

Ok, we also have the dead space of the hinterlands, suggesting to us that nothing exists here. We also have these labeled islands, Roatan, Utila and Guanaja, all also apparently empty.

What else? Well, if I zoom in perhaps you will notice these ships, most with three maps. They are sort of in the English territory, but the legend here labels this land area, number 10, calling it the “Bateria al Sur de la Poblacion,” suggesting that the English fort commands (if we are literal) 14 ships, at least nine of 3 masts.

Ok – that’s enough for the illustrations. So, If you were to look at this map (drawn in 1797), what might you infer? Well, you might believe quite simply that the British were much better defended and had a much larger settlement than the Spanish. You might also believe that this area was occupied by only the Spanish and British. Finally, you might believe that the British fort was largely military, based upon these legend descriptions. And by an inferred comparison, you might believe that the Spanish forts had less military.

So, these are just some basic conclusions that someone might make upon a cursory examination of this map. So what are the problems with this analysis? 

First, this is not dead space. This space is inhabited by the Maya and the Garifuna, indigenous and Afro-indigenous communities who live along the coastal interior of Central America. Also, the islands are not dead space. This island here, Roatan, was inhabited at one point by a group of over 2000 Black Caribs who were exiled there by the English after a 2 year long battle on St. Vincent. A fascinating story and piece of history, but not my focus here. Second, the British fort was not a heavily militarized zone, nor did they have fourteen battle ships at their disposal. British Honduras was largely a logwood settlement, with a small group of landed gentry and a larger group of logmen, settlers and slaves occupying the outskirts. Conversely, the Spanish forts were actual military forts, and housed primarily soldiers.

OK, so these are just a few problems with a cursory analysis of this map. And you might say, so what? We all know that maps are constructed things; that they portray a certain point of view, of course this entire empty area isn’t actually empty, devoid of life, etc. 

But I didn’t want to just assume anything. Especially since my research is in some ways trying to write the counter narrative for this space, which previously has focused nearly exclusively on Maya-Spanish identity in relation to the Guatemalan city center, not in relation to the Atlantic world. I focus on black immigration into this Central American space in a way that hasn’t been quite foregrounded before, and when I do that, I will be using some of these maps that everyone else before me has used. So, that is a problem right?

It’s confusing that we are all using the same images, the same representations of this space and yet we are arguing different things. Not only are we using the same images, but in many cases, there is little deep analysis done on the image, especially if we’re talking about an historical monograph for Guatemala. 


Neatline Project

(Screenshot detail of Neatline Project - 1798 Battle test)

So this is where my Neatline Project comes in. The larger goal was to look at a number of the representative cartographic images from the time period in question, plot the geo-locating points, narrate the sequence using both representative images and symbolic images, allow a richer base for interpretation, and portray my argument for the Atlanticization of these coastal communities.

I would like to explore the possibilities of historical maps as bases for visualization projects, in somewhat the same way as David McClure did for the Demo Exhibits in the Hotchkiss maps.

Now – What have I learned after my brief foray into Neatline and map analysis. First, I’ve learned that I cannot separate argument from practice. And what I mean by that is that often, as a historian, I have been trained to think of my argument first and then the exposition of that argument is merely the writing portion. Another way to say this is that in this mythical world of the ideal academic, I have absorbed the historiography, made my argument analytically and have only to sit down and write it.

This is bunk. It’s taken me five years to realize this, but for me at least, writing and analysis are co-producers, they operate simultaneously, forming each other as they go. Obviously, editing is key here. 

So, if I’ve discovered that I have simultaneity of process in writing and argument, why did I assume the process would be any different here with Neatline? Why did I assume that I could plot my little points, insert my little images, and then poof! An observable argument would appear?

This is one of the questions I have been struggling with concerning not just Neatline, but Digital Humanities in general.

Do we assume an easily observable argument in a visualization project? And if the argument is not immediately visible, if in fact it will require analysis and interpretation from the observers’ part, what form should the author’s analysis take? In other words, if I take this map and mess with it in Neatline, am I not just creating yet another image that is subject to the viewer’s interpretation? Is it even possible to write, code, or photoshop your way into a solid argument via visualization? 

McClure’s Hotchkiss map project looks like it’s made a solid attempt. It’s visually engaging and just navigable enough for general audiences to approach. But I’m not sure that it advances our understanding of the Battle of Fredericksburg in a way that say, Ed Ayers or John Keegan hasn’t already done. 

So this has become my overwhelming anxiety concerning Neatline and my project. Will my visualization project advance an argument, or even a better understanding of the Battle of St. George’s Caye? If it is possible, how do I get there? And should I just accept the fact that a true visualization project will be about as complex as a dissertation? The complexity will determine everything I believe, and given the time and skills required to create a useful product – knowing that my department will not consider it an appropriate substitution to my dissertation – I have accepted that this will be a somewhat personal project, something that I work on in my “spare” time, for years to come. 

[1]Figure 2, The Bay of Honduras. by Thos. Jeffreys, Geographer to His Majesty. London, printed for Robt. Sayer, map & printseller, no. 53 in fleet street, as the act directs 20 Feby. 1775.' From David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, list No. 4723016.

[2]“A letter from the Bay of Honduras, dated March 2, says, ‘The Baymen are assembled at the mouth.’” The Times (London, England), Monday, Jun 12, 1797, Issue No. 3918, pg. 2.

[3]Extract of Letter from Honduras dated 25th September, 1798, The London Gazette, London: Great Britain, 1799; Note that the detail of destroying all the houses was written by Captain Edwards of the sloop Happy Return who may not have arrived in St. George’s Key until September 16th, five days after the battle. Still, Lt. Col. Barrow writes later about the repairing the settlement. 

[1]The Saint Domingue Rebellion is more commonly known as the Haitian Revolution which lasted from 1791 – 1804 on the island of Hispaniola. The island’s eastern half was Spanish controlled and named Santo Domingo, today it is known as the Dominican Republic; the western portion was Saint Domingue, France controlled and has been called Haití since 1804. In 1791 the black slaves on Saint Domingue had taken control of the northern province and by 1792 they controlled a third of the island. In 1793 the Atlantic Empires entered the battle while fighting their own wars during the Age of Revolution; Figure 1, “Amerique Septentrionale 4” printed by Adrien Hubert Brue, Published by Desray, Libraire-Editeur Paris, 1815, in David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, List No. 4614036.

[2]At the Treaty of Basle of July 1795, a defeated Spain abandoned its oldest colony and surrendered Santo Domingo to France.


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