Praxis Assignment – Mapping the East India Company’s First Voyage

Using the StoryMapJS tool developed by the Knight Lab at Northwestern University, I created a map [] charting the East India Company’s (EIC) first trading voyage. The StoryMapsJS interface is very intuitive and can be picked up with ease. The challenge, however, lies in being able to make sense of the EIC’s papers, given the style that it is written in and largely forgotten place names that it uses. For this map, I used a company record titled “A true and large discourse of the voyage of the whole fleete of ships set forth the 20. of Aprill 1601. by the Gouernours and assistants of the East Indian marchants in London, to the East Indies Wherein is set downe the order and manner of their trafficke, the discription of the countries, the nature of the people and their language, with the names of all the men dead in the voyage,” which I sourced from the EEBO database. As is suggested by the title, this record is written in more or less chronological order and details the major locations where the EIC fleet stopped, the names and ways in which various sailors / officers died in the voyage, the nature of storms encountered, descriptions of landscape and communities, as well as other moments of interest in the journey. My method for mapping this journey was to read the primary source, focus in on the place names that it mentions, and then plot them on my StoryMapJS in the order that it appears in the text. With each location that I plotted, I added a little snippet from the record that mentioned the place. In doing so, I hoped to import some of the historical language and context from the primary source into the digital map.

As I reflect on what I learnt through this exercise, I realize that mapping provides a very specific mode of inquiry that relies on a great deal of inference from the primary source. Despite the suggestions invoked by the neat lines drawn on my StoryMapJS, the exact path of the EIC’s voyage will not be revealed by just focusing on the places that they visited because the record is rife with mentions of being tossed and turned in tempestous seas. Moreover, the subjective experience of the journey with its storms, sickness, and failed mutinies is lost when pursuing a purely cartographic approach to this voyage. What is gained through this process, however, is a head-on confrontation with the constitutive imprecisions in historical texts describing journeys and the limits of digital mapping. Whereas the digital map needs a location, an exact point or series of points that can be placed on the map, the historical sources often simply mention vague details, such as being four degrees below the equator or seven leagues from the shore. How do we balance the imprecise information that we have with the clarity required of our digital tools? Does the necessity of digital mapping to require definite coordinates actually come in the way of working with older materials that do not have this data? I dealt with this hurdle by simply skipping all the locations that I couldn’t figure out. Hardly the best approach, but workable given the context of this exercise.

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