Defining DH according to the Early Caribbean Digital Archive: using digital means to transcend the limitations of physical sources and inherited forms of knowledge organization

A perennial challenge among historians who attempt to reconstruct the lives of underrepresented groups in the premodern, early modern and modern periods is making the silence of the sources “speak” to the authentic experiences and identities of those groups. Surviving bodies of archival sources that ostensibly describe marginalized or oppressed persons, whether narrative or documentary in content, tend overwhelmingly to be recorded by the conqueror or the social hegemon, and therefore are biased by the power dynamics of authorship; that of propertied white men, in the context of transatlantic commerce and slavery in the early modern period. This presents two challenges:

  1. Trying to tease out of the texts—beyond the biases or power-motivations of the authors—evidence for the authentic lived experience of the marginalized persons described; and
  2. Extracting and presenting this evidence in ways that center marginalized persons as agents and proper subjects, rather than as passive objects of colonial knowledge.

To achieve these ends, the Early Caribbean Digital Archive takes the digital medium of its endeavor as its starting-point for the decolonization of early modern knowledge. As noted on the page Decolonizing the Archive: Remix and Reassembly, the digital archive affords possibilities for re-centering oppressed persons and drawing new connections across inherited bodies of organized knowledge in ways that traditional, analog formats could not. Beyond digitally extracting, remixing, recombining and uniting digital facsimiles of disparate printed sources–-as many digital history projects already do-–the ECDA demonstrates its specifically post-colonial aspirations by subverting the the notion of “authorship” through its embedded slave narrative collection, in addition to the creation of independent, searchable library catalog records resulting from these extracts:

…instead of (only) reproducing the authorial status of “Bryan Edwards” as it has appeared on the spine of his well-known book, History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1793) for more than 200 years, the ECDA has also extracted the story of an enslaved woman named Clara from that text and placed her name in the identifying category of author of “Clara’s Narrative.” We are collecting a growing number of similarly embedded slave narratives, extracted from texts written by European colonial authors, which we have remixed to form a new digital anthology of narratives that speak to one another (beyond the context of the words of Bryan Edwards or similar texts) in new ways and across new contexts.

A brief look at the digital library record for Narrative of Oliver extracted from Edwards’ History is demonstrative. Oliver, a 22-23 year old slave taken out of present-day Ghana, is centered not only as the author of the text extracted from Edwards’ work, but is also treated as the proper subject of the extraction’s own library record. The addition of subject keywords (“slave narratives,” “Assiantee Country,” “Ghana”) to this unique record enable Oliver’s narrative to be discoverable by keyword search on the Northeastern Uiniversity Library Digital Repository Service in a way that it might not otherwise be in other digitized editions of Edwards’ History.

1 thought on “Defining DH according to the Early Caribbean Digital Archive: using digital means to transcend the limitations of physical sources and inherited forms of knowledge organization

  1. JP

    These are important observations as to who gets to write the history. A digital archive is a possibility, but a lingering thought in my mind is: what about the ones who are not digital? How are they spoken to, included, are made part of.

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