Greater London’s industry relied on overseas ghost acres for economic expansion. Britain did not have enough land to support the massive growth in industries such as soap making and it could not grow tropical and sub-tropical plants, such as sugarcane or cinchona, on an economic scale. This project explores the environmental consequences of London’s industrial development during the long nineteenth century. For example, the soap industry’s transnational fat supply shifted from Russian tallow at the start of the century, to animal fats from around the world, supplemented by palm oil from West Africa, coconut oil from Ceylon, and cottonseed oil from Egypt. This one industry’s supply chain represents a wider trend where British industrialists increasingly relied on plantations, farms, forest, mines and oceans all over the world to supply essential raw materials. Along with finding new supplies to expand existing industries, London’s industrialists, and economic botanists at Kew Gardens, also searched the world for new economically viable plants, and both groups played a role in the transfer of seeds and living plants to establish new plantations throughout the British Empire. For example, the British created neo-South American landscapes in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) with cinchona and rubber plantations.
This presentation will discuss how I’m combining archival research on the soap industry and economic botany with a text mined database created by the Trading Consequence research project. Our research team extracts a database of information about commodity flows throughout the British World during the nineteenth century by using computer algorithms to text-mine millions of pages of digitized historical documents. We then develop a range of visualizations to explore this large database. This new methodology allows us to explore a much wider range of commodity flows throughout the British World in the nineteenth century than traditional archival research.
Jim Clifford is an environmental historian of Britain and the British World during the long-19th century. He uses digital methods to explore the global environmental consequences of Britain’s growing industrial economy. Jim is interested in the intersections between environmental, social and political history. In particular, he researches how communities responded to worsening environmental conditions.
This seminar is part of our ongoing series from researchers in HCI. See here for our current schedule.