Mapping Supply Chains for 19th Century Leather

Impression of a Buenos Aires slaughterhouse by Charles Pellegrini, 1829.

[First Published on the NiCHE Website] By Andrew Watson with Jim Clifford For the past two weeks I’ve been in Saskatoon, working with Jim Clifford in the University of Saskatchewan’s Historical Geographic Information Systems (HGIS) Lab. Since January 2014 I’ve been working with Jim and Colin Coates on the Trading Consequences research project thinking about how historians can use these valuable new text mining, database and visualization tools to understand the economic and environmental histories of global commodity flows during the nineteenth century. This trip to Saskatchewan has allowed Jim and I to focus our energies on using Trading Consequences for historical research. We used text-mined spatial data in conjunction with trade statistics and textual sources as a means of testing the search results and functionality of Trading Consequences. To do this, we chose a case study: the history of leather tanning related commodities during the nineteenth century.

Neckinger Leather Mills  Wellcome Images on Flickr Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK

Neckinger Leather Mills Wellcome Images on Flickr Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK

We chose leather tanning for our case study because this topic intersects with both our research interests. Jim is interested in how industrial development across London, including the leather district of Bermondsey, contributed to broader environmental transformations through the development of global commodity flows. Part of my recently completed doctoral research examined the economic and environmental dimensions of hemlock bark harvesting for leather tanneries in Muskoka, Ontario during the same time period. Trading Consequences provides the opportunity to learn more about the ways tanneries in Muskoka and London functioned as part of transnational networks in hides, tannins and leather. Apart from some primary and secondary source background reading, our work over these initial two weeks of research on this project focused almost exclusively on exploring nineteenth century trade statistics for Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Theses statistics came mainly from the Annual Statement of the Trade of the United Kingdom with Foreign Countries and British Possessions, which the HGIS Lab’s research assistant, Stephen Langlois, entered into a Commodity Flows database. With the help of Jon Bath, Director of the Digital Research Centre at U Sask, Jim and I exported the statistics from the Commodity Flows database to create spreadsheets, graphs and maps, which we used to help us understand broad patterns and trends in the global trade of leather tanning commodities during the nineteenth century. One of the tools we used to start to get a sense of the transnational connections of these commodities is, a web-based supply chain mapping service, that allows users to generate maps populated with directional flow information. Using the information from the Commodity Flows database related to where commodities originated as well as their destination, Jim created four maps representing the flow of leather tanning related commodities at different points in the nineteenth century.

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Text Mining 19th Century Place Names

By Jim Clifford

Nineteenth century place names are a major challenge for the Trading Consequences project. The Edinburgh Geoparser uses the Geonames Gazetteer to supply crucial geographic information, including the place names themselves, their longitudes and latitudes, and population data that helps the algorithms determine which “Toronto” is most likely mentioned in the text (there are a lot of Torontos). Based on the first results from our tests, the Geoparser using Geonames works remarkably well. However, it often fails for historic place names that are not in the Geonames Gazetteer. Where is “Lower Canada” or the “Republic of New Granada“? What about all of the colonies created during the Scramble for Africa, but renamed after decolonization? Some of these terms are in Geonames, while others are not: Ceylon and Oil Rivers Protectorate. Geonames also lacks many of the regional terms often used in historical documents, such as “West Africa” or “Western Canada”.

To help reduce the number of missed place names or errors in our text mined results, we asked David Zylberberg, who did great work annotating our test samples, to help us solve many of the problems he identified. A draft of his new Gazetteer of missing 19th century place names is displayed above. Some of these are place names David found in the 150 page test sample that the prototype system missed. This includes some common OCR errors and a few longer forms of place names that are found in Geonames, which don’t totally fit within the 19th century place name gazetteer, but will still be helpful for our project. He also expanded beyond the place names he found in the annotation by identifying trends. Because our project focuses on commodities in the 19th century British world, he worked to identify abandoned mining towns in Canada and Australia. He also did a lot of work in identifying key place names in Africa, as he noticed that the system seemed to work in South Asia a lot better than it did in Africa. Finally, he worked on Eastern Europe, where many German place names changed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Unfortunately, some of these location were alternate names in Geonames and by changing the geoparser settings, we solved this problem, making David’s work on Eastern Europe and a few other locations redundant.  Nonetheless, we now have the beginnings of a database of  place names and region names missing from the standard gazetteers and we plan to publish this database in the near future and invite others to use and add to it. This work is at an early stage, so we’d be very interested to hear from others about how they’ve dealt with similar issues related to text-mining historical documents.

Plant Diseases in the 19th Century


A word cloud of diseases found in The Diseases of Tropical Plants by Melville Thurston Cook

During the 19th century British industrialists and botanists searched the world for economically useful plants. They moved seeds and plants between continents and developed networks of  trade and plantations to supply British industries and consumers. This global network also spread diseases. Stuart McCook is working on the history of Coffee Rust (Hemileia Vastatrix) and there are a few books that examine the diseases that prevented Brazil from developing rubber plantations. Building on this work, we’re using the Trading Consequences text mining pipeline to try explore the wider trends of plant diseases as they spread through the trade and plantation network.

We need a list of diseases with both the scientific and common names from the time period. The Internet Archive provides a number of text books from the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. They were written by American botanists, but one book in particular attempts a global survey of tropical plant diseases (The Diseases of Tropical Plants). Because these books are organized in an encyclopedic fashion, it is relatively easy to have a student go through and create a list of plant disease. We’re  working on expanding our list from other sources of the next few weeks. Once the list is complete we’ll add them to our pipeline and extract relationships between mentions of these diseases, locations, dates and commodities in our corpus of 19th century documents. This should allow us to track Sooty Mould, Black Rot, Fleshy Fungi, Coffee Leaf Rust and hundreds of other diseases at points in time when they became enough of a problem to appear in our document collection.

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How to Build a Macroscope

Our York University team members, led by Timothy Bristow at the Library, have organized a one day workshop on text mining in the humanities on March 15:

A macroscope is designed to capture the bigger picture, to render visible vastly complex systems. Large-scale text mining offers researchers the promise of such perspective, while posing distinct challenges around data access, licensing, dissemination, and preservation, digital infrastructure, project management, and project costs. Join our panel of researchers, librarians, and technologists as they discuss not only the operational demands of text mining the humanities, but also how Ontario institutions can better support this work. Read More

Commodities, Vampires and Fashion: Making Connections in Victorian Research

By Colin Coates,

Earlier this year, Jim Clifford and I were invited to present the Trading Consequences project to a group of scholars, many of them from English Departments in the Toronto region, who are interested in the Victorian period.  We contributed to the workshop, “Making Connections in Victorian Research”, held at York University in Toronto, on 19 October.

Our paper was sandwiched between talks about clothing reform in Victorian Britain and the pornographic elements of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Not surprisingly, we were concerned that our discussion of computer-assisted analysis of trading patterns and associated environmental consequences in the British empire might appear tangential, maybe even irrelevant, to the cultural concerns of this audience of scholars.

However, one of the advantages of historical studies is that issues within the same chronological time frame do have ways of connecting.  As Barry Commoner suggested, a key principle of ecology is that “everything is connected to everything else.”  The same is true when one approaches matters historically.

We presented the methodology of the Trading Consequences project, discussing the collaboration with computational linguists and computer scientists, and we showed some preliminary visualisations of the research findings.  The map we showed illustrated the global geographical locations associated with references to natural resources in Canadian government documents from 1860 to 1900.  In presenting these data, we are hoping to understand the mental geography of Canadian decision-makers (politicians, government officials and businesspeople) in this time period.  A feature of the exploitation of natural resources is that extraction activities can shift fairly quickly from one part of the globe to another.  In other words, a fisher off Nova Scotia may have to keep in mind what fishers in the North Sea are doing.  The production of lime for fertiliser in Ontario may be influenced by developments in Florida or Algeria.  The map was based on an experiment with visualisation techniques.  Much of what it illustrated was fairly commonsense:  concentrations of references to the United Kingdom and the United States.  France seemed more prominent than we would have expected, as were Nepal and the Philippines, possibly illustrating some problems with the data which we will need to explore.  China seemed under-represented.  However, to our mind, the emphasis on the Caribbean seemed one angle worth pursuing.

Colleagues provided useful comments on the project.  One expressed concern that a great deal of effort may go into proving what we already know — a problem with any research project.  But some interesting connections were apparent in the comparison between our project and the papers on clothing and Dracula.  Bram Stoker’s novel also contributed to a certain mental geography of Victorian Britain, where some regions were classified as exotic and unknown, and they haunted the imagination of a large reading public.  More directly, one of the issues in clothing reform was the use of whalebone, a product that could be fairly easily tracked through the database.  The overhunting of whales in the nineteenth century is an obvious example of resource demand having dire and measurable environmental impacts.  Thus, a public critique of women’s corsets in England could have some long-term consequences on the population of whales in the Canadian Arctic.  Everything is connected to everything else.



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Gin and Tonic: A Short History of a Stiff Drink (from

Gin and Tonic, from Wikipedia

Jay Young was inspired to write an post on the historical background of a favourite summer drink while working as a Researcher with Trading Consequences:

The Gin and Tonic – what better a drink during the dog days of summer? Put some ice in a glass, pour one part gin, add another part tonic water, finish with a slice of lime, and you have a refreshing drink to counter the heat. But it is also steeped in the history of medicine, global commodity frontiers, and the expansion of the British Empire.

Let’s start with the gin. Although it is commonly known as the quintessential English spirit, the history of gin underlines the island’s connections to the outside world. The origin of gin – unlike the drink itself – is quite murky. Sylvius de Bouve, a sixteenth-century Dutch physician, is the individual associated with the development of gin. He created a highly-alcoholic medicinal concoction called Jenever. It featured the essential oils of juniper berries, which the physician believed could improve circulation and cure other ailments. The berry, deriving from a small coniferous plant, had long been treasured for its medicinal properties, including its use during the plague.

Some students of the spirit argue that English soldiers discovered it while fighting in Holland in the 1580s during the Dutch War of Independence, whereas others trace England’s gin tradition to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). The English nicknamed the drink “Dutch courage,” but what stuck was gin, a derivation of the Flemish word genever.

Gin’s popularity grew in England after William of Orange had become King of England following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Parliament exerted its superior authority by ousting from the throne the Catholic King James II. With William’s reign came high import duties on French brandy – the dominant hard liquor in England at the time. The English began to produce a gin at a low cost. As John Watney notes in Mother’s Ruin: A History of Gin, “[a] revolution in drinking habits, equal to or perhaps surpassing in importance the Glorious Revolution in politics, was about to occur.” Parliament ended the royal monopoly on spirit distilling within London and its surrounding area, and statutes promoted distillation from grain grown by English farmers.

Gin consumption exploded in England by the first half of the eighteenth century. London became the capital not only of a growing empire, but also the drinking of gin. The apparent rise in public drunkeness led to the “Gin Craze,” a moral panic in which elites began to worry about the amount of gin consumed by less-affluent classes. The British Parliament responded to the craze by enacting a series of laws starting in the 1730s that sought to curb the consumption of gin. Historians such as Jessica Warner have compared such policies to the war on drugs in more recent times. At first, British lawmakers imposed a stiff tax on gin, but this policy led to a flood of illegally-distilled gin. Riots against the law erupted in 1743. By 1751, the government changed their strategy to favour a policy that increased the operating costs of gin shops. The craze waned, although scholars argue that consumption declined because of rising grain prices, not government action. Nonetheless, gin remained a popular spirit in England.

“Gin Lane” (1751) by William Hogarth. Image from Wikipedia.

I’ve added one part gin to the glass, but what about the tonic? It too is rooted global relationships that stretch even farther than gin.

A key component of tonic water is quinine, an anti-malarial alkaloid from the bark of the cinchona tree. Indigenous to mountainous areas of South America, the tree is part of what historian Alfred Crosby has termed the “Columbian Exchange”: the transfer of humans, other animals, plants, germs, and ideas between Europe and the Americas.

The Quechua (Inca) peoples of Peru and Bolivia had long understood the cinchona tree’s ability to stop shivers in cold temperatures. Europeans first realized the value of the plant in fighting malaria during the seventeenth century, after the Spanish had conquered parts of South America. Two popular accounts explain the development. In one, the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the Spanish Viceroy of Peru, brought the bark to Spain during the 1640s after it had cured her of malaria in South America. In the other, a Jesuit missionary returned to Europe with the bark in 1632. No matter its origins, Europeans began to call ground cinchona bark “Countess’ powder,” “Jesuit’s powder,” or simply the “fever tree.” By the early nineteenth century, chemists had isolated quinine from cinchona bark. It formed an essential ingredient in tonic water.

Cinchona bark. Image from Wikipedia.

Adding gin to tonic water originated in India during the nineteenth century. In 1825, British officers began to mix gin with their daily ration of quinine tonic. After the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (or the “Indian Mutiny”), the British Crown took over the governance of India from the British East India Company and strengthened its presence on the subcontinent. The growing number of Brits residing in India by the late 1850s helps explain the increased demand for quinine and the rise in popularity of the gin and tonic.

The British Raj led to a greater concern for the health of the more and more British soldiers, colonial administrators, and families living in India. Control of the colony required the ability to fight the deadly disease of malaria, so Brits in India consumed rations of quinine in the form of “Indian tonic water.” They added gin to the liquid to cut its bitter taste (and probably also for an intoxicating effect).

But there is more to the story of tonic water and the British in India. Lucile Brockway has shown that control of cinchona – and thus quinine – was key to the expansion of European colonial powers during the nineteenth century in Asia and Africa. By mid-century, the cinchona-producing areas of South America had become independent republics. Cinchona, grown as wild stocks harvested by native communities, offered an important commodity for their economic development. In 1860 alone, South America exported around two million pounds of cinchona bark to Britain and the United States. European powers, namely the British and the Dutch, feared a South American monopoly on the product raised prices, so they smuggled the plant’s seeds back to Europe, created hybrid strains, and transferred cinchona to plantations in Asian colonies like Ceylon and Java. By century’s end, the Dutch controlled most of the cinchona trade.

Without a reliable, cheap source of quinine, European dominance during the nineteenth century would have been less likely in areas such as South Asia and Africa prone to malaria. Quinine, then, was an ingredient central to not only in the gin and tonic, but also the growth of European imperialism. As a British surgeon noted in 1897, “to England, with her numerous and extensive Colonial possessions, [the cinchona bark] is simply priceless; and it is not too much to say, that if portions of her tropical empire are upheld by the bayonet, the arm that wields the weapon would be nerveless but for Cinchona bark and its active principles.”

Tonic water found in stores today must contain only minimal amounts of quinine. Recently, a number of premium tonic waters have hit the market. These brands advertise their use of natural quinine (rather than synthetic forms) and their avoidance of high fructose corn syrup, which connoisseurs claim overpowers the bouquet of high-quality gin. One brand is even called Fever Tree – harkening back to the historical roots of the beverage (although its website relies on the language of danger and exploration reminiscent of the colonial era).

Of course the final component to the classic gin and tonic is a slice of lime, and it is also linked to disease prevention and European expansion. In 1747, British surgeon James Lind carried out an experiment on mariners aboard a Royal Navy ship. His findings illustrated that a lack of Vitamin C caused scurvy. By the late nineteenth century, Royal Navy ships provided a mandatory daily ration of limes for sailors to fight the disease (hence the British nickname “limey”).

So next time you sip a G n’ T, stop and think about the history in your glass.

Thanks to Christopher Wilton for his helpful comments on the development of gin.

Jay Young is an editor at He recently completed a PhD in history from York University.



Digging for Data in Archives

Since our last post the Trading Consequences team have been working with our identified and potential data providers to begin gathering digital data for the project.

As the various data providers were sending us millions of pages of text from digitized historical documents, I flew over to London to spend some time in the archives.

A major component of our Digging Into Data project will involve doing traditional historical research, in archives and using the digitized repositories, to provide a comparison between what the historians are able to find and what the data mining and visualization components discover. So I set about researching a few of the more interesting commodities flowing into London industry during the nineteenth century. This included archival records related to the palm oil trade in west Africa and records at Kew Gardens’ archives related to John Eliot Howard’s scientific investigations into cinchona and quinine. John Eliot was one of the “Sons” in Howard & Sons, who manufactured chemicals and drugs in Startford (near the site of the 2012 Olympics) throughout the nineteenth century. After photographing most of his papers at Kew, I also spent time at the London Metropolitan Archive, looking through the company records. It was at the LMA that I was reminded about the disappointments often associated with historical research. It turned out the single most interesting document listed in the archival holdings, a ledger listing the imports of cinchona bark throughout the middle of the century, had been destroyed at some point and a second document on their trade with plantations in Java is missing.

After collecting enough material to begin my study of the relationships between factories in the Thames Estuary and commodity frontiers in South America, Africa and India, I focused my final day in the archive on a set of sources that will directly assist with the data mining aspects of the project. I recorded four years of customs ledgers, which record the quantity, declared value and country of origin of the hundreds of different commodity categories imported into Britain (everything from live animals to works of art). This source will provide the foundation of the taxonomy of commodities that we will create over the next few months, which will then be used to mine the data. Moreover, these ledgers provide a good starting point for our research into Canada’s trade with Britain and we are recording the quantity and value of all the goods shipped across the Atlantic. Just in through the monotonous process of photographing a few thousand pages, the major changes between the early and late nineteenth century began to stand out. Not only were there a lot more commodities by the centuries’ end, but Britain was relying on far more countries to supply it with raw materials.