Mapping the Vernacular in the Early Modern British Caribbean

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 11:10 AM
Salon 10 (Palmer House Hilton)
Mary Draper, Midwestern State University
By reading manuscript and printed sources against cartographic materials, this paper reconstructs the vernacular map of British Caribbean residents. In the maritime world of the early modern Caribbean, proximity could rarely be rendered in spatial terms. Vessels leaving from Barbados, for example, could reach Jamaica, located roughly 1,000 miles to the west, in less than two weeks. The reverse trip, however, might entail up to 14 weeks of travel. The easiest way to sail from Jamaica to Barbados was by way of Bermuda, a route that added hundreds of additional miles. So difficult was the trip that one Jamaican councilman grumbled, “it often takes as long for a ship to beat to windward to Barbados as to sail to England.” Indeed, cartographic representations of the Caribbean Sea only occasionally accounted for the disparity in winds and currents, let alone the contested corridors between rival colonies. Thus to better understand their surroundings, officials and colonists gathered extensive knowledge of the Caribbean’s maritime geography. They studied the direction of the winds and noted the sea lanes that enabled safe navigation to and from their respective colonies, often consulting printed pilot guides in addition to drawing on the experiential knowledge of mariners.

Using Jamaica and Barbados as case studies, this paper combines the methodologies of spatial, maritime, and environmental history to recover the geographic knowledge that was critical to integrating the Caribbean Sea. As argued by Ian Steele, oceans were not barriers that separated settlements from one another but rather conduits for communication and trade. Yet their safe navigation required knowledge that must be reconstructed in order to fully understand how residents understood their place within the imperial geography of the early modern Caribbean.

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