Mapping Panama Disease: The Value of Historical GIS to Environmental History

Sunday, January 5, 2020
3rd Floor West Promenade (New York Hilton)
Matthew Plishka, University of Pittsburgh
The rise of the digital humanities over the last two decades has resulted in new avenues for thinking about and analyzing historical topics. Historical GIS in particular has led to new insights into spatial patterns across time and space, especially in terms of topics such as race and warfare. However, historical GIS has not yet been heavily incorporated into the field of environmental history. GIS has been utilized by environmental scientists for purposes such as analyzing land cover, natural disaster prevention, and soil mapping, but this has rarely been applied to historical cases. This poster provides a case study of the value of historical GIS to environmental historians. In particular, it shows the benefits of using digital mapping technology to better understand the causes behind the spread of Panama Disease, a disease that led to the extinction of the gros michel species of bananas, in Jamaica in the early twentieth century and the impact of the spread of the disease. It argues that a series of digitally-created maps of Jamaican banana plantations, waterways, railroads, and altitude over the course of the first two decades of the twentieth century, combined with Jamaican primary source analysis, tentatively reveals that railroads, more so than rivers, acted as carriers of Panama Disease throughout Jamaica. It additionally argues that GIS can help to show the relationship between the decline of banana production due to Panama Disease and the revitalization of the sugar industry on the island.
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