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January 31, 2019

Africa’s Imperial Commodities

January 31, 2019 | By | No Comments

Europe’s exploitation of Africa is a common narrative in African history. Scholars continue to use archival records to investigate the movement of enslaved persons and commodities from Africa to the Americas and Europe. In the past ten years, scholars have also produced digital projects that enhance economic, social, and cultural studies related to the transportation of African slaves to the Americas. However, there remain few digital projects harnessing the possibilities of Africa’s commodity data. Economic historians of Africa, more so than others, have contributed to the collection and publication of product-based datasets. While some of them publish their data online, it remains in digital formats requiring knowledge of data analysis software. The goal of my CHI project, then, is to re-purpose the available data as part of interactive visualizations that facilitate access for students and scholars.

My project, tentatively titled Africa’s Imperial Commodities, will result in a website where the visualizations inform data stories about commodities exported from Africa during the colonial period. I plan to host the website on GitHub pages and to build the front-end framework with Bootstrap. The more difficult technical aspect of the project entails writing JavaScript using the D3.js library to create interactive data visualizations. Although this JavaScript library has a steeper learning curve than others, I plan to use it for its flexibility and wide-ranging applications.

The data for my project will come from the African Commodity Trade Database (ACTD) published by Ewout Frankema, Jeffrey Williamson, and Pieter Woltjer alongside an economic history article about the scramble for Africa. Their database includes more than nine-thousand entries for products exported from Africa from 1808 to 1939. In working with their database, I plan to select data only for specific commodities including animal hides, kola, and peanuts. I then plan to transform this data into JSON files that I will upload to my GitHub repository and use to populate the data visualizations. R, a language for statistical analysis, will allow me to transform the data in this way.

My website will thus include a set of data-driven histories about commodities exported from Africa during the colonial period. To encourage further exploration, I will also include information about the historical context, the source materials, and database methods. Lastly, I will include a list of references to similar digital projects and historical scholarship.

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