Biography of an Uncharted People
“Digital Humanities” operates at the intersection of the humanities and computing. Scholars using the methods of the Digital Humanities can make use of a variety of tools, from algorithms that help with textual analysis, to image recognition, or Big Data techniques. They can digitize and transcribe large databases and analyze individuals’ characteristics and behavior. In the absence of other information of South Africans, particularly black citizens, who were often excluded from censuses and reports and underrepresented in other types of archival records such as personal collections of letters, individual-level records are a treasure trove of information about the economic, social, demographic, health, labor, genealogical and migration histories of the Cape Colony and South Africa.
The good news is that such individual-level historical records in digital format are rapidly becoming more available. The life histories of individuals can now be reconstructed at a fraction of the research cost of manual archival research. This is important, because even though digitised records are available online, they are mostly inaccessible to most South Africans. In fact, the only systematized series of birth, marriage and death records available at present represents only the white population. By making historical information easily accessible, the Biography of an Uncharted People project will thus give dignity to black, colored and Indian South Africans, enabling them to bring to light histories of families that were overlooked in the past.
Besides transcribing and disseminating these large, previously unexplored datasets of microdata, the project will also begin to analyze the information systematically in order to contribute to debates in South African history.
In addition to the research topics to be undertaken by masters and honors students, five flagship projects for PhD students have been identified. These sources and the methods of the Digital Humanities will also be introduced into undergraduate and graduate teaching curricula. This will equip a new generation of historians to engage critically with primary sources and large amounts of quantitative and qualitative evidence.
We acknowledge the tension that can exist between quantification of data on the one hand and the traditional analytical tools of the humanities on the other. Yet this project, which will include compelling visualizations of the data to communicate with both a scholarly and a lay audience, draws heavily on humanistic methods and goals. Easily accessible charts and videos of historical data will encourage historians and the general public to reflect on South Africa’s history and the way previously hidden archival data can reveal more about that history.
Because the apartheid system handicapped South Africa by imposing on it a higher education system designed to maintain social and economic inequalities of race, class, gender, region and institution, this project is also an attempt to narrow the methodological divergence that have occurred in the discipline. We see historical privilege or disadvantage reflected in students’ varying ability to work with large sets of quantitative and qualitative historical evidence using technological tools. This project aims to remove the handicaps and produce young scholars skilled in the Digital Humanities and able to teach the next generation.
A global network of scholars:
Principal investigator and project coordinator:
Prof. Johan Fourie (Project coordinator)
Johan Fourie is associate professor in the Department of Economics and Department of History at Stellenbosch University and project coordinator of the Biography of an Uncharted People project in the Department of History at Stellenbosch University. Fourie completed his PhD in the Department of History and Art History at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands in 2012 under the supervision of economic historian Jan Luiten van Zanden, on the wealth of the eighteenth-century Dutch Cape Colony. In 2015, he was awarded the “Best Dissertation” prize in the category “Early Modern History” at the World Economic History Congress in Kyoto, Japan. He is co-editor of Economic History of Developing Regions, co-founder of the African Economic History Network and coordinator of the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past (LEAP). He has published in leading local and international journals, including the Economic History Review, South African Historical Journal, Journal of African History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Journal of Southern African Studies and European Review of Economic History.
Vivian Bickford-Smith (History, Stellenbosch University), Anton Ehlers (History, Stellenbosch University), Hans Heese (History, Stellenbosch University), Lindie Koorts (History, University of the Free State), Bheki Mngomezulu (Political Science, University of the Western Cape), Bokang Mpeta (Economics, Stellenbosch University), Michelle Sikes (Sociology, Stellenbosch University), Christie Swanepoel (Economics, University of the Western Cape), and Leslie van Rooi (Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation, Stellenbosch University).
Emmanuel Akyeampong (History, Harvard University), Jeanne Cilliers (Economic History, Lund University), Latika Hartmann Chaudhary (Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School), Dan de Kadt (Political Science, University of California, Merced), Kris Inwood (History, Guelph University), Erik Green (Economic History, Lund University), Martine Mariotti (Economics, Australian National University), Felix Meier zu Selhausen (Economics, University of Sussex), Nonso Obikili (Economics, Stellenbosch University), Robert Ross (History, Leiden University), Auke Rijpma (History, Utrecht University), Dmitri van den Bersselaar (History, Leipzig University), Leonard Wantchekon (Politics, Princeton), and Joachim Wehner (Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science).