HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Assignments (Term 1)

All your first-term assignments will be linked on this page. It will be updated by the second week of the course. Second-term assignments will be available by the beginning of that term.

In this full-year course, each of you will complete three assignments - two first term, and one second - and you have some choices.

First term,  there are three (3) possible assignments to choose from - do two (2) only.

In Second term, there are two (2) possible assignments to choose from - do one (1) only.

They have different dues dates, are on different topics, using different forms, and to some extent will be produced in different ways. Any or all of these may determine which you chose. 

First Term

Term 1's two assignments are worth 15 points (7.5 each) of your overall final grade.

Assignment 1

Wikipedia Analysis 
(due Friday, Oct 9th by 5 pm, EDT -- NEW: extended to Sat., Oct. 10 at the very end of the day)

Introduction: This assignment asks you to critically evaluate a Wikipedia entry on a major course topic.  It’s an assignment that gets you to practice using and thinking about sources.


Wikipedia has become the go-to source for basic information on almost any topic. In this assignment, we want you to think critically about Wikipedia as a source for historical research.  In particular, we want you to identify potential problems and strengths in Wikipedia pages, and we want you to compare some of your own primary and secondary readings on some major topics with what we find on Wikipedia.  This allows you to think about differences between primary sources, traditional scholarship (secondary sources), and broadly disseminated knowledge (tertiary sources) such as Wikipedia.As historians, we always have to think about how we know things, how information is created, and what the sources of this information are. The advent of digital forms also demand that we think about how that information is circulated on the web versus in traditional publishing modes.
Go to one of the Wikipedia entries below and assess its content. These entries are ones that you are also required to read during one of the weekly Lessons. Look at what is presented in the entry.  Do you see debate? Discussion? Look at the edit pages. Do these show debate/discussion? What does it mean that debate is buried and some kind of consensus is highlighted? You’ve read some scholarly material on these topics.  How do these materials and the Wikipedia pages compare?  Do they agree on the basic account of a subject? On the meaning of that subject?

In 3 double-spaced pages (roughly 750 words) using the historians’ tools we’ve been working with, and looking to the readings from the past few weeks, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of one of the four Wikipedia pages.  To be clear, this assignment is not asking you to bash Wikipedia.  We love Wikipedia, and use it regularly.  But it’s still quite different than traditional scholarly writing and we try to be aware of what that means.  Thus, while Wikipedia is undoubtedly valuable, we know there are limits to that value. Discuss the strengths and limits of one of the following four topics.
Required resources: Students are to choose one of the following four Wikipedia entries.
Estates of the realm
Great Chain of Being
 British Agricultural revolution:

Due in the Assignment tool by the end of the day on 10 October.
(i)   Submit only one attachment
(ii)  Only use file types: Word (docx), PDF, HTML, RTF, or plain text.
(iii) Always include the file extension (.docx etc).

Assignment 2

Critical Map Reading (due Friday November 6th, 5 p.m. NEW: extended to Sun., Nov. 8 at the very end of the day)

We love maps, especially but not only historical maps. And while we love google maps and all the GIS-based tools we have at our fingertips these days, we also still own map books. Prof Samson still carries road atlases in his car because while Google offers great directions the broader map allows him to see more context, to have a physical sense of where we're going, where we are, where we should be, what’s nearby, how did we get lost?

Historical maps are packed with data. They give us a view of landscapes, territory, communication networks, political relationships – in short, views of the political and spatial organization of societies. The image link to this text is a detail from the Cantino planisphere, a Portuguese map made in 1502 outlining Europe, Africa, and the then newly discovered islands of the Caribbean. The detail shows Elmino castle, a large Portuguese trading centre and military installation in what is today Ghana. The size of the castle is obviously not to scale, and may never have been meant to be. Its size and style suggests it was meant to symbolize Portuguese power in Africa. But this unusual representation raises the question of what's meant to be accurate and what's meant to be symbolic - and for that matter if there's a difference. At minimum it asks us to read this map critically and carefully.

It's clear that maps can give us good, hard data. But it's also true that we tend to assume that such data is objective: that these lines and objects marking places/spaces are real and beyond any substantial degree of interpretation. Over the past few years, historians and geographers have demonstrated that in fact maps are, like most texts, social constructs and thus can be read in different ways. They typically bear a relationship to power and are thus historically situated in particular political, economic, and social worlds. Maps, the geographer J.B. Harley reminds us, make claims to truth, but they almost always betray that they are constructions designed to support claims to truth, more than simply "true" in any objective sense.

Maps are representations of space but because they often bear a powerful resemblance to concrete geographic features of the planet, we tend to think they are factual, or true. As we've seen, they do contain real concrete facts. But they also contain interpretations; the map makers often made choices in what to represent and how to represent it. This human process of interpreting and selecting data adds complexity to how we must understand maps as sources and ask the same critical questions we'd ask of any sources. Are maps biased? Of course they are, but so is all human-produced data. Almost all maps contain elements that are objective, as well as elements that are subjective. The trick is to read it carefully, and critically. How then do we "read" historical maps as data?

There's lots to look for. Some maps have a lot of textual data in addition to the basic details of names and locations. Look, for example, at this detail from John Mitchell's famous map of the territory Britain and France claimed in North America on the eve of the Seven Years War. Here we're looking at the tiny section of the map which includes the area east and north of Lake Huron. The map is exquisitely detailed, but also contains over 3000 words of text (not including place names!) referring to history, territorial claims, navigation routes, distances, and much else. Such information was useful, practical information for someone (one might ask for whom?); it was also felt to add credibility, additional proof of its careful and accurate research. But is the information accurate? This text points to a real event - the Mississauga people were defeated in a war with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in the 17th century, but neither they nor any other peoples ever became "the eighth nation" of the Iroquois League. Does this matter? Does it matter that this information is only partly true, or misleading at best? Would it have mattered to an eighteenth-century observer? What inferences might such an observer have about this and similar information on the map? Think too about its production. Remember that maps are authored, like any text, and are usually intended for a particular audience.There were literally 100s of maps of North America available in this period. Why commission another one? Why one with this level of detail? Who would have wanted such a map? Why? Why was this map produced when it was produced? What about that moment made this information important?

Look, too, beyond the geographic features of the map itself. The legend, for example, often contains important information that can be helpful in understanding the map: what it records, where, when and by whom it was made. Legends are often inside more elaborate and artistic renditions that are called a cartouche. A cartouche is usually a frame or image designed both to add additional information - often the publication information or a legend - as well as artistic embellishments. Some are more ornamental than others, but all contain potentially useful information. One can often see themes being represented in the cartouche: a kind of key to thinking about the map. The planisphere on our header was one of the first to depict the North And South America in relation to Europe and Africa. At this point, only the Portuguese were actively venturing along the western coast of Africa and thus this map presents knowledge more or less completely new to other Europeans. It's also worth noting however that Portuguese explorers had travelled as far south as modern-day Ghana, but had gone no more than a mile or two inland - the rest is pure imagination. But these images shouldn't be dismissed as mere flights of fancy. They very often offer symbolic clues to how the mapmakers understood their subjects and the purposes of these maps.

The Newberry Library offers a nice overview of questions and important issues for when approaching historic maps as primary sources

The assignment: Write an 800-word essay (approximately three double-spaced pages) on the following early modern maps of Africa. Devote roughly half of your text to a discussion of one of the maps, and the other half comparing that map with the other two. They were produced in different times and different places and probably for different purposes. Each sought to show an audience how to see Africa: how it was shaped, who its people were, how they lived and governed themselves, and so on. And yet they also made other claims of knowledge, ones rooted more in their authors and their authors' contexts than in Africa itself. What can these maps tell us about Africa? What can these maps tell us about the early modern Atlantic World? 

Resist the urge to dismiss them as all being biased. They are, no doubt, but so are most sources. The real trick is to critically examine these texts so as to find as much useful information as possible. And what is useful information? Well, that depends on what question we're asking. If we're asking about the map's ability to convey accurate geographic information, then we head in one direction. If we're asking how the map tells more about the map makers and their societies, then that sends us in other directions. But if we think those questions are unrelated, then we may be missing a lot.

Here, as in your Forum entries, you will continue to practice the analysis of primary sources. Pay particular attention to the perspectives in each document. Just as historians have different interpretations of the same questions, so too did people in the past have different interpretations of their worlds. You can consider questions such as:

You can probably think of other general questions that will help you to think about the perspective in any source. 

Are you required to do any outside research? See the "Planning Tip" below the images of the maps.

Due Friday November 6th, 5 p.m. NEW: extended to Sun., Nov. 8 at the very end of the day

John Senex, Africa: corrected from the observations of the Royal Society at London and Paris (London, 1725). Source: Library of Congress.
Aaron Arrowsmith, Africa: to the committee and members of the British association discovering the interior parts of Africa this map is with their permission most respectfully inscribed. London: A. Arrowsmith, 1802. Source: Library of Congress.

Emanuel Bowen, A new & accurate map of Negroland and the adjacent countries (London,1747). 

Planning tip: in the weeks before this is due, we'll do lessons on European Expansion and Early Modern Africa, two topics that will both be useful for you in thinking about these maps and their construction. The story of these maps are very much related to their context in European expansion, Early Modern African politics, the slave trade, and the broader development of markets in the Atlantic World.  And no need for bibliographies, footnotes, etc - you're not doing any additional research (just looking at these maps). If you make direct use of the Newberry Library piece noted above, or materials from the course, just say so.

* * *

Assignment 3

Comparing historiographical interpretations
(due Friday, November 27th, 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9, at the end of the day)

So far, each of the assignment options has required you to focus your attention on a kind or type of source used by historians: the first option, Wikipedia articles, a kind of tertiary source; and the second option, digital reproductions of early modern maps, a kind of primary source. This third option focuses your attention on interpretations by historians, and it is thus about secondary sources.

In the lesson on the British Agricultural Revolution, we introduced you to historiographical thinking, and you will get to practice it in this assignment. When we talk about historiographical thinking, we mean the way that historians (and you) make sense of primary sources from the past in lectures, essays and books. This activity of making sense of sources from the past is an essential part of what historians do, since the past and sources that have survived from it do not have any clear and undisputed meaning on their own. Before they write histories, historians have to first decide on a subject, discover sources that can help answer questions about that subject, then choose which sources to focus on (since there are often too many) and how to analyze them. All of these actions shape the kinds of answers that historians develop to the questions about the past that they ask. And even if two historians ask many of the same questions and use many of the same sources to answer them, it is unlikely that they will come up with exactly the same answers, or shape those answers in the same way.

The reason for these apparent disagreements, and for the multiplicity of histories about the same subjects, is not that historians are biased. Sure, people have preconceptions and motivations that might shape their views of the world, and historians are no exception. As we've highlighted in the instructions for the map analysis and other feedback and advice in this course, reducing differences and disagreements to authorial "bias" is not helpful. You should avoid this simplistic view -- for this assignment, and in the course overall.

The disagreements are not a weakness or problem about historiography that should trouble us. Quite the contrary! Pay attention when historians disagree, because their competing views can help you see the same subjects or questions about the past from new perspectives. Think about historiographical differences and disagreements in these terms: Authors have to make choices when they write essays and books about history, since the past is far too vast and complicated to be summarized in any single account; therefore, we can and should think about each new, different and even competing historiographical interpretation as an attempt by the author to shed some new and important light on a "past" that might otherwise remain dark to us. This way of thinking about each historiographical interpretation as a new perspective on the past does not mean that all interpretations are equally good or important or strong. Some historians might propose ways of thinking about Jesuit history in New France that are incompatible with other histories of the subject. If you run across these kinds of disagreements, the best step that you can take is to try to better understand the disagreements. When you learn to do this well, you will be learning how to make better sense of other complex social, political, and historical issues.

Your task: For this assignment option, write an essay of about 800 words (approximately 3 double-spaced, typed pages) comparing the ways three of the historians below interpret the role of Jesuit missions to Natives in New France in the 17th century. Devote about half of your paper to a close analysis of the interpretation of one of the historians, and then use the remainder of your paper to compare that historian's work to the other two (with approximately equal attention to each). Your task is not to decide which historian is right or "the best." Your task, instead, is analyze as clearly as possible about what is distinctive about one scholar's historiographical views, and then to compare and contrast that scholar's views with two others.

Here is an important tip: Do NOT think about your essay's subject as though it were about early modern Jesuits. This is kinda, sorta, almost your subject. However, you should be clear with yourself and in your writing that your main subject is the ways that particular historians interpret the actions, motivations, beliefs, etc., of early modern Jesuits. What does Blackburn argue? Which primary sources does Seeman use, and how does he use them? How does McShea respond to the arguments of earlier historians? These are examples of just a few of the kinds of questions that you will be thinking about and trying to answer for this option. When you think in these kinds of terms, you will be practising historiographical thinking. You will be writing about historians' ideas about the past.

You will notice that the lesson on missionaries that rounds out Module 2 is the basis for this assignment. In that lesson you learn about the relationship between Jesuit missionaries and Indigenous peoples in New France. You should review that lesson, and the sources in it (including the primary sources), before you start writing your essay. In that lesson you either read a chapter on this subject by Carole Blackburn and Erik Seeman. By contrast, for this assignment you have a choice of three chapters from a list of four. One of these four choices will the the main focus of your essay, and you will compare that text with two others from the list.

The lesson on missionaries provides you with questions to help you think about the sources. But remember: Your purpose in this assignment is to write about the work of historians. This means that you have to turn all questions about primary sources into questions about how Blackburn, Clair, McShea, or Seeman would read, use, interpret, etc., those primary sources.

In your analysis you should be as specific as possible about what each of the authors argues about Jesuit-Indigenous relations, and how their interpretations compare and contrast with each other. The following list of questions are among the kinds of questions that you should think about as you plan your paper:You do not have to answer these questions mechanically when you write your paper. You might also think of and address some other questions, but these can help guide your preparation. You will probably not be able to answer all of these questions to the same degree for each text, but try as best you can to highlight the most important and significant features of each of the three authors' interpretations.

Many of the same guidelines and suggestions that applied to the previous two assignments apply to this one, as well. For example, you do not need to include a bibliography or footnotes, as long as you are always clear in your essay about which authors and titles you are writing. You may put references to pages in parentheses, for example. Nonetheless, if you cite additional sources, it is a good idea to list them in bibliographical form.

You also are not required to do extra research, although you may certainly do some background research on each historian or about subjects or terms that you might not understand. If you write about a historian's background (e.g., education, current position, or other publications), make sure you write about what you discover only if you think it is significant for making sense of the similarities or differences of the three historians' interpretations in the assigned texts. This is because your comparative analysis of the texts is what matters the most.

When you write about the historiography (i.e., the historians' texts), try to paraphrase the authors' ideas in your own words. However, you must put quotations in quotation marks and include a page number for them. Try to limit quotations to really, really important phrases or sentences. Avoid quoting long passages, and be sure to clearly introduce and explain the significance of the quotations you do use. You should also introduce and explain the significance of ideas that you paraphrase. If you are not sure of the difference between effective quotations and paraphrases, be sure to look it up.

Here are the four texts, from which you will choose three:

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