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Claiming Space, Or: The Text as a “Map”

Staying in the language of mapping, I can say that I took quite a bunch of detours until I arrived at the idea I finally realized for this week’s assignment. Thinking about Benito Cereno in connection with maps reminded me of how I first learned about slavery and colonialism in high school: by being introduced to maps displaying the so-called “triangular trade”:

These maps and their textual descriptions displayed slavery as an historical fact that can be displayed and understood by placing an arrow on a map, from the African continent to the Americas, the slaves being part of the “cargo” on ships following this line. It was not only until years later within my undergrad studies that I read more about how intrinsically linked the act of mapping has often been with colonialism, how the creation of maps has been used not only to display, but to create colonial facts and exercise power. And even though the display of the “triangular trade” is not the same as dividing a continent into actual zones in which different colonial powers rule, staying within this image helped me to think about mapping Benito Cereno. I decided to look at the novella as a form of adding a story to the objectivity of those forms of display—but whose story?

The question we decided to ask ourselves as a group was what is missing from Melville’s depiction in Benito Cereno. We agreed on applying this question as the overarching theme to our mapping projects. I therefore decided to look for accounts written by (former) enslaved people themselves—because their perspectives and testimonies are missing from Melville’s novella, and from an understanding of slavery as a mere part of the colonial “triangular trade”.

My search took me to the shelf in the library on which various (anthologies of) so-called slave narratives can be found:

I decided to look for reports that talk about what happened in places that are similar to the ones Melville chose as the setting of Benito Cereno: the coast, the sea, the ship. I soon found the testimony of Olaudah Equiano/Gustavus Vassa (ca. 1745-1797), who was enslaved and kidnapped as a child in today’s Nigeria, and who became an abolition activist later in his life. After he had been kidnapped, he was taken to the Carribean and subsequently to Virginia. In his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano (1789), he describes what he had to endure on the ship that brought him to Barbados.

My first idea then was to create a map on which the arrow in “the south” of the “triangular trade”, displaying slaves being brought from the African to the American continent, is annotated with Melville’s story which is then again annotated with accounts from Equiano/Vassa. I looked into the possibilities Googlemaps, Neatline and Story Maps offer, and I found that all three applications didn’t provide the means I would need in order to visualize this twofold annotation process, or at least that I could not figure out how to use them to do so in the amount of time I had to complete this project.

Thanks to Raven’s and Lisa’s (who was my partner in annotating the first part of Benito Cereno) comments within conversations about the issues I encountered and Lisa’s reference to the notion that maps “don’t only depict space, they claim it”, I decided to interpret Melville’s text as a sort of map on which I would locate parts of Equiano’s/Vassa’s autobiography.

As Lisa has put it in her blogpost, I took the map as a “metaphor–whether a means of geolocation, of representing history, or conferring identity, or of claiming some kind of physical, psychological, political, aesthetic, or linguistic space, among many possibilities”.

In order to make an actual slave narrative visible and claim it’s space within Melville’s story, I therefore searched for passages within The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano which correspond with passages from the first section of Benito Cereno and added them to Melville’s novella via hypothes.is. Additionally, in order to take my idea one step further, I copied Benito Cereno to a Google document and directly inserted parts of Euqiano’s/Vassa’s account into the story, using a different font in order to make the two different voices not only readable but also visible. My idea behind this was to not merely annotate Benito Cereno with The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano, but to make the latter an integral part of the former, a part one cannot over-read by ignoring the annotations.

Admittedly, I had to stretch the idea and the concept of “mapping” quite far in order to pursue this idea and make it part of a “mapping”-process, but at least to me this was a very informative process, even though I would consider the result/product of it still very much a “work” or even still a thought in progress.

Special thanks to Lisa and Raven who gave me very helpful advise within my thinking about this task.

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