Maps dating back to 16th century donated to York

One of the maps in the collection

Maps have a fascination that brings people together in a common admiration of their technical and artistic quality, and for the information that can be revealed by them through careful analysis, says geography Professor Emeritus William Found, a Fellow of York’s Centre for Research on Latin America & the Caribbean (CERLAC).

Found, of the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, would know. He has been collecting maps for years. In fact, he donated a valuable One of the maps in the collectioncollection of 141 historical maps and prints to the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections of York University, making them available to an even larger audience.

One of the maps in the collection

“I’ve introduced copies of the maps to hundreds of York undergraduates and graduates over many years, and it’s been exciting to see them gradually learn how to interpret what they see, and to reach new understandings about the history and development of different Caribbean locations,” he says.

“Their interests have included the natural environment and its management, slavery during the colonial period, resource extraction, early developments in tourism and the technical aspects of map creation. The maps present new kinds of evidence for these and many other research problems, and it’s very satisfying to see students combine this evidence with other sources to better understand the region and its people.”

The collection that now resides at the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections includes facsimiles, photographic copies and photocopies of original maps and prints. Accompanying the collection are detailed descriptions of each map or print, a thumbnail image and sources where researchers can obtain their own personal copies. The original maps and prints date as William Foundfar back as the 16th century.

William Found

“I first became aware of the potential importance of historical Caribbean maps when, as a young PhD student, I lived and conducted research in Jamaica,” says Found. At that time, he was investigating land-reform projects.

“I’d often see old property maps in the ministry office, maps dating back to the 18th century. My interest was really piqued in 1980, when Professor Jane Couchman of York gave me my first personal copy of an historical map – a map of Jamaica dating from about 1700. I was amazed at the variety and detail of the items depicted on the map, and realized that this and similar documents could be research tools of great importance. I’ve been collecting such maps ever since.”

Collecting the maps has taken Found to dozens of libraries and research centres all over the world, some in different Caribbean islands and many in Europe and North America. “My predominant memory of collecting maps in all of these locations is the helpful enthusiasm of local experts and interested amateurs who can recognize the immense value of the documents they care for,” he says.

The collection contains information on the British, Danish, Dutch, French, Spanish and Swedish Caribbean colonies. The collection largely comprises single maps and charts of one island – for example, Antigua, Cuba or Martinique – but also includes several surveys undertaken in the slavery period, such as “A Plan of Redberry Plantation” (1803) located in the parish of Clarendon in Jamaica. Several maps and prints depict more than one island. For example, “Hispaniolae, Cubae, Aliarumque Insularum Circumiacientium, Delineatio” (1598) is considered to be one of the earliest maps depicting the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico). The collection also boasts engravings that capture marine life, port towns and the unique topography of the Caribbean world. The historical collection could prove an invaluable resource for the York University community and visiting researchers.

Most rewarding for Found in his cartographic life has been watching students of Caribbean background make new discoveries about their homelands through exposure to maps. He cites as an example his recent experience with a guest scholar at York, a young doctor from Belize, of Garifuna ancestry (of native Carib and African background, perhaps the only remaining descendants of the original inhabitants of islands in the Eastern Caribbean). The Garifuna were banished to Central America by the British in the 1790s, but some Garifuna have remembered aspects of their original culture, including their language.

“The woman visiting York found out about the collection of historical Caribbean maps, and I introduced her to a detailed map of St. Vincent (homeland of the Garifuna), made in 1775,” said Found. “She almost burst into tears as she saw the map place names – Anglicized versions of names from the original Carib language. These were names immortalized in Garifuna songs and poems, still popular in Belize. Imagine how she felt seeing, for the first time, direct evidence of the places that her ancestors were forced to leave over two centuries ago.”

It has also been very rewarding for Found to take copies of the historical maps to the Caribbean to show them to local people unfamiliar with them, and to see if one can still find features depicted on early maps. “I remember taking an early map to Antigua, and asking a local taxi driver to see if we could find the remnants of a particular plantation complex. We spent hours travelling back roads that are seldom used, left the car to walk through scrub land, and eventually came over a hill to find the crumbling remains of what used to be a major sugarcane plantation – complete with several buildings, two ruined windmills, and a huge underground cistern for storing rainwater. The driver had never seen the site, and was so inspired that he subsequently started a ‘heritage tour’ for people who wanted to see remnants of early life in Antigua.”

Found is particularly grateful for the enthusiasm and professionalism of York’s map librarians (particularly Trudy Bodak and Dana Craig), who helped him to put together and document the collection. “I feel that I’ve just revealed the tip of an iceberg, as collecting and studying the maps has been such a highly rewarding effort – for research, for teaching and for collaborative work with Caribbean communities. I still have many more maps to add in a second part of the York Library collection, but that must await further documentation”.

For more information on the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, click here.

For more information, check out Found’s report on “A Research Collection of Historical Maps and Prints of the Caribbean Islands“, available on York University’s digital library of research outputs, YorkSpace.