March 30, 2010
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:
Student geographer uncovers colonial past in San Salvador
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Talk about getting down and dirty. When tropical growth that obscured the walls and outbuildings of a plantation in San Salvador threatened his research, Chris Abbott, a Slippery Rock University environmental studies major, grabbed a machete and went to work.
"I spent three days hacking, crawling, bleeding and pushing GPS buttons," he said. "I cut a trail to the newly discovered slave quarters, delineated many more plantation boundaries and uncovered the original driveway to the oldest port on the island - and got poisonwood on my arms and feet," he said.
Abbott traveled to San Salvador over spring break to research spatial characteristics and land ownership on San Salvador from 1760 to1919 and is creating maps of the island based on his findings. Abbott, in collaboration with Jack Livingston, professor of geography, geology and the environment, has created a three-dimensional map of the Watling Castle Plantation region on the east side of the island, a focus area of his research.
His student-faculty research project aims to provide a better understanding of land-ownership trends during the slavery and post-colonial period, Abbott said. He is examining land ownership boundaries, plantation ruins, period roads and agriculture plots to determine changes in parcel size over the years. He is also studying agricultural practices and the effects of the abolition of slavery in 1832 on land division.
San Salvador is the island where Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the new world in 1492. Buccaneer George Watling built Watling's Castle in the 1700s. The ruins include a main house, kitchen building with a stove and fireplace, stonewalls and slave quarters.
"The colonial period was such a dynamic era in world history," Abbott said. "San Salvador's island history is survived by a one-year journal, and many present-day Bahamians still bear the last names of their ancestral masters. The puzzle has so many missing pieces. I guess the draw for me is threefold: geographic information system mapping, mystery and a machete."
Abbott said he conceived the project for SRU's "Field Studies" and "Oceanography" classes, which require independent, original and extensive research. When Livingston told him that large parts of the island were void of comprehensive stonewall mapping data he was off and running.
Abbott remotely sensed as many walls as possible from photo imagery using aerial photography and GoogleEarth, and then digitalized them into a new database totaling 55,000 meters of new walls. Last spring, he traveled to San Salvador to uncover some of the walls.
"That's when I realized this moisture negative climate has created vegetation that likes blood - mine," he said. "It has to be some of the most vicious scrubland on the planet. Most of it is 10 feet tall with spines and thorns."
Abbott said the land could handle the cotton culture of farming for about 30 years after San Salvador abolished slavery. Without slave labor, many of the plantation elites returned to the United States, leaving the plantations to be run by former slaves. "After a period of sharecropping, the plantations fell into disrepair and ruin," he said.
Back in the SRU lab, Abbott has been digitizing the data to create new maps of the island. "This extends our understanding into the effects of the American Revolution, the Caribbean colonial period and provides insight into the socio-economic relationships of the colonial period."
Livingston said the research attempts to answer how landscape and land ownership boundaries change because of changing human socio-economic factors. Abbott has used geographic information systems, global positioning systems, remote sensing and aerial photography to answer these questions.
"What this is doing is bringing our international experiences together with what he's doing in the classroom to answers a very novel question: Can we literally reconstruct the landscape?" Livingston said.
He said Abbott has grown through the research. "He's learned how to do fieldwork. He's literally running around in the scrub forest finding walls that are buried under tropical growth. He is creating a map database of the island with a huge quantity of information."
Abbott will present his findings during SRU's Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity April 8-9.
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