Digital History,  Native and Indigenous Studies

Digital mapping — re/mapping space to challenge the narrative

As much as guns and warships, maps have been the weapons of imperialism. Insofar as maps were used in colonial promotion, and lands claimed on paper before they were effectively occupied, maps anticipated empire. Surveyors marched alongside soldiers, initially mapping for reconnaissance, then for general information, and eventually as a tool of pacification, civilization, and exploitation in the defined colonies

— J.B. Harley 1988


Cartography has, historically, been an apparatus of the state to claim (Rohrer 2018), “[enclose], capture, and … procedurally conscript” (Byrd 2015) land and bodies to delineate territory.  These maps have outlined, categorized, and brought into coherence non-white populations with resource extraction at the heart of the process. To this end, it is often thought that indigenous peoples maintained a healthy distance from mapping as “maps have been the weapons of imperialism” (Harley 1988); however, indigenous peoples have utilized mapping as a method of reclaiming space and asserting sovereignty (Beamer 2014; Goeman 2013; Neitschmann 1995; Bawaka Country 2016; Peluso 1995) and directly challenging settler colonial narratives (Wolfe 1999, 2013; Veracini 2010, 2011; Smith 2012) that claim indigenous peoples have disappeared (O’Brien 2010). The reclaiming aspect of maps is invaluable, but they can also be used to directly confront, challenge, and put on full display deeply painful histories that are often forgotten or relegated to statistics of history.


Dr. Lyndall Ryan (Newcastle’s Centre for the History of Violence, The University of Newcastle Australia) and her team constructed the “Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930” map to fill an “under researched” lacuna in Australian scholarship where “there are gaps in our knowledge and inaccuracies masked by blank walls.” The published map displays unassuming dots and squares that represent deeply painful marks for Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples. As a part of the mythos of terra nullius, empty land, that colonizers projected onto Australia, to recognize these flashpoint moments represents a direct challenge to the “Australian national identity” (Moreton-Robinson 2015) and how the misrecognition of Aboriginal peoples bolsters whiteness in Australia.


The research team defined the purpose of their undertaking as the following: (1) identify the site of every known frontier massacre in Australia that can be verified with corroborating evidence; (2) devise a coherent methodology to interrogate the evidence of massacre; (3) identify the regions where frontier massacres were prevalent; and (4) estimate the number of frontier massacres and the number of casualties. The map was built with ESRI/ArcGIS. The map is fairly easily navigable with Australia, often shoved to the bottom left of maps in the so-called United States, front and center. The top of the webpage features a timeline that begins with 1780 and an unmarked 1930s; browsers can use their mouse to drag the arrows through the timeline and watch the yellow dots (Aboriginal peoples massacred) and blue squares (non-Aboriginal peoples massacred) fill the screen. To find out information about each of the indicators, you can click any unmarked dot/square and a pop-up menu displays a wealth of information gleaned from extensive archival research. The preliminary display shows locations, number killed, method of death, date of incident, and language family. If you click “Full Details…” it takes you to a street view page with a full read out of pertinent information including names, motives, sources, attack time, etc.

In a 2011 article, “Digital Maps are Giving Scholar the Historical Lay of the Land,” Mr. Bodenhamer is quoted by Cohen positing: “why is it that something developed here and not somewhere else, what is it about the context of this place?” This question bears a haunting tone when considering the ghosts of indigenous peoples that exist on the lands that people inhabit daily. For many, native/indigenous/Aboriginal peoples simply do not exist anymore. That is not a failing so much of the education system (or common sense) so much as a direct sign of success of the settler colonial agenda which envisions landscapes in which that is true. Dr. Ryan and her teams map geolocates (sans photographs of direct violence) sites of deep violence which can re-center indigenous peoples in a discussion of nationalism and belonging. The visual digital mapping not only “reveals … human history that otherwise we couldn’t possible know,” or rather, people would rather we did not know, it also creates spaces in which people can confront the legacies of pain and violence that exist in, and within, spaces both familiar and strange.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *