The Atlantic

I have been thinking a lot more about the ocean recently. Maybe it’s because this Newfoundland spring has brought about a particularly striking seascape.


View from Signal Hill, St. John’s. April 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler

Earlier in the season, harbors were packed with ice, and although visually it was quite beautiful, it certainly made it difficult (and sometimes, impossible) for boats to come and go.



Pack ice in Torbay. April 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler.

And now, icebergs are ‘in season’. Those ‘bergy bits,’ which are the inspiration for this ‘Theory Thursday’ blog series, draw out locals and tourists alike. Those glacial giants are picture perfect, but of course there is more to them than meets the eye. Well, there is 90% that we don’t usually see, if we want to put a number on its underwater mass. But what about the rest of the iceberg’s story? What was its journey? How did the crashing of waves work to carve each berg’s unique shape? What of the glaciers from which they came?

What else can we learn when we think more about the water? About the movement, the current that brought these bergy bits to our harbors? How does the ocean influence the journey?



Icebergs near the Quidi Vidi “Gut” a few years ago. April 2012. Photo: Lesley Butler.

While I touched on ideas of water briefly in my post on the movie Moonlight, I would like to open up the theoretical dimensions of the ocean a little bit more here.

Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds (2006) has been particularly eye opening for her take on the Atlantic Ocean through a black geographic perspective (thanks, Sonja, for the recommendation!).

Referring to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, McKittrick says:

 I want to read The Black Atlantic, and the black Atlantic, differently: as an ‘imbrication of material and metaphorical space,’ in part because the text is so noticeably underscored by a very important black geography, the Atlantic Ocean, through which the production of space can be imagined on diasporic terms …

I suggest that if The Black Atlantic is also read through the material sites that hold together and anchor the text – the middle passage, the Atlantic Ocean, black travelers in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, the slave ship, the plantation, shared outernational musics, fictional and autobiographical geographies, nationalisms – it clarifies that there are genealogical connections between dispossession, transparent space, and black subjectivities. Historical and contemporary black geographies surface and centralize the notion that black diaspora populations have told and are telling how their surroundings have shaped their lives (xxi).

So often, the “naturalization of identity and place” leaves experiences of diasporic populations out of geographic conversations. How then, can we change the conversation?

Ultimately, McKittrick aims to reaffirm that “black Atlantic cultures have always had an intimate relationship with geography” (xxi). She challenges the notion of the Atlantic Ocean purely as a metaphor for “placelessness” and “vanishing histories,” rendering black writers as “ungeographic.” Instead, she emphasizes the material significance of physical geographies on black lives (xxi).

McKittrick pushes our perceptions of space and place further. What happens when we bring an element of fluidity to our notions of ‘space’ and ‘place’? What if we really consider the physical of the so-called ‘placeless’, or if we actually apply geography to the so-called ‘ungeographic’? How might we see diasporic differences, differently? Can we somehow reconcile the metaphoric with the material?

When we look to the water, what else can we learn? Or better yet, how else can we learn?

Geographic solutions to difference and political crises (such as segregation, imprisonment, ghettoization, genocide, the sexual-racial division of labor, surveillance, as well as social theories that “add on” a subaltern body) are undermined when difference is taken seriously, when a sense of place does not neatly correspond with traditional geographies, when transparent, stable political categories are disrupted by places unbound, and all sorts of humans open up different, less familiar, alterable geographic stories (McKittrick 34-35).



McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.


Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017.


Under the Deep Blue of Moonlight

If, like me, you are interested in film, then you have probably already seen Moonlight. If you haven’t, then I suspect you will be hearing a lot more about it in the near future – and not only during awards season, but in years to come.

Moonlight chronicles the life of a young boy named Chiron (nicknamed “Little” and “Black” at different points in his life) as he grows up in a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in Miami. In three chapters – from childhood, adolescence, and finally, adulthood – we see Chiron tread the murky waters of identity and isolation, navigating his differences as he tries to find his place in the world.

Visually stunning and poignantly poetic, Moonlight already has a few things to be proud of, including: box office success, top ratings, and several awards.

Some say it is a film of many ‘firsts‘: The first Black filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture (Barry Jenkins), the first Academy Award nomination of a Black woman for film editing (Joi McMillon), and some say, it could be the first ‘LGBTQ’ film to win Best Picture, not to mention a ‘Black LGBTQ’ film.

While these are all impressive achievements and certainly indicate a step in the right direction for (American) award ceremonies (re: the #OscarsSoWhite outrage just last year), I do not wish to dwell too much on these formal declarations of excellence, but rather on the cinematic artistry and social underpinnings that are really at the heart of Moonlight’s achievement.

Moonlight is more than a “queer love story” or a well-done “black movie,” as it has been labeled in headlines and award season chatter — though it is also very much a well-done black, queer love story …

“The thing that scares me is that people will try to use that to put it in this corner, because we can’t consider it ‘a great story.’ We have to consider it ‘this kind of great story” (McCraney quoted in Anderson, “L.A. Times”)

Moonlight was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play titled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

This title also works its way into the film’s dialogue, spoken by a drug dealer turned father figure to young Chiron, or “Little,” as he is called during this chapter of his life. It was a line that stuck with me long after I left the theatre.

In moonlight black boys look blue.

It’s probably under the moonlight that we see that black boys can be blue, can be sad and sullen and intimate … It’s under starlight that we see them differently, or that we get the chance to.

Because we rarely see ourselves in those hues or under that gauze. We see ourselves in the harsh police light or the amber of street lights, but what is it when the reflection of the sun in the moon is sitting on these bodies. What beauty can we see? (McCraney in “L.A. Times”)

Bodies under light. Bodies under watchful eyes.

The body is the place of captivity (Brand 35).

In thinking of bodies, I think again to Dionne Brand, who says, “the Black body is one of the most regulated bodies in the Diaspora” (37).

How then, does moonlight affect this bodily captivity? How does it reject regulation?

As McCraney argues, Black boys are used to seeing themselves under the flashing lights of cop cars, or under the urban artificiality of street lights. But what of the deep, natural, blue of moonlight? Can this help ‘denaturalize’ the overregulation of Black bodies?

Under moonlight, bodies change. Beings change.

In the film, some of Chiron’s most pivotal moments occur under moonlight. In a way, it is when Chiron is under that cloak of blue that he really starts to accept himself. He can begin to embrace his differences while defying other people’s definitions and expectations of who he should be.

Whether he is “Little,” “Black,” or “Chiron,” under the moonlight, he can just be.

This self which is unobservable is a mystery. It is imprisoned in the observed. It is constantly struggling to wrest itself from the warp of its public ownerships. Its own language is plain yet secret. Rather, obscured (Brand 51).

What I also noticed, however, was that where there was moonlight, there was often water. The beach, for one, becomes a particularly significant setting for Chiron’s personal growth.

The beach: where water meets land, and where man is caught somewhere in between. Between the rolling waves and the sinking sand, it is a transformative space – between beginnings and endings, there are becomings.

In a way, moonlight reflects most strongly alongside bodies of water. Blues become bluest between sky and water, away from the neon lights of urban life.

And blue, too, are bodies by water.

I’m thinking of one particular shot where we see “Little” standing alone, shirtless, staring out into the water. The blue of the moon reaches from the sky, tinting the waves as they roll forwards and backwards, and finally casting its cerulean colour across Chiron’s bare shoulders.


“Little” (Alex Hibbert) in Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016

The sea would forever be larger than me. My eyes hit only its waist. I saw a wave’s belly looking backwards. I saw froth rolling toward my feet as the sea moved into my spot on the beach. It always came in a jagged circle, frothing and steaming. It reduced all life to unimportant random meaning. Only we were changing and struggling, living as if everything was urgent, feeling – the ocean was bigger than feeling (Brand 11-12).

Against the sea, one life might seem small, perhaps powerless, in comparison. But when you see “Little” standing along the shore, he is not diminished.

Although the sea is at once threatening, it is also transformative. It holds potential – both positive and negative. Caught between the sand and the waves, Chiron acknowledges the formidable nature of the sea.

Formidable, but not insurmountable.

Chiron’s place in the world might not be clear – caught between acceptance and isolation, between protection and persecution, between conformity and conflict. But one’s life is never truly little, even against a seemingly endless saltwater horizion. What is one’s life, if not for one’s becomings? There is no destination without a journey. And in Moonlight, the journey becomes the destination (Brand 203).

Water is the first thing in my imagination. Over the reaches of the eyes at Guaya when I was a little girl, I knew that there was still more water. All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water (Brand 6).

Under the deep blue of moonlight, we see bodies differently.

We see beauty.

Or more importantly, under moonlight, we get the chance to.



Anderson, Tre’vell. “Before the buzz began on ‘Moonlight,’ the coming-of-age story           started with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.” Los Angeles Times,

Berman, Eliza. “Moonlight Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on the Bittersweet Feeling of Being a First.” Time,

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017

The Islander

The Islander

I am a Newfoundlander, born and bred.

Or at least that’s how the song, “The Islander” goes. (Written by Bruce Moss, this song was made popular by The Navigators and Shanneyganock. Check it out if you can!)

Often featured at kitchen parties, weddings, and festivals – this popular ditty is something that many Newfoundlanders have grown up listening to. And with the catchy, gritty, and chant-like tune, it is easy enough to get swept up by its nostalgic, nationalistic sentiment.

When I moved away from Newfoundland and found myself surprisingly homesick (see my first blog post), I sought out the music that reminded me of home, and that included “The Islander”.

However, with my newfound ‘expat identity’, I was starting to defamiliarize and deconstruct my own ‘Newfoundland identity’.

I actually listened to and processed the lyrics in the song: “I’m a Newfoundlander born and bred and I’ll be one till I die.”

For the first time, the words made me cringe rather than swell with pride.

The words “born and bred” just felt so calculated and restrictive to me. It is as if to say your level of Newfoundland identity is directly linked to how long your ancestral line has been confined to the shores of the island.

Isn’t there more to being a Newfoundlander than just being born on this island?

Susan Tilley has written extensively about being a Newfoundlander and the often “troubling” and “complicated” process of identity making (127). Citing her own experiences as a Newfoundlander living away from the island, she says, “I claim, as many other Newfoundlanders do, an identity that evolves out of hard-felt connections to the concrete, material land and sea, to the island. I make claims to a home that is a fixed geographical space, a home that is solid, touchable, and able to be seen” (128).

She compares this personal experience of home with James’ (2005: 248) more theoretical interpretation, which argues it “is not a fixed entity, space, or place with boundaries and/or borders, but is a fluid construction that is informed and mediated by an individual’s life-stage, context, and situation” (in Tilley 128).

On the topic of Newfoundland nationalism Shane O’Dea (in Bowering Delisle, 2013) states: “over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as more people came to be permanent inhabitants and, more importantly, descendants of permanent inhabitants, the sense of person-linked-to-place which is the essential for nationalism, grew into being” (18).

At the same time, this relationship between identity and place is interrogated further by Jennifer Bowering Delisle (2008) as she argues: “Newfoundland identity is not dependent merely upon place of residence, but is rather a more complex affiliation involving nationalism, genealogical kinship, cultural heritage, collective memory, and feelings of marginalization in relationship to other Canadian identities” (68).

We can see from such discourse that there is an ongoing fluctuation between the fixed and the fluid on our sense of identity. While the connection to the land and borders undoubtedly have an influence on the personal experience of Newfoundland identity, we cannot forget the driving forces of more social and political forces such as nationalism and collective memory.

We can even see a similar dissonance between the ‘fixed’ and ‘fluid’ experiences of Newfoundland identity in our title song. From the opening lines, it is claimed that being a Newfoundlander is something you are born into, but at the same time, it is also a state of mind – one that is as “free” as the wind and the waves.

The song also tackles geographical and political borders as grounds for Newfoundland pride:

“In Montreal, the Frenchmen say that they own Labrador,
Including Indian Harbour where me father fished before;
But if they want to fight for her, I’ll surely take a stand,
And they’ll regret the day they tried to take our Newfoundland” (Moss, 1982)

Although the song is titled, “The Islander,” and thus confining such a ‘provincial identity’ to the island portion of Newfoundland and Labrador, there is still a staunch political statement about the geographical and political ownership of the land of Labrador. Furthermore, designating a ‘Newfoundlander’ as purely an islander, leaves Labrador out of the picture altogether – that is until it comes to claiming stakes to the land.

The politics behind the boundaries between Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec are beyond the scope of this particular blog post, but it does make me think about the ownership of land as a basis of nationalism and subsequent identity formation.

For a song making claims of ancestry and land as grounds for provincial pride, I would feel amiss if I did not point out the fact that the majority who claim to be Newfoundlanders, “born and bred,” are descendants of European settlers. What about the people that were truly indigenous to this island? Where do the Beothuk and other indigenous groups stand in the experience and expression of Newfoundland identity?

Although individuals may feel as though their identity is deeply rooted in the physical landscape, this does not mean that it is completely fixed and devoid of political meaning. The very fact that we can call a land our ‘home’ is political in itself.

As an undergraduate student here in St. John’s, I volunteered as an English as a Second Language conversation partner. When I was just starting out, I read through some of the resources for international students and came across a section on Newfoundland culture. It praised Newfoundlanders as being friendly, but immediately warned that they have a tendency to be cliquish when it comes to welcoming newcomers into their peer groups. I was disappointed to read this – and not because it was untrue.

We have a tendency to immediately designate non-Newfoundlanders living in Newfoundland as “come-from-aways,” and to label non-Newfoundlander Canadians as “mainlanders”. It would seem that ‘our’ islander identity creates a kind of knee-jerk reaction to consistently differentiate ourselves from anybody not originally from this island.

Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves: what really makes a Newfoundlander? Is it how we sound? How we look? Is it in our blood, as “The Islander” proudly claims? And at what point can one become a Newfoundlander, if at all?

Clearly, what constitutes a “Newfoundlander” is becoming increasingly complex. Or maybe it has always been complex, and only now are we beginning to see through the clouds of nostalgia and sift through our muddied past.


Bowering Delisle, Jennifer. The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Out-Migration. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013.

Bowering Delisle, Jennifer. “A Newfoundland Diaspora?: Moving through Ethnicity and Whiteness.” Canadian Literature 196 (2008): 64-81.

James, C.E., ed. Experiencing Difference. Halifax: Fernwood Press, 2000.

Moss, Bruce. “The Islander.” Quay Records, 1982.

Tilley, Susan. “Re-Searching Ties to Home: ‘Troubling’ Notions of Identity.” Despite This Loss: Essays on Culture, Memory and Identity in Newfoundland and Labrador. Eds. Ursula A. Kelly and Elizabeth Yeoman. St. John’s: ISER Books, 2010. 127-136.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2016

and just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer

and just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer

[caution: image-rich post ahead!]

Middelburg, the capital city of Zeeland located on the southwestern island of Walcheren, seduced me from the moment I stepped off the train in 2014. It didn’t matter that it was grey and rainy. It didn’t matter that my hotel room felt a bit like a cheap remake of a late nineteenth-century boudoir (the staff were lovely, it was clean, and the breakfast was lovely, I should add). What mattered was that Middleburg drew me in. It enticed me. It beckoned. It puts its arm around me and said, “Come with me and let me whisper some secrets into your ear.”


I was there for only three days, to spend time with the archives of the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie, a commodity-trading company turned slave-trading company active in the eighteenth century. And so I spent most of my days indoors at the Zeeuws Archief, handling the most traditional of archival materials: historical documents that outlined the inner workings of the slave trade. But before the archives opened, and after they closed, I explored the streets of this city of 48,000, eagerly following its seductive call….

When I think of archives, I think of paper documents; that is, I think of text and image and of the stories they transmit. But recently I’ve been considering archives of a very different sort. In early June 2016, I travelled back to Middelburg. This time I wasn’t there to focus on the paper documents (which are no longer accessible since the Zeeuws Archief digitized them all); I was there to hone in on the city and its stories.

Building on my visceral response to this place in 2014, I wanted my body to fully experience and understand this space. I wanted to consider the archives of space and place and how they interacted. What could town planning reveal? How might cobbled streets work to shape ways of knowing? What of the sound and feel of wooden shoes on cobblestones? What could I learn from the kinds of house-naming patterns? What could I glean from the distances between properties? Or the sizes of streets?

Further, what could I learn about the way that the slave trade and in relation to this, products from the Caribbean, shaped the not only the economic fortunes of the inhabitants of this place, but also its landscape: What of the offices? What of the homes with names that hearkened to Caribbean holdings? What of the vast storehouses into which products like sugar, coffee, and cocoa beans were loaded? What of the ever-increasing number of cocoa mills in town?

I needed to walk this place. I needed to feel it in my bones, my muscles, my tendons. I needed to feel the air, to smell it, to taste it. And to be honest, I needed to be seduced again.

And so I left my B&B in the morning and allowed my feet to take me where they felt like going. I turned right and then left and then wandered down an alleyway that caught my fancy….

And just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer.


the Kuiperspoort in the morning fog. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Looking the other way down the Kuiperspoort. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Later in the day when the fog lifted. Just because I had to go back and be there again. Photo: Sonja Boon

This is the Kuiperspoort, a group of sixteenth-century buildings that used to house the Coopers’ guild. Today, part of this row of buildings houses an art school and the Zeeuws Muziekschool. As I listened to students practicing, my body relaxed into familiar territory. This, I thought, I know.

And then I walked some more. And some more. I walked for eight hours straight. I listened to the town. I smelled it. I felt it underfoot. I listened for the whispers of ghosts. I mapped it into my body.

The city told me about weather, and about the damp that seeps through Middelburg. The cobbled stones are mossy, green. So, too is stonework.


Oosterkerk, back entrance. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


The fog didn’t lift until well into the morning, and while to a certain extent this felt familiar – June is, after all, fog season in St. John’s – it lasted longer, and instead of fog fingers moving in and out of the harbour, this was a damp but light fog that settled over the whole town, making it almost like a dreamspace – eerily quiet and never quite in focus.

Sound echoes in strange ways in the fog. The church bells ring on the quarter hour (pop-like songs, mostly, and played on a 50-year old carillon in a tower rebuilt after the war, so very different from what seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Middelburgers would have heard, but the acoustics would have been very similar). I listened to echoes just out of sync but still remarkably resonant.

The city told me about the relationships between bodies and spaces. People were – and still are – close together. Many of the streets in the oldest parts of the town are narrow. This isn’t necessarily unusual for old European towns (and is certainly not unusual for The Netherlands), but Middelburg seems to have more than its fair share of streets that are really nothing more than glorified walking paths. There’s no way a car could even go through, let alone park. These are streets where your business was everyone’s business; privacy is a dream. The houses – and the people in them – are on top of each other.



And, while today, the city presents itself as a gracious, genteel place with a busy weekend marketplace with lots of cafés, it would have felt quite different went it was a busy town organized around maritime trade (including privateering, piracy, and the slave trade). The Dutch East India Company (VOC) and West India Company (WIC) both had offices here, as did – later – the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC), and these companies employed many locals in a range of roles. So, too, would there have been local merchants, whose goods provisioned the ships, and seamen. Indeed, the MCC collection at the Zeeuws Archief gives insight into just how long the tentacles of these trading companies were. Middelburg would have been a bustling, busy, market-driven place.


VOC logo on a harbour front building that was once….

Along the grachten – or canals – there are grand houses that speak to the immense wealth in this area (especially during the seventeenth century). The houses rise, stately, three and even four storeys high.

And they are not shallow houses, but deep. Indeed, my own bed and breakfast, near the Dam, is a spacious place with stairs that go up and up and up and up past the family’s living quarters until you reach the top two B&B rooms, and even these are not fully in the attic area. These houses were built to make an impression, and an impression I’m sure they made.



So, too, did I get a bit of insight into the imaginative engagement with space through house-naming practices. House-naming was common in the era before house numbers, but fell out of fashion in the nineteenth century as numbers took over. But dedicated volunteers and researchers – in a project entitled “Huisnamen en documentatie van huizen in Middelburg” – have done much to revive the original names, and now many houses carry both a number and a name. These names, part of the material history of this place, can give us a bit of insight into the way that people thought, what they valued, and how their imaginations shaped their understandings of place and space. Looking for house names quickly became a game, and I found myself taking photo after photo after photo after photo, and wondering how and why certain names were chosen and how they related to the individuals who lived there, and to the houses themselves.

It would take a whole research project to work all of this out at a detailed level, but a few patterns emerged during my short visit.

First, real or fictional animals were a common theme – the city abounds with lions, chickens, cats and roosters.


The black cat.


The white turtledove


The turkey


The white rooster


On the left, The Playing Lion. On the right, The Skipper’s House



I even encountered a phoenix…



and a rooster on a horse!



So, too, did naming practices reference exotica: names recall Persia, Constantinople, pomegranate. And, of course, house names reference the slave trade and Zeeland’s economic interests overseas: “De Bogt Van Guinee” references the African Gold Coast. “Demerarij,” meanwhile, brings to mind Demerara and the cane sugar harvested there.



Some names are humorous. Thus, Groote Clocke house is right across the street from Kleyne Clocke house.

Other names are descriptive: the “house on the Spui Bridge,” for example, is – unsurprisingly – next to what was formerly a bridge.

One name, meanwhile, returned me right back to the world of eighteenth-century music.


While “Het Misverstand” – “The Misunderstanding” – could link me back to the seventeenth-century Carte de Tendre, my brain more immediately dropped into a musical frame of mind: gallant eighteenth-century French character pieces designed to flatter and tease the ear. I played many of these during my years as a professional early musician, and flatter my ears they definitely did.

Finally, the town’s buildings told me about the ubiquity of the slave trade in this part of Holland. The town’s core is littered with buildings directly linked to the various trading companies engaged in the transatlantic trade in commodities and humans: the WIC had offices here, as did the VOC. So, too, was the MCC – whose archives are listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register due to the thoroughness of their extant records – based here. Pakhuizen – storehouses – are still easy to locate.




Embedded above the door of the big storehouse above.



There is also physical evidence of the secondary industries that flourished as a result of these trading companies’ work. In the eighteenth century, Zeeland became known for its chocolate, and Middelburg proper had 12 cocoa mills processing Caribbean cocoa beans. While these mills have now disappeared, their stories remain in the landscape. It would be interesting to track down the addresses of other businesses whose fortunes were shaped by the slave trade: bakers, coopers, smiths, liquor merchants, textile merchants, and more.

By walking the town, I can get a sense of the distance between places. I can also think about smell and how it travelled in this town: what did a cocoa milling operation smell like, I wonder, and how did it operate? I can think about how sound travelled, and about the impossibility of a silent arrival on cobblestones. And I can think of a life shaped by the workings of the sea, on the one hand, and the regular tolling of the church bells on the other.

So, too, can I get a sense of the old harbour through which ships had to pass on their journeys out.


“Gezicht vanaf de Punt op de haven van Middelburg,” Jan Luyken, Johannes Meertens, Abraham van Someren, 1696. Illustratie uit: Smallegange, Mattheus. Nieuwe cronyk van Zeeland, eerste deel. Amsterdam en Middelburg: Abraham van Someren en Johannes Meertens, 1696. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum. Rijksstudio.


Water – the rivers, the sea – remains an important part of Middelburg’s identity. The Saturday after I arrived was Watersportdag and the old harbour area – right next to the original VOC office building – was busy with activity, with people of all ages enjoying themselves on the water. Dutch beer tent music (or at least that’s what I call it!) blared from speakers and smoked fish was on sale.


Poems on building walls, with a large number of them in some way about the sea.


On the surface, Middelburg is a town that appears to exist outside of – or beyond – time. Consider, for example, this 1746 print of the Oosterkerk.


“Gezicht op de Oostkerk te Middelburg,” Jan Caspar Philips, Isaak Tirion, Staten van Holland en West-Friesland, 1746. Prent ook gebruikt als illustratie in: Boddaert, Pieter, e.a., Tegenwoordige staat der Vereenigde Nederlanden; negende deel, behelzende eene beschryving van Zeeland. Amsterdam: Isaak Tirion, 1751. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum. Rijksstudio.


Now consider my own rendition (taken at closer range).


Apart from the people in eighteenth-century dress in the print and the cars and streetlamp in my photo, this view has not changed in over 250 years. Given that the church was built in the mid-seventeenth century (and that its construction had required the demolition of seventeen houses), this neighbourhood was already well established by the mid-eighteenth century. What was it like to live in a town that had looked (virtually) the same for a century? And what might it mean for Middelburgers today that their vistas are almost exactly the same vistas seen and experienced by all those who have walked these streets over the last 350 years?

Middelburg has over 1100 registered heritage structures (take note, City of St. John’s). But this seemingly timeless city also carries its secrets. Bombed extensively during the Second World War, Middelburg had to rebuild much of its historic centre. These photos  show the extent of the devastation. But Middelburg rebuilt itself, and it followed the original plans so closely that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference.

The magnificent abbey, home to the Zeeuws Museum as well as other regional offices, was substantially damaged; the restoration is indistinguishable from the original.


Abdij van Middelburg. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (, via Wikimedia Commons


Abdij, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Abdij, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Abdij in the rain, at the entrance to the Zeeuws Museum. Photo: Sonja Boon.n


The St. Joris Doelen, just next to the Abbey, was also almost fully destroyed.


St. Joris Doelen, Middelburg. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, it masquerades – at least to outsiders – as a gracious, late sixteenth-century structure, complete with its construction date. But as the immediate post-war photos reveal, its building history is much more complex.


St. Joris Doelen in the sun, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


St. Joris Doelen in the rain, 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

Middelburg is not, therefore, the timeless, untouched place it seems to be. Its façade, although seductive, is deceptive. There are many, many stories behind the varnished beauty of the Vermeer painting of the city.

After two days of walking and thinking and writing, I know more about this city and its stories. I would have to stay much longer to find all of its nooks and crannies. But I can better situate my conventional archival materials; I know how these texts and images fit into the bigger picture. I can build connections between the various merchants commissioned to provision ships. I can imagine how people lived in relation to one another, and how they moved through this town – from the squares, to the churches, and down the narrow streets. I can begin to envision the shape of the slave trade in this place.

Middelburg continues to bewitch; it continues to seduce. And like an eager suitor, I welcome the seduction.


(c) Sonja Boon, 2016  sboon @

Across the Pond

When I was in my final year of my undergrad, many of my friends had already moved away from Newfoundland, which is a common phenomenon among twenty-somethings pursuing work or postsecondary education. Logging on to my Facebook page, I would often see these people sharing pictures, articles or videos about how charming Newfoundland is. It was almost comical how many people changed their cover photo to images of St. John’s harbour in particular. I was convinced that this nostalgic display of Newfoundland was merely fueled by homesickness and a desire to show off to non-Newfoundlanders how ‘unique’ and ‘quirky’ our province is. This Buzzfeed article is a prime example of how Newfoundland is often portrayed as a wonderfully weird place.


The Battery, St. John’s. Summer 2012. Photo: Lesley Butler

I vowed I would never let homesickness cloud my reality of the mediocrity of Newfoundland as I saw it at the time (after all, the grass is usually greener on the other side).

That was until I moved to Manchester in the UK. Suddenly I was experiencing the homesickness that I had always felt immune to during my previous travels. I loved Manchester dearly, and I still do, but there was something about the grey, industrial city that made me really appreciate the colourful and charming city I called home.


The University of Manchester – the building often described as a ‘biscuit tin’. Winter 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler.

Although I resisted the temptation for a while, about nine months into my year in England, I too, like many expats before me, found myself changing my Facebook cover photo to an image of St. John’s harbour (see the photo below). Still aware of the romanticization that nostalgia was breeding, I captioned it with: “St. John’s harbour: the quintessential cover photo for expats.” I hoped that the irony would salvage my blatant homesickness.

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St. John’s Harbour. Summer 2012. Photo: Lesley Butler

One day, I decided to take a spontaneous day trip to Liverpool. It was raining in Manchester (as it usually does) and I felt like I needed a change of scenery. I did not, however, anticipate mending my homesickness with only a 45-minute train ride. Expecting to merely tour the home of the Beatles, I ended up actually feeling at home myself.


Church Street, Liverpool. Fall 2013. Photo: Charlie Butler (used with permission)

Walking down Liverpool’s Church Street, a popular pedestrian shopping area, I was struck with a familiar sound: seagulls.

Seagulls are not exactly novel when you grow up by the ocean. They are so ordinary that they are more likely to be perceived as a nuisance than grounds for nostalgia. However, when you have been living in a city in which the hiss and hum of a seemingly endless line of buses is the most characteristic sound, the screech of seagulls suddenly seems symphonic.


Buses lined up on Oxford Road, Manchester. Fall 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

Hearing this familiar sound while walking around a foreign city, I suddenly realized that I had not heard seagulls since I left St. John’s. I kept walking until I reached the Liverpool waterfront, and was greeted with the pleasant sight of docks, ships, and the feeling of fresh sea air.


Liverpool Waterfront. March 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

For everything that Manchester had to offer: museums, shopping centres, great food and music, I realized that it was missing the comforting feeling of the waterfront that I had grown accustomed to in Newfoundland. Growing up by a coastline, the presence of the ocean was one constant in a city that seemed to be ever changing: be it culturally, politically, or economically.

Taking a closer look at the buildings lining Liverpool’s Albert Dock, one in particular stood out to me: The International Slavery Museum.


Albert Dock, Liverpool. March 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

Tucked alongside the Tate Liverpool art gallery and the Beatles Story museum, the juxtaposition of the International Slavery Museum helped put my nostalgia in check.


The River Mersey, views from the Liverpool waterfront. March 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

I began thinking about the darker history of the waterfront, the one that I was forgetting through my sentimental encounter with the sea. What other stories did these shores produce? What other emotions might the sea incite? And what about my relationship with the waterfront that I call home? What histories exist beyond the colourful buildings and muddy waters that line the St. John’s waterfront? What efforts are made by Newfoundlanders to acknowledge our own difficult past? Who is left out of our idealized view of Newfoundland identity? These are questions that I hope to explore further as I embark on my blogging journey.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @



“Gros Morne Lookout Trail’ (2016) by Bettina Matzkuhn ( Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

“We have no maps without the maps that came before. Lift one map of the body
and find another. Navigating back. Mapping through.”

Barrie Jean Borich, Body Geographic, 71.

 “All maps tell stories: the story their maker intended and the story they tell
about their making – that is, how, why, what purpose they served and their impact.”

Judith A. Tyner,
Stitching the World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education, 6)

 Years ago, as a grade 6 student learning Canadian geography, I remember telling my teacher that I could easily remember Quebec because “it looks like a witch.” This was no negative statement towards Quebec, I’ll hasten to add. As a child, I loved witches and all things ghoulish, and I could find them in all sorts of places…including, apparently, a map of Canada. Years later, during the Quebec referendum of 1995, I wondered how that map might change should Quebec have received a mandate to separate. Would the whole witch disappear from the map of Canada? Or would there be a re-partitioning? What would this new map look like, and what story – and stories – might it tell?

Thanks to the questions of a probing graduate student (thanks, Laura!), I’ve been thinking a lot about space and how space operates on a ship. The Ship’s Logs at the Maritime History Archive mark space and time with precision, notating the exact date and time alongside specific geographic coordinates. While some locations can easily be fixed – Isle of St. Helena, for example, or River Hooghly, or Cape of Good Hope – others, in the middle of the Atlantic, cannot. Here, the Master resorts to measurements, notating the numbers that mark points on the invisible grid that organizes ocean spaces. In this sense, the coordinates can provide comfort; security in a space otherwise almost completely devoid of conventional place markers. If I wanted to, I could – like researchers working out of the Zeeuws Archief – plot a ship’s journey almost perfectly.

Such projects are fascinating, in that, much like the Flight Aware app that my teenage son obsesses over, they can reveal much about how ships moved through space. But such mapping projects can’t tell us about what happened in that space, not really, anyway.

Maps, as numerous scholars have observed, are representations that reveal much more about the beholder than they do about what they purport to represent. As Jeremy Black writes, “A map is a show, a representation. What is shown is real, but that does not imply completeness or entail any absence of choice in selection and representation” (11). Why is the global South comparatively small? Why is Europe at the centre? Why are Australia and New Zealand down at the bottom? Why, on an English-language map, is the Faroe Islands spelled in the Danish way, rather than the Faroese way? How did Quebec come to look like a witch? How come Alberta looks like a piece of sliced cheese with a corner crumbled off? And why didn’t Indigenous territories make the cut? All of these represent choices, and each of these choices can reveal something about the map’s creators, and further, about the map’s intended audience.


“The Romantic Archipelago,” by Bettina Matzkuhn ( Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

The map on my older son’s wall, pilfered from a stash of wall maps abandoned in a hallway by a retiring professor, shows major shipping routes around the world. The ‘world’ itself looks geographically similar, at least on the surface, to the ‘world’ I see on contemporary maps. But over the last half century since the map was produced, borders and boundaries have shifted, countries have appeared and disappeared, names have changed and, in some cases, changed back again.

A map on a New Zealand friend’s wall told a very different story: here the map was, to my eyes, upside down. I don’t have access to that particular map anymore, but similar maps are easily searchable online. Centering New Zealand/Aotearoa where the map I’ve grown up with centers Europe, it has the South Pole on top and the North Pole at the bottom. Where the map I’ve grown up with centers the Atlantic Ocean, this one centers the Pacific. North America has taken on – in a curious way – the contours of South America, its tail stretching down towards the Arctic. I look once. I look twice. And I have to keep looking again and again and again, my coordinates undone by this process of unmapping and remapping.

The colonial maps of Suriname with rectangular strips along all the rivers, tell stories of land claims, plantations, and colonial power. They tell, too, of different waves of settlement: plantations with Dutch names clustered along one river; those as yet unclaimed, and which would later have English names proliferating along another.


Alexander de Lavaux, Landkaart (van Suriname). twee aan elkaar geplakte bladen, ingekleurde gravure; de plantages aan de verschillende rivieren staan aangegeven. Links en rechts: kolom met de “Naamlijst der Eigenaars van de Plantagien”, totaal 519 nummers. L.b.: Kaart van de wijdere omgeving van het gebied. l.m.: cartouche met de schaal. r.b.: cartouche met de titel en het wapen van Suriname. Gesigneerd; rechts boven in cartouche. Amsterdam, 1737-1757. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain.


But maps have not only told stories of physical and political geography. They’ve also revealed intimate geographies. The Carte de Tendre that accompanied Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s seventeenth-century novel, Clélie (and later reproduced by many other members of the French intelligentsia), for example, revealed the various waypoints along the journey from new friendship towards intimate friendship or love (tendre). Obedience. Constancy. Sincerity. Care. Generosity – all of these are marked on the map. But so too are the possible dangers: Perfidity. Inequality. Indifference. Negligence. Indiscretion. This maps lays out the complexities of social relationships, and the care that one must take in order to nurture them.

Mapping – as process – has also served pedagogical purposes. In a 2015 book, Judith A. Tyner examines the little known history of map samplers and needlepoint globes, considering these projects not as scientific tools to be used by voyagers, but rather, as pedagogical tools designed to teach geography. As a scientific tool, a map’s purpose lies in its completion; that is, the map as finished product. The map as a pedagogical tool, however, gains its purpose from the process; that is, it becomes meaningful only the making or doing of geography, in the mapping process itself. Here, Tyner makes an important distinction between using and creating maps, a point that she then develops as she considers the role of map-making to girls’ education in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

An artist friend of mine, Bettina Matzkuhn – whose work visually maps this whole blog post (thanks, Bettina!) – has spent many years working with maps: geographical maps, bike routes, body maps, and more. Each of her embroidered maps tells a story, but none of them maps mere geography. She’s mapped her bike route to work, complete with the various characters and scenery that she encounters along the way.


“Commute,” by Bettina Matzkuhn ( Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

She’s mapped a suffering body, offering viewers a heat map that identifies points of pain. More recently, in a  tribute to a mother who is losing her memory, she’s developed a work that brings geography and memory together, telling the stories of their family boat travels in and out of the small harbours and coves along British Columbia’s west coast.


“A childhood in Howe Sound,” by Bettina Matzkuhn ( Photo by Bettina Matkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

But Bettina’s maps are not restricted to the terrestrial. A project undertaken with a weather specialist has seen her map weather, with embroidery, music, text and video. You can watch The Zoology of Weather here.

So, too, has Barrie Jean Borich taken up a more metaphorical engagement with the idea of geography. In her memoir, Body Geographic, Borich considers the body itself as geography, a “geography of memory” (5). As she writes:

Maps obscure more than they reveal because their flatness is contrary to the layered experience of living. Maps are representational, but life is lived in the body, is dimensional, has voice and history. So every map can’t help but contain other maps, areas of detail requiring special attention, even when the insets don’t show. The body, my body, is a stacked atlas of memory. If we think the idle of our lives are flat we mistake surface for substance. (7)

Space, geographer Doreen Massey has observed, can be understood as a “meeting up of histories” (qtd. in Goeman 5). It is “a product of interrelations,” a “[sphere] of possibilities,” “always under construction,” and “a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (qtd. in Goeman 5-6). Space, therefore, is a site of contestation, collaboration, struggle, dialogue, resistance…. Like the maps that result from these encounters, space is itself inherently political. As Mishuana Goeman observes, “Ultimately, we must question our mental and material maps” (204).

In a poignant episode near the end of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, the heroine, Aminata Diallo, finds herself in a map room at Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

From the portfolio marked Guinea, I removed the first map and spread it out on a table with two burning candles. It showed the typical painting of half-dressed African men and naked African women, usually with baboons and elephants nearby.

Reaching again into the Guinea portfolio, I pulled out a piece of paper with flower handwriting: “Copied from On Poetry: A Rhapsody, by Jonathan Swift, 1733.” And then I found the lines:

So geographers, in Afric-maps,
With savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o’er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.

Elephants for want of towns. I found it comforting to know that nearly sixty years earlier, before I was ever born, Swift had expressed the very thing I was feeling now. These weren’t maps of Africa. In the ornate cartouches of elephants and of women with huge breasts that rose in unlikely salute, every stroke of paint told me that the map-mapers had little to say about my land.

These maps do not tell Aminata Diallo’s story; they cannot capture how she organized and understood her world. These are the stories of European colonizers and slave traders, the same people who would put African women in travelling exhibitions (and later, after their deaths, thoroughly examine and then preserve their bodies) and set up human zoos in the centers of their cities.

Can we learn to see differently? Can we make different maps? Imagine new ways of organizing our worlds?



Black, Jeremy., Maps and Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Borich, Barrie Jean. Body Geographic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Goeman, Mishuana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Electronic book, ca. 2010. Accessed via Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries

Tyner, Judith A. Stitching the World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education. Farnham, UK and Burlington, USA: Ashgate, 2015.


With deepest thanks to Bettina Matzkuhn for sharing her artwork – and her thinking about maps!

Embroidered Images © Bettina Matzkuhn.
Text © Sonja Boon.





Something happened aboard the Kate Kellock in late 1873. But what?

I started my explorations with a short news article in the 15 February 1874 edition of the Algemeen Handelsblad ( about a disturbance aboard the Kate Kellock in late 1873. Now, a few months later, I’ve found myself down a rabbit hole of my own making….

There are at least four accounts of unrest aboard the Kate Kellock in December 1873. One from the ship’s Master, George H. A. Bevan, as written in the Ship’s Log currently housed in the UK National Archives. One from Edmund Fremantle, a Royal Navy officer called upon to convene an inquiry, as published in his memoirs. One from Dr. Bepin Behari Dutt, the Surgeon Superintendent aboard the ship, as articulated in documents held in the National Archives of India and cited by Anil Persaud. And one included in the Dutch colonial archives, as referenced by Rajinder Bhagwanbali.

Four accounts. Some overlap. But still, several distinct stories:

The Surgeon Superintendent incited the emigrants to mutiny by “telling them that [the Master] had no power or command over them” (Bevan)

The emigrants believed that “their throats would be cut and that they would be thrown overboard” once they arrived in Suriname (Fremantle; also in Bevan)

The Third Officer, one John Evans, seduced two women emigrants (“Bnef van de gouverneur van Suriname aan de minister van koloniën,” Dutch National Archives, referenced in Bhagwanbali)

Crew members “were pelting [emigrants] with bones” on Christmas Eve (“Conduct of Dr. Bepin Behari Dutt, Surgeon Superintendent of the ship “Kate Kellock,” bound with emigrants from Calcutta to Surinam,” National Archives of India, quoted in Persaud)

The Surgeon Superintendent misappropriated ship stores, causing drunkenness among crew and emigrants (Bevan).

But which story is true?
Will we ever know?
Do ‘the facts’ actually matter?

Or is this range of stories more interesting for what it might reveal about the complexity of colonial encounters in the intimate spaces of emigrant ships?

In the end, the Surgeon Superintendent, Bepin Behari Dutt, an Edinburgh-trained doctor born in Calcutta, was expelled from the ship and sent back to the UK, and from that point on, all Surgeon Superintendents travelling on emigrant ships were to be European.

Today, over 140 years later, only the avalanche of paperwork – now housed in archives in three different countries – remains.


Works Cited

Bevan, George H.A. “Official Log Book #1” Catalogue Reference: BT 99/1016
National Archives, UK.

Bhagwanbali, Rajinder. “Contracten voor Suriname: Arbeidsmigratie vanuit Brits Indië onder het indentured-labour stelsel, 1873-1916,” PhD thesis. Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, 1996.

Fremantle, Edmund. The Navy As I Have Known It, 1849-1899. London: Cassell & Co., 1904.

Klerk, C.J.M de. De Immigratie der Hindostanen in Suriname by C.J.M de Klerk, Amsterdam: Urbi et ORbi, 1953.

Persaud, Anil. “The problem of origin: the politics of indigeneity in post- 1830′ British Guiana.” PhD thesis. Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2007.



© Sonja Boon, 2016
sboon @