James Wetherell’s Stray Notes from Bahia Two Word Text Cloud

James Wetherell served as British Vice-Consul of Bahia from 1843 to 1857. His travel account Stray Notes from Bahia (Liverpool: Webb & Hunt, 1860), published after his accidental death at age thirty-six, presents an encyclopedic approach to teaching his readers about Bahia. His experiences and impressions are gathered chronologically. The short entries, written in a telegraphic style, come under headings ranging from historical entries on “families” (explaining the proud tradition of illustrious families claiming descent from Catharine Paraguassu) and the history of Bahia’s settlement, to sociological examinations of “black doctors” and “negro dances” to botanical entries on tropical fruits like “jaca.” James Wetherell’s account is interesting both for his attempt at recording the minutiae of Bahian life, and for the insight it grants into a young British man’s interpretations of the region.

To think about the relationship of Wetherell’s entries with other travel literature, I applied techniques of “distant reading” borrowed from Franco Moretti. This technique is a good compliment to close textual analysis in that the resulting textual abstraction allows new patterns and relationships – some of them significant, others meaningless – to emerge. Again, while not a replacement for traditional primary source analysis, techniques like text clouds can surprise viewers with new insights about how authors use language.

This visualization gathers two-word phrases from Wetherell’s text, making their relative size an indication of their prominence within the text. One strength of doing this analysis with the Many Eyes program is that when viewers mouse over the clusters, the context for the phrase appears. Readers who want more information can then search in the Google digitized copy of Travels in Bahia for more detail.

One thing that leaps to mind with this visualization in Wetherell’s vision of the tropics as abundant, as seen in his frequent emphasis on “large size” (of trees, fruits, flowers) and “large quantities” and “immense quantities” of goods consumed, imported, and observed. You get a sense of Bahia as at the center of a trade nexus, exporting tropical products harvested with enslaved labor. Taken together, there is a real economic focus to his terms.

Also revealing is a consideration of how he talks about “black women” in his text. First, “black men” doesn’t appear as a term, but taken together “black woman” and “black women” appear eleven times. Wetherell is particularly interested in their dress (whether in “gala dress” or “half-naked”) and in their social interactions with black men in an urban setting. While he does discuss elite marital practices and behavior, neither “white woman,” “European woman,” nor “Portuguese woman” appears in the cloud. The lenses of gender and race inform Wetherell’s evaluation of Bahians, making his critique of African-descent women more obvious.