The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia: a Digital Edition of a Large-Scale Document Collection

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Martin Holmes

    University of Victoria

  2. 2. Kim Shortreed-Webb

    University of Victoria

Work text
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The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia: a Digital Edition of a Large-Scale Document Collection
Holmes, Martin, University of Victoria,
Shortreed-Webb, Kim, University of Victoria,
The modern Canadian province of British Columbia has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years, but its colonial history begins with the visits of Spanish explorers, in the 18th century, followed by voyages by Cook and Vancouver in the 1770s and 1790s. They were followed by other explorers, and by the Hudon's Bay Company, which established trading posts in the region, and became the de facto agents of British colonization until the formal establishment of the colony of Vancouver Island in 1849, and later the British Columbia colony in 1858. The corpus of historical texts in our collection The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia ( (link) ) currently comprises over 7,000 documents, and covers the years between 1846, when negotiations began between the Colonial Office and the Hudson's Bay Company over the future of the territory, and 1871, when the young colony of British Columbia became a province in the Canadian federation.

Our documents have a somewhat troubled history. During the 1980s and 90s, a team led by James Hendrickson transcribed this huge collection into Waterloo Script, to produce a 28-volume print edition, which failed to find a publisher because of its scale. After Dr. Hendrickson retired, the markup files were largely forgotten, until they were rediscovered on an aging server which was scheduled to be shut down. At Digital Humanities 2008, we described how we retrieved the data and converted the Waterloo Script to TEI P5 (Holmes & Newton 2008).

Since then, the project has given birth to a full-scale digital edition. In addition to the original transcriptions, we now have over 18,000 page-images, with more being added every week; these are being linked into the transcriptions at every page-break. We have also generated several hundred biographies of people mentioned in the despatches, along with short articles on nearly 200 places/locations and 100 ships which feature in the correspondence. In addition, we have acquired digital versions of more than 200 contemporary maps, many of which form part of the correspondence, and we will be adding many more in the coming months.

The documents themselves present significant difficulties for transcribers.

A simple despatch

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This very short example shows some of the core features, and demonstrates the typical processes through which a despatch from Vancouver Island to London would go. Each despatch received in London would be logged in and assigned a number, then the Colonial Office staff would annotate it with a series of minutes recording their deliberations regarding the appropriate responses; often, letters would be written to other departments in the bureacracy requesting guidance or information, and finally a reply would be drafted (Hendrickson 2008 describes this process in detail). At the end of the year, the despatches would be bound into one or more volumes for storage. The peripheral correspondence, including enclosures and attachments with the original despatch, are often bound up with the despatch itself, and the most significant have also been transcribed as part of our collection.

In our web application, we have attempted to reproduce all the pertinent features of the original text in a form which makes them more accessible to the reader, while providing easy access to our database of information on people, places, and ships:

A digitized despatch

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The correspondence itself is rarely less than entertaining, and frequently exciting; it describes the difficulties encountered by a small, distant and relatively unsupported outpost of empire, struggling to deal with internal conflict, often-hostile First Nations groups, lawlessness, smuggling, and a somewhat threatening American population to the south. There are murders, shipwrecks, gold strikes and adventures of all kinds. However, the collection presents particular difficulties for readers, especially non-experts, arising out of the length of time required for a despatch to make its way between London and Victoria. Between the transmission of a despatch and the receipt of a response addressing its issues and questions, six months might elapse, and during that time, dozens or even hundreds more despatches would be sent. As a result, there is no apparent meaningful sequence in which to read the documents, as one might read an exchange of letters between two correspondents living closer to each other. A good search engine helps, of course, but we have also tried to provide other methods for users to navigate through the collection, through our markup of people, places and vessels. Each instance of one of these items in the text is linked to its "biography", and the biography can retrieve links to every mention of that person, place or ship anywhere in the correspondence, so it becomes possible to find paths through the documents based on these elements. We are also marking up some of the contemporary maps in the collection, using the Image Markup Tool, and integrating them with the place database, so that it is possible to jump from the mention of a place inside a document to a "biography" of the place, and thence to the specific location of that place on any contemporary maps on which it appears, as well as Google Maps.

The entire collection (including the maps) is marked up in TEI P5 XML, and the web application is constructed using Apache Cocoon and the eXist XML database. Our poster presentation will deal with our approaches to markup, the web application architecture, and how we have attempted to overcome some of the challenges inherent in the scale and complexity of the collection.

Hendrickson, James E. 2008 “The Colonial Office in 1858, ” The Despatches of British Columbia, (link)

Holmes, M. and Newton, G. 2008 “Rescuing old data: Case studies, tools and techniques, ” Digital Humanities 2008, 127-131 (link)

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None