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Apports récents des bases de données à l’histoire maritime

The Contribution of Historical Databases to the Current State of Digital Maritime History

Apports récents des bases de données historiques à l’histoire maritime
Silvia Marzagalli, Werner Scheltjens et Jeremy Land
p. 3-16

Texte intégral

  • 1 F. Broeze,1989; G. Harlaftis, 2020, p. 384.

1Maritime history can be broadly defined as an approach considering the sea as a dynamic agent of change. It takes into account economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental issues in the relation of human societies to the sea and examines the seas’ impact on societies.1 Maritime history, since the 1950s, has been an expanding field of historical research, now visible in the academic world through an international association (IMHA), national commissions, and various journals or book series, such as the International Journal of Maritime History and Mariner’s Mirror.

  • 2 A. Cabantous, 2001.

2In a critical essay published in a Festschrift honoring Michel Mollat du Jourdin, who played an essential role in promoting maritime history, Alain Cabantous questioned the pertinency of singling out maritime history from history altogether, and denied any methodological specificity to this field of research.2 The field is solidly established, however. Indeed, maritime historians display a large variety of historical concerns and methods. Whereas not every maritime historian is concerned by the measure of maritime activities, quantitative approaches have been present from the outset, without diverting attention away from individual cases.

  • 3 G. Harlaftis, 2020.

3Maritime history has been characterized both by a desire to tell “the stories of the sea” and by its contribution to economic history, business history, the history of international commercial exchange, and the history of Europe’s overseas expansion.3 Maritime history unites both a prosopographic (microhistorical) tradition that studies the lives of individuals, families, companies and their businesses, and a structural (macrohistorical) tradition that analyzes massive aggregated data, long-term trends and large-scale changes.

  • 4 J.-F. Brière, 1990; A. Bartolomei, 2017.
  • 5 M. Mollat, 1962; id., 1977, pp. 149-152. Health offices were found in early modern times in the ma (...)
  • 6 J. J. McCusker & C. Gravesteijn, 1991; J. J. McCusker, 2005.

4To a significant extent, both strands of maritime history distill their information from the same kind of written documentation about seaworthy ships that carry out a vast array of activities, ranging from slave transport to colonial trade, from transatlantic to local voyages, from deep-sea shipping to everyday small fisheries. The sources of maritime history could be described in general terms as “written documentation about ships or crews”. They document offshore and onshore aspects of maritime shipping and comprise (1) sources dealing with navigation and crews, such as logbooks, ships’ journals, muster-rolls, crew lists; (2) business papers of all kinds, such as ownership records, insurance records, bills of lading, shipmasters’ correspondence, lists of commodities, lists of slaves, etc.; (3) records of various institutions relating to maritime activities and business, such as notary, consuls, chamber of commerce, etc.;4 (4) fiscal and administrative sources, such as customs registers, port registers, sanitary registers, or passport registers;5 and (5) “intelligence” sources, such as newspapers and ship registers.6 As soon as the digital revolution provided modernist historians with computers and software for structuring information in an orderly fashion, researchers interested in the history of maritime traffic began to build databases to manage the massive quantities of information produced in such sources.

  • 7 The names of the databases are in italics; the names of the research projects are in quotation mar (...)

5This special issue introduces three large maritime history projects that were concluded recently: “Sound Toll Registers Online” (STRO), “Ports, and Information and Communication Sciences and Technology” financed by the French Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR “Portic”, 2019-2023) and “AveTransRisk”. These projects, and the databases they have produced,7 are representative of the current state of digital maritime history. They are a culmination of many decades of utilizing the digital sphere by scholars of maritime history, a tradition that is likely to continue into the future. In this introduction, we briefly review the “digital dimension” of maritime history first, before introducing the articles in the special issue. At the end of the introduction, we reflect on what the future of digital maritime history may bring.

1. The digital dimension of maritime history

  • 8 M. Mollat, 1977.
  • 9 T. J. R. Hughes & S. Reiter, 1958.
  • 10 R. P. Swierenga, 1970, p. 3; L. E. Davis & R. E. Gallman, 1995.
  • 11 L. E. Davis & R. E. Gallman, 1995.
  • 12 B. Bailyn & L. Bailyn, 1959.
  • 13 L. H. Leder, 1961, p. 120.
  • 14 M. Mollat du Jourdin, 1962, p. 474.
  • 15 J. Delumeau, 1961, p. 666; id., 1966.

6At the very origins of what could be described as the “digital dimension” of maritime history there are at least three works that were initiated almost simultaneously in the United States and France.8 In 1958, Hughes and Reiter published their famous paper “The first 1,945 British steamships” in the Journal of the American Statistical Association.9 It is the “first computerized work in economic history”, which made use of a newly installed mainframe computer at Purdue University.10 The use of formulas to estimate tonnages and shipping speed made this paper a milestone in the cliometric approach to economic history.11 In 1959, Bernard and Lotte Bailyn published their monograph on Massachusetts shipping at the start of the eighteenth century.12 In their work, the authors “[…] have judiciously applied modern technology and come up with new and detailed conclusions about an aspect of economic development which was hitherto discussed only in broad, general terms”.13 Roughly at the same time, in France, a working group and commission of international maritime history under the presidency of Michel Mollat had asked IBM “to examine the possibilities for applying the ‘mechanographic’ method (Fr. méthode mécanographique) to the statistical analysis of maritime trade”.14 Starting 1959, IBM supported a pioneering mechanographic analysis of the port registers of Saint-Malo from 1681 until 1690, which was conducted by Jean Delumeau at the University of Rennes.15

  • 16 J. Delumeau, 1961, pp. 666-667.
  • 17 See e.g. P. Haber, 2011; L. Putnam, 2016; K. Van Es, M. Wieringa & M. T. Schäfer, 2018.

7Significantly, neither Bailyn & Bailyn’s work on Massachusetts shipping (1959) nor Delumeau’s work on Saint-Malo (1961) relied on gathering quantitative data exclusively. Rather the opposite is true: Bailyn & Bailyn and Delumeau have described in detail how non-numerical data underwent a time-consuming process comprising the systematic collection of information about shipmasters and their voyages. This task was followed by a process of coding and categorizing commodities and ports, which preceded the subsequent process of quantification, analysis and visualization of research results.16 Neither the process of data collection nor the actual use of new technologies were well-documented during this early phase. The latter is hardly a critique, since the need for “tool criticism” as an extension of traditional source criticism in the digital age has only recently become a topic of discussions about the impact of digitization on (historical) research practices.17 The former, however, complicates the assessment of research results based on sources that were processed using the mechanographic method. Perhaps the difficulties encountered in the course of these early experiments explain why the number of historical research projects employing the mechanographic method remained limited throughout the 1960s.

  • 18 P. Horvath, 1997.
  • 19 L. Marques, 2019, p. 523.
  • 20 In the United States: H. S. Klein, 1978; D. Eltis, 2012; S. Behrendt et al., 2012; D. Williams, 20 (...)

8Things changed rapidly in the 1970s, when IBM and other companies introduced a new generation of smaller and more affordable computers that were equipped with an operating system and provided more extensive storage facilities than before.18 Within a few years, several maritime history projects were initiated in Europe as well as across the Atlantic. In a recent interview, one of the pioneers of new technology in maritime history at that time, David Eltis, described the 1970s as the time of the “computer revolution”, and explained that “[…] there were no laptops or even desktops, just an IBM mainframe, but a lot of people using punchcards”.19 Researchers in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Denmark and Canada initiated electronic database projects to unravel the history of Europe’s maritime expansion, examine the European commodity trade in the eighteenth century, study the history of ports, privateering and commodity flows, or to write the history of the Canadian merchant fleet and its crew.20

  • 21 I. Winchester, 1970; E. A. Wrigley, 1973; D. I. Pool, 1975; A. MacFarlane, 1977.
  • 22 Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Ships Registered at the Port of Philadelphia be (...)

9Although the groundbreaking nature of these database projects is obvious, there is a remarkable discrepancy between the amount of labor invested in collecting and entering textual data items such as names of ports, commodities and personal names, and their research output. Whilst personal names were collected and entered in large quantities, their use seems to have been fairly limited during the actual data analysis. It seems that record linkage techniques, already widely discussed in the historical community,21 were not used in maritime history projects using electronic databases at that time. Moreover, documentation of the principles of data gathering, entering and processing was still fairly limited and a critique of what was included or not included in the electronic database was often missing. This is particularly important in light of sampling methods that were often used but seldom clearly explained. Replication of these methods was therefore more difficult, requiring scholars of other projects to recreate the wheel each time. As a case in point, John McCusker created a digital dataset of Philadelphia ship registers for the colonial period in the late 1960s. While creating the dataset, he deposited into the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania a dot matrix printout of the working table and codes he had produced and used. While it goes a long way in providing some of the documentation to the ultimate outputs of his project, it still leaves much to be inferred by scholars in how he actually created the dataset.22

  • 23 J. T. Lindblad, 1988; id., 1990; C. Harvey & J. Press, 1996.
  • 24 P. Wakelin, 1987.
  • 25 G. M. Welling, 1993.

10The appearance on the market of personal computers in the early 1980s marked the start of yet another significant (if not revolutionary) change in the use of computer technologies in the field of maritime history. As access to computers became more and more widespread, it became easier for researchers to develop their own databases. As time progressed, historians could rely on specialist literature and manuals to set up historical databases for their own research projects,23 and researchers started to organize themselves into working groups and associations, such as the international Association for History and Computing (ACH) or the Vereniging voor Geschiedenis en Informatica (VGI) in the Netherlands. With the rise of the PC, facilities for storing information on disks or diskettes also improved, giving rise to discussions about the “comprehensive computerization”24 of “very large” historical databases and about “intelligent” large-scale data-entry-programming.25 Maritime historians, such as Peter Wakelin and George Welling, contributed to the general trend of using (or considering the use of) computers for historical research. Many new projects were initiated at universities and research centers everywhere, which makes it impossible to provide a comprehensive overview.

  • 26 V. Burton, 2019.
  • 27 See for instance C. Harvey & J. Press, 1996.

11Individuals furthered most of these projects and larger groups working on bigger projects were the exception rather than the rule. Accordingly, many projects adopted a research-driven approach and used computers to enter and process parts of historical sources, or samples from different historical sources, to answer specific research questions. A smaller number of projects were curation-driven and pursued the “comprehensive computerization” of electronic databases in the field of maritime history. Parallel to these developments, the 1990s were marked by projects to convert and publish on CD-ROM some of the large, now institutionalized maritime history databases of the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, the electronic publication on this new storage medium was pursued by the Dutch-Asiatic Shipping project (DAS 1995), the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (1999) and the Atlantic Canada Shipping Project (1998).26 Much like in previous decades, significant efforts were made to include personal names and details about the lives of “ordinary people” on board of ships in the databases, and discussion of nominal record linkage techniques intensified,27 but their application to maritime history sources did not move beyond small-scale, often manual, efforts to link records in one source or from different sources based on personal name data.

12As storage facilities expanded and moved from physical carriers to the internet at the turn of the millennium, efforts to unearth even more maritime history data increased. These included a dedicated collaborative project dealing with the labor force aboard the ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC Opvarenden),28 a large-scale effort to put available technical means to use for the comprehensive digital publication of the Danish Sound Toll Registers (STRO),29 and an electronic database of Greek shipping in the Mediterranean based on sources from several archives in Greece, Italy and other Mediterranean countries.30 In the meantime, the CD-ROM was quickly replaced by “the cloud”, which offered the additional advantage of making it easier to establish collaborative research projects. Much like in the 1980s, and especially the 1990s, however, the development of maritime history databases was still mostly an individual effort,31 comprising both research-driven and curation-driven approaches.

2. The articles in the special issue

13The articles in this special issue share several common threads with their historical predecessors and reflect the state-of-the-art of electronic databases in maritime history. Given the long experience of maritime historians in producing databases, we expect that – at least to some extent – these databases are representative of the digital turn in other fields of history. The transformation of sources into online available data is not a purely mechanical process. In presenting the databases they produced and the way they structured the information and provided metadata, the authors of this issue share five common methodological choices, postures, and concerns.

14First, these projects utilize relational database technology which has remained dominant in maritime history. This is not necessarily, and possibly not always, the best choice. However, despite the difficulties of applying relational data modeling to complex historical data and sources, it does improve data accessibility. Historical sources used by maritime historians tend to have some structural similarities, concerning, for instance, a sequential itinerary, cargoes, and data related to the ship and captain. The databases presented here aim to transmit the original structure of the historical source into a relational data model, while improving the data with metadata where necessary and/or possible. Of course, the question remains as to whether this is the best strategy moving forward, but at minimum these databases reflect the original intentions of the historical actors and records.

15Second, all confront the ubiquitous challenge of documenting the methods and processes by which the databases are created. Each article discusses this issue in varying degrees of detail. All summarize their efforts and provide various strategies to document the creation of the databases with some lessons for future scholars and teams looking to embark on similar endeavours. As discussed above, digital scholars must be better at documenting how the databases have been created, with specific focus on the decisions made by their teams (both curatorial and technical). If we are to improve the ability to replicate such projects and guarantee their sustainability and longevity, documentation should be as extensive as possible.

16Third, all three databases offer the possibility to explore a wide range of research topics and questions. In general, these topics can be grouped into two categories: economic history (trade, commodities, etc.) and social history (such as maritime labor, death at sea, etc.). The authors in this issue present the ways in which their databases were created to answer specific research questions in the realm of economic history. At the same time, their analytical description of the sources and their intricacies should also be of interest to historians working in related research areas, most importantly, social history.

17The fourth theme that the articles share is their support for research outputs from the public, though at varying levels. “Portic” offers substantial support for the user in the form of analytical tools and visualizations. The “AveTransRisk” project offers some support for users in learning how to use their database but with more limited tools. The Sound Toll database project does not offer nearly as much end-user support, but it does, like “Portic”, allow users to download the datasets at the core of the database, which, in itself, may represent a substantial increase in productivity for many users.

  • 32 J. Flanders & F. Jannidis, 2015.
  • 33 J. W. Veluwenkamp & W. Scheltjens, 2018; S. Marzagalli, 2023.

18Fifth and finally, the projects are examples of both research-driven and curation-driven data modeling approaches.32 AveTransRisk predominantly uses a research-driven approach. The team’s focus was on specific research questions, and the database that results supports their efforts to answer those questions. “Portic” and “STRO” are more curation-driven than research-driven projects, but for both, research questions are part of the methodological and infrastructural choices made by the creators. Both have proved their capacity to produce innovative historical knowledge.33 In all three, the researchers developed a balance of the two approaches that fit the needs of their specific projects. These projects can offer helpful guidance and examples for similar projects both within and outside of maritime history.

19The first article of this issue, by Werner Scheltjens and Jan Willem Veluwenkamp, discusses the Sound Toll Registers Online (STRO) database which covers more than 300 years of maritime history. The article summarizes the long process from the conceptualization of the relational database and coordinated data entry in a large funded project (2008/9-2012) to the volunteer efforts that led to the completion of data entry (2013-2020). The article contextualizes the “STRO”, stresses the difficulties encountered during data entry and offers some lessons learned from the process. Furthermore, the authors discuss a recent effort to standardize the various weights, measurements, and commodities in the database, and show its contribution to improving database utility.

20The next two articles discuss the Portic database and the various projects that led to its creation and form. This project produced a series of datasets and a database that tracks ship trajectories and routes from and to French ports on the eve of the French Revolution. Christine Plumejeaud-Perreau, Silvia Marzagalli, Pierre Niccolò Sofia, and Robin de Mourat, in the first “Portic” article, provide a detailed examination of the design decisions taken by the project to adapt data from several different sources and archives to fit the needs of the Portic database. These decisions include an assessment of the degree of uncertainty of the variables as well as suggestions for alternative itineraries when the itinerary stated in one source is in conflict with the one provided by another, subsequent source. As is so often the case with historical sources, uncertainty of meaning or accuracy plagues the historian at every level. An important contribution of the “Portic” project lies in the strategies developed to make the uncertainty of historical information, especially pertaining to ships’ itineraries, explicit. Once data is curated, the consubstantial uncertainty of historical information (such as the future of the past) has been qualified so as to represent it adequately. This first “Portic” article describes these challenges in detail and explains how the methods developed and employed help to create a better visualization and understanding of the various ship routes between ports.

21The second “Portic” article deals with the efforts and challenges inherent in building a front-end visual interface for the data which the project compiled. Authored by Silvia Marzagalli, Christine Plumejeaud-Perreau, Thierry Sauzeau, and Robin de Mourat, the article tracks the development of data visualization widgets through the discussion of a case study examination of the maritime traffic and trade at the ports of Poitou, Aunis, Saintonge and their Angoumois hinterland, which questions the centrality of La Rochelle within maritime trade in this region prior to the Revolution. It describes the process of creating the advanced digital tools necessary to fully understand and visualize these flows. It ends with a discussion of how the product – a combined web page with text and visual graphs, maps, diagrams and more – helps to guide readers in comprehending the data as they scroll through output.

22The last two articles in this special issue concern the “AveTransRisk” project, a European Research Council-funded database that examines General Average, a core institution of maritime trade. The first article, authored by Maria Fusaro, Marta García Garralón, and Lewis Wade, defines the concept and application of General Average as it relates to conducting trade on the oceans. It then summarizes the origins and design principles of the “AveTransRisk” project and database, taking great care to highlight the peculiarities of the historical sources and data. The authors then describe how the database helps to unravel a particular case where General Average was applied.

23The last article of the issue continues the discussion of the “AveTransRisk” project by describing the technical challenges of the database and how the participants overcame them. Written by Jake Dyble, Antonio Iodice, and Ian Wellaway, the article is essentially a step-by-step walk through the database creation process, from origins to the end result, including a brief user guide for the online database. As they describe the sources, the various problems that the sources posed, and the subsequent modeling and design decisions, the authors maintain an eye on the historical contexts of the data. The article ends with a reflection on the choices made by the project participants and possible lessons learned.

3. Conclusions: preservation and interoperability issues

24Continuity prevails in the creation and dissemination of databases for maritime history. This is justifiable and understandable, but the future does appear to offer opportunities for the implementation of novel database techniques and for efficiency improvements. The STRO, Portic, and AveTransRisk databases have adopted different methods and strategies to overcome the specific challenges faced throughout their construction. But as machine-learning-based tools for text recognition become more and more widely available, research design changes will probably have an impact on the creation and dissemination of future maritime history databases.

25In the realm of data entry, automated text recognition continues to improve and seems to offer the most immediate potential for efficiency gains in historical database projects. This comes with a new set of challenges, though not necessarily unfamiliar ones. The labor expenses required to train accurate recognition models will probably become an integral part of future project applications. Importantly, these expenses include training both staff and volunteers to input data properly, an issue that each of the projects presented here has faced. Further, citizen science (i.e., amateurs and volunteers) can be applicable in some cases, and this has the potential to provide scalability to projects. Still, the balance between new methods, accuracy, and efficiency needs to be preserved during any effort to input new data.

  • 34 C. Plumejeaud-Perreau et al., 2021.

26In a similar vein, data processing and curation is essential to the cutting-edge digital tools that have appeared in recent years. Geovisualization, which uses large databases of geographical names and their coordinates, has shown the capacity to produce collaborative projects, such as GeoNames, but there is still much to do in dealing with historical maps and the ability to project changing political borders.34 Other areas still suffer from limited advances, including working with personal names, commodities, and weights and measures. Some auxiliary databases exist, but they are still in their infancy and have had marginal effects in increasing efficiency and accuracy. Working with personal names should see advances in the not-too-distant future as several historical databases exist already, with parish registers and genealogical databases in abundance. Still, there is little or no interoperability between them. Most projects are born and operate within silos, with little inter-communication. They develop and use their own terminology, produce extensive, tailor-made descriptions of the main data items in the database, but do not provide links to external sources that could be shared with other databases (except perhaps for geographical names). This appears to be changing as funding institutions and the community of historians become increasingly aware of the importance of building interoperability into data-driven projects. Achieving interoperability means rethinking the entire workflow for database projects in maritime history. This will not be easy, but the articles in the special issue and the databases they describe may provide a good starting point.

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1 F. Broeze,1989; G. Harlaftis, 2020, p. 384.

2 A. Cabantous, 2001.

3 G. Harlaftis, 2020.

4 J.-F. Brière, 1990; A. Bartolomei, 2017.

5 M. Mollat, 1962; id., 1977, pp. 149-152. Health offices were found in early modern times in the main ports of the Mediterranean northern rim (Ufficio di Sanità, Bureau de Santé, etc.).

6 J. J. McCusker & C. Gravesteijn, 1991; J. J. McCusker, 2005.

7 The names of the databases are in italics; the names of the research projects are in quotation marks.

8 M. Mollat, 1977.

9 T. J. R. Hughes & S. Reiter, 1958.

10 R. P. Swierenga, 1970, p. 3; L. E. Davis & R. E. Gallman, 1995.

11 L. E. Davis & R. E. Gallman, 1995.

12 B. Bailyn & L. Bailyn, 1959.

13 L. H. Leder, 1961, p. 120.

14 M. Mollat du Jourdin, 1962, p. 474.

15 J. Delumeau, 1961, p. 666; id., 1966.

16 J. Delumeau, 1961, pp. 666-667.

17 See e.g. P. Haber, 2011; L. Putnam, 2016; K. Van Es, M. Wieringa & M. T. Schäfer, 2018.

18 P. Horvath, 1997.

19 L. Marques, 2019, p. 523.

20 In the United States: H. S. Klein, 1978; D. Eltis, 2012; S. Behrendt et al., 2012; D. Williams, 2018; in the United Kingdom: D. Starkey, 1990; A. P. Wakelin, 1991; D. Richardson, K. Beedham & M. M. Schofield, 1992; C. French, 1997; in the Netherlands: J. Postma, 1978; J. R. Bruijn, F. S. Gaastra & I. Schöffer, 1979-1987; in France: J. Guiral, 1976; J. Mettas, 1978; id., 1984; in Denmark: H. C. Johansen, 1983; in Canada: D. Alexander, 1973; id., 1979; J. V. T. Knoppers, 1976; L. R. Fischer & E. W. Sager, 1980; E. W. Sager, 1985. For a critique, see V. Burton, 2019.

21 I. Winchester, 1970; E. A. Wrigley, 1973; D. I. Pool, 1975; A. MacFarlane, 1977.

22 Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Ships Registered at the Port of Philadelphia before 1776: A Computerized Listing, Gift of John McCusker 1970, HSP 3235.

23 J. T. Lindblad, 1988; id., 1990; C. Harvey & J. Press, 1996.

24 P. Wakelin, 1987.

25 G. M. Welling, 1993.

26 V. Burton, 2019.

27 See for instance C. Harvey & J. Press, 1996.

28 URL:

29 URL:; W. Scheltjens & J. W. Veluwenkamp, 2012.

30 K. Papakonstantinou, 2010a; id., 2010b.

31 S. Marzagalli, 2012.

32 J. Flanders & F. Jannidis, 2015.

33 J. W. Veluwenkamp & W. Scheltjens, 2018; S. Marzagalli, 2023.

34 C. Plumejeaud-Perreau et al., 2021.

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Silvia Marzagalli, Werner Scheltjens et Jeremy Land, « The Contribution of Historical Databases to the Current State of Digital Maritime History »Histoire & mesure, XXXVIII-2 | 2023, 3-16.

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Silvia Marzagalli, Werner Scheltjens et Jeremy Land, « The Contribution of Historical Databases to the Current State of Digital Maritime History »Histoire & mesure [En ligne], XXXVIII-2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Silvia Marzagalli

Professor of Early Modern History, Centre de la Méditerranée moderne et contemporaine (UPR 1193), Université Côte d’Azur. E-mail :

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Werner Scheltjens

Professor of Digital History, History and European Ethnology Institute, University of Bamberg. E-mail :

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Jeremy Land

Postdoctoral researcher, Economic History, University of Gothenburg. E-mail :

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