Submissions:2019/A Colonizer's Account: the Use and Mis-use of Historical Sources

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This submission has been noted and is pending review for WikiConference North America 2019.


A Colonizer's Account: the Use and Mis-use of Historical Sources


Reliability of Information
+ Inclusion and Diversity

Type of session:



What does "reliable source" mean when we’re talking about the 18th century? While the Wikipedia community is deeply invested in the concept of a reliable source, “reliable” can be an area of negotiation. In addition, while our goal may be to use the most reliable source for any one topic, whether in print or online, in reality it is far easier to find, use, and cite only online open access sources. In some subjects, this can result in an unhealthy reliance on older, public domain sources, as opposed to newer, in-copyright print sources. This is particularly problematic when writing about historical figures and events.

Using a particular case study, the Wikipedia article on John Gabriel Stedman, this presentation will briefly outline issues of reliability and systemic bias, particularly as they affect historical topics. Earlier forms of the Stedman article very clearly relied on his The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) as a reliable source for his personal history. A closer look reveals that taking Stedman’s account at face value -- reading it as a (reliable) secondary source rather than a (far less reliable) primary source -- erases the most vital context of his narrative: that of a white colonizer in the 18th century Caribbean. Without taking that historical context into account, a Wikipedian using Stedman’s work for “factual” information will simply repeat Stedman’s viewpoint, glossing over deeply distressing aspects of his travel in Surinam. The issues in this article were discovered by Elizabeth Polcha, then a PhD candidate and now a scholar specializing in the 18th century Caribbean, and later used as a basis for a wiki-storming event in October 2017.

Attendees should be aware that they will potentially hear distressing details about the historical actions of Stedman and other colonizers.

Academic Peer Review option:


Author name:

Amanda Rust

E-mail address:

Wikimedia username:


Affiliated organization(s):

Estimated time:

30 minutes: 20 minutes to talk, 10 for discussion

Preferred room size:

no preference

Special requests:

Have you presented on this topic previously? If yes, where/when?:


If your submission is not accepted, would you be open to presenting your topic in another part of the program? (e.g. lightning talk or unconference session)