Paulett reveals larger contexts of history through presentation of colonial cartographer

On April 24, during a brown bag event, history professor Robert Paulett presented his research on William De Brahm, a German-born mapmaker and military engineer who emigrated to the British colonies in the 1750s.

History Professor makes connections with his research of German mapmaker De Brahm's life and American historical developments. Photo courtesy of Paulett.

Paulett published an article on De Brahm in 2009 which he said is the foundation for his current project, still in its early days.

“I’ve had to do a lot of background reading on the histories of science and religion to prepare for the research phase, which is only just begun,” Paulette said. “The brown bag was a statement of preliminary findings.”

Brown bag presentations, initiated by history professor Katrin Sjursen, are held monthly and are free and open to the public. Attendees can offer feedback to students’ and professors’ research.

According to Paulett, the brown bag event was a great experience.

“I wish I had had more time to answer questions, but the brown bag was a perfect venue for the stage of research I’m at,” he said. “It was very useful to try and wrap my head around all of the things I’ve been studying this past year as a first step towards drafting a formal paper that can be presented at conferences or published in a scholarly journal.”

During his presentation Paulett described De Brahm’s activity in East Florida between 1763 and 1776. Britain had won Florida from the Spanish but knew almost nothing about the colony.

Paulett said De Brahm was sent to Florida to map the coast, which he did very well, but his conflicts with the governor of Florida and British debates about the colony reveal a deep uncertainty about the nature of purpose of British empire-building in the 1760s.

After finding moderate success as a cartographer in the Americas, Paulett said De Brahm eventually became a radical religious mystic, in which his published religious writings renounced imperialism and science (the bases of his former success) According to Paulett, he died with almost no followers of his beliefs.

“De Brahm went from being accepted and encouraged by colonial society to being rejected and even ridiculed by it,” Paulett said. “His late-life turn seems so obviously crazy that it forces us to ask why, of all the different ideas available to Anglo-Americans in the late 1700s, certain ones–scientific maps, plain speech, ‘common sense,’ settlement and conquest– were accepted and other ideas–mysticism, alchemy, denunciation of imperial conquest were rejected.”

De Brahm’s life, according to Paulett, is a way of understanding why Americans selected the ideas they did and rejected others.

“It also allows me to look at how certain intellectual and cultural developments that we normally think of as separate–politics, science, religion, geography, to name but a few–were actually all related to each other in the creation of a certain ‘American’ way of looking at the world by the end of the 1700s,” Paulett said. “Those like De Brahm who didn’t follow this American way of speaking and thinking ended up cast to the side.”

SIUE, according to Paulett,has become increasingly interdisciplinary and supportive of emerging fields in engineering and technology and thus his research and that of many of his colleagues in history becomes especially important.

“Something as seemingly straightforward as technological improvement or scientific advancement actually involved a lot of complicated and messy human decisions and not every consequence was positive,” Paulett said. “Each ‘advance’ came with very real human costs.”

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