£1 million grant will unlock uncharted history of the Spanish fleets

Spanish Galleon

Researchers at Lancaster University have secured a £1 million grant to develop Artificial Intelligence approaches to studying colonial Spanish-American history.

The History Department and the Digital Humanities Centre secured the grant from UKRI’s Economic and Social Research Centre.

The project, ‘The New Spain Fleets: delving into three centuries of socioeconomic colonial history through Artificial Intelligence’, will enable the team to focus on creating new ways of studying navigation and socioeconomic history.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Spanish Fleets constituted the centre of the Spanish colonial trade, where commodities, ideologies, convictions, aspirations, and misfortunes navigated in a vast and complex network that would shape the world's social, economic, and political landscape of the Modern Era.

The intense maritime activity carried out by the Spanish Fleets, particularly the New Spain Fleets (those that sailed to and from today’s Mexico), left behind a vast number of historical documents, which have long been of interest to many researchers and non-academic audiences.

However, traditional archival research is dependent upon highly specialised scholars capable of studying Old and Early Modern Spanish manuscripts.

These conditions have limited the scope of research to the study of a handful of documents, covering only a few years, fewer fleets, and even fewer individuals.

The New Spain Fleets (NSF) project aims to make use of innovative computational methods based on Artificial Intelligence techniques to create an unparalleled digital collection bringing together thousands of historical documents related to the Spanish fleets.

The project will produce a series of open-access Handwritten Text Recognition, Natural Language Processing, and Computer Vision models for the automatic transcription and annotation of several hundreds of documents regarding the New Spain Fleets, including ships’ registers and passenger licences.

This will produce the first large digital open collection of the NSF and will unlock the door for creating a step-change in the way History and Archaeology collect evidence and analyse information while transforming knowledge about one of the most important maritime institutions and infrastructures of early modern history.

Senior Research Associate for the five-year NSF project is Dr Rodrigo Vega-Sanchez, a Mexican archaeologist, who specialises in Spanish colonial navigation, early modern Spanish palaeography and digital humanities.

Dr Vega-Sanchez said: “We are very excited to be starting the NSF project, not only because of the enormous amount of historical socioeconomic information it will make available, but also for the many interdisciplinary research collaborations and career development opportunities it will open.”

The project is co-led by Professor Patricia Murrieta-Flores, a Professor in Digital Humanities and the University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Director of Artificial Intelligence Research and Strategy, and Associate Professor Mariana Favila Vázquez, from the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, Mexico.

The wider team includes other colleagues from Lancaster University, the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH, Mexico), the Direction of Underwater Archaeology (SAS-INAH, Mexico), the National Library of Anthropology and History (Mexico), the National Archive (AGN, Mexico), LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin (USA), the University of Cadiz (Spain), the Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain); as well as industry partners Transkribus and LucentiaLab.

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