Creating a Digital Sugar-Cane at Fordham & Columbia

In the summer of 2018, Fordham English graduate students Lina Jiang and Stephen Fragano, along with Associate Professor of English Julie Chun Kim, collaborated with Columbia faculty and graduate students on a project called Digital Grainger. The Fordham-Columbia team’s goal was to build an online, accessible edition of James Grainger’s 1764 poem The Sugar-Cane

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Grainger’s poem, which describes eighteenth-century plantations in the Caribbean, has increasingly been recognized for its important insights into what is sometimes referred to as the “Sugar Revolution.” The intensive monoculture of sugar cane in the Caribbean destroyed local ecologies and required the mass exploitation of enslaved laborers, who were forcibly transported from Africa. The Sugar-Cane addresses the Sugar Revolution in detail because Grainger experienced it firsthand: he lived in the British sugar colony of St. Kitts from 1759 to 1766, and because he also married into a planter family, he had a vested interest in defending the institution of slavery. But because Grainger also was a physician and hoped that The Sugar-Cane would prove his expert knowledge of Caribbean medicinal plants, he filled his poem with lengthy footnotes that made frequent mention of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous uses of plants and interactions with nature. As a result, as Professor Kim explains, the poem “is an invaluable resource for gaining a better understanding of how oppressed subjects survived and resisted the plantation system.” 

The collaboration between Fordham and Columbia Universities on Digital Grainger was made possible by the Fordham-Columbia Research Fellow and Research Intern Program. This initiative provides funding for faculty and graduate students to work together across campuses on a shared research project. For Digital Grainger, the program provided Lina and Stephen with summer stipends so that they could dedicate time to working on the project with other team members. The Columbia team included Cristobal Silva, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Kimberly Takahata and Ami Yoon, PhD candidates in English and Comparative Literature; and Alex Gil, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Columbia University Libraries. Elizabeth Cornell, Director of Communications for Fordham IT, also participated in the project. 

Lina Jiang, Julie Kim, and Stephen Fragano

Lina Jiang, Julie Kim, and Stephen Fragano

In addition to giving participants from both universities the opportunity to expand their scholarly networks, the Digital Grainger project has resulted in the creation of a digital edition of The Sugar-Cane that contains multiple versions of the poem. First, the team created a “Full Text” edition that contains all 2561 lines of the original poem along with Grainger’s footnotes. It is accompanied by over 700 editorial footnotes co-written by the Digital Grainger team. Second, the edition features a scanned a copy of the 1764 poem in its “Page by Page” version, allowing readers ready access to the original edition. 

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Finally, each team member created what might be called a “thematic excerpt” of the poem: each excerpt contains a selection of passages from The Sugar-Cane, prefaced by a headnote that explains why they were chosen for inclusion. These excerpts, grouped under the heading “The Counter-Plantation,” are meant to help readers access the parts of the poem that describe survival, resistance, and rebellion on the plantation. Stephen focused his excerpt on “Animals,” which explores Grainger’s fearful troping of animals, including rats, as threats to the sugar cane crop.

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Lina focused her excerpts on the themes of “Fire” and “Sugar Work”: the former shows Grainger’s worries about enslaved laborers setting fire to cane fields, while the latter highlights both the mistreatment of enslaved workers and their extensive agricultural and technical knowledge of sugar refining (knowledge that planters relied upon). Lina first noticed these passages when she read The Sugar-Cane for Professor Kim’s fall 2017 graduate seminar, “Natural History and Ecology.” “I tried to provide deeper explanations for new readers of the poem,” Lina explains of her goal for the excerpts, “and ones that would help them challenge the poem’s support of the plantation system.” Digital Grainger demonstrates the English Department’s interest in continuing to pursue innovative scholarship: building on her experience with the project, Lina intends to include a digital project in her dissertation. 


Digital Grainger is almost complete and will go live later this semester. Meanwhile, scholarly collaboration between Fordham and Columbia continues to grow and develop. This semester, Lina is taking a course with Professor Silva at Columbia through the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium (IUDC), which allows PhD students at Fordham to take courses at Columbia, CUNY, NYU, Princeton, and Rutgers. Furthermore, members of the team will be presenting the results of their work at several conferences this coming year. In December 2018, Professor Kim will co-present a paper on the creation of Digital Grainger at the Caribbean Digital V conference at the University of the West Indies-St. Augustine. Together with Stephen, Professors Kim and Silva also have proposed a roundtable on using and teaching The Sugar-Canefor the February 2019 biennial meeting of the Society of Early Americanists. Just as their online edition of The Sugar-Cane will continue to inspire valuable new scholarship and rewarding experiences in classrooms, so the team’s work remains ongoing and productive, serving as a prime example of the kinds of exchanges that Fordham’s Graduate English students participate in on a regular basis. Click here for more information about Fordham’s Graduate English programs. 


By John Miele