Historical story

TomTom for history

Last updated:2022-07-25

HISGIS, a historical geographic information system, has added a new map:that of Amsterdam. Anyone who likes it can now get to work with historical data from the 19th century, spread over the city map. Time travel is so close…

Geographical information systems (GIS) have become an important part of our lives without us realizing it. The TomTom also falls under this. And say for yourself, who can find their way without it? A geographic information system is therefore actually a system with which location data or information about geographic objects are not only stored but also processed, compared with other information and analysed.

GIS in history

The use of GIS has not yet fully penetrated the history sciences:it is actually mainly used in archeology and building history. HISGIS hopes to be able to change this. Historical information, such as the use of plots, the names and professions of the owners or their voting behaviour, are data that you can access and compare on the HISGIS site.

The system links the information to the map of Amsterdam and voilà, you see how voters concentrated in certain areas of the city or where different religions lived together or separately and how that changed over time. We owe the map that forms the basis of this extensive information system to Napoleon Bonaparte.

After Napoleon added the Netherlands to his enormous French Empire in 1810, a number of administrative matters changed. He introduced the Code Napoleon, the French civil code, with a legal system that was equal throughout the country. In addition, he set meters and kilograms (where measures and weights initially differed per city), every citizen had to register with the new civil registry from now on with a (self-invented or already existing) surname and he created the land registry.

He took these measures to be able to administer justice more efficiently, to levy taxes to pay for his campaigns and to be able to call up men for military service. However, these national administration and bureaucratic instruments turned out to be a lot more convenient than the administration and bureaucracy per region or city. Dutch administrators therefore continued to use them, possibly slightly modified, after Napoleon and his army were chased out of the country in 1813.

The land registry is a register of immovable property, such as houses and the land on which they are located, that is maintained by the government. Under Napoleon the first measurements started and by 1832 the surveyors had mapped each plot and the details of the owners had been recorded. The Netherlands was completely in the picture for the first time. Before the cadastre was created, mapmakers also made maps, but these were mainly city maps, maps of a specific area or nautical charts.

These older maps therefore did not cover the whole of the Netherlands. This also applies to the collected data. Before Napoleon centralized data logging, they were collected by city. The Protestant church registered people who were members of their congregation in the Baptism, Marriage and Burial Registers. People of other faiths could have their marriage concluded by the city council, but they cannot be found in the Baptism books. All these data from before 1810 are therefore not complete.

Napoleon's data in HISGIS

Some HISGIS maps, such as those from Friesland, use data from the seventeenth century or even the Middle Ages, but HISGIS Amsterdam is mainly a handy tool for research into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The maps on the site have been made digitally:they are therefore not existing maps from the nineteenth century that have now been scanned, as is the case with the watwaswaar.nl site. The oldest cadastral map from 1832, with associated owner and parcel information, forms the foundation on which all digital information about the landscape, heritage and social and economic developments in the past is hung.

Several scientists supplied the tables with data for this coat rack. For example, Peter Ekamper of the NIDI (Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute) edited the population data from 1851-1853 and historian Jan Hein Furnée from the University of Amsterdam collected and ordered the voter data from 1853.

HISGIS was created by scientists and the makers mainly target colleagues for use. However, the floor plans and the linked data are also interesting for anyone who wants to know more about the developments within a certain area. But how do you analyze the data found? Students can already practice at the easier-to-use educational site eduGIS for Geography. If you want to get started with historical research and analyzes at HISGIS, you will find an explanation of the method on the site.

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