A Web-Accessible Database and Travel Map Tracing Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia as Described in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

By Mark Polczynski ~ https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5427-7601


Novelist, biographer, journalist, and critic Rebecca West (born Cicily Isabel Fairfield) has been called one of the 20th century’s most brilliant and forceful writers. In the mid-1930s she made several trips to the Balkans to gather materials for her 1941 opus magnum Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – A Journey Through Yugoslavia. Her obituary in The Times (London) remarked that the work is “as astonishing in its range, in the subtlety and power of its judgement, as it is brilliant in expression”. For the historian, West’s book provides insightful observations about the people and places of a lesser-known region of the world just a few short years before the region was devastated by World War Two and subsequent violence[1]. Beyond this snapshot in time and place, the book includes detailed historical background reaching back hundreds of years in a region that gave rise to the term balkanization[2], and at over 1,000 pages in two volumes, the reader (and historian) can become overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of the material. Consequently, a straight read-through of the work can make it difficult to follow the many historical and geopolitical threads entangled in the region.

The purpose of the project described here was to create a web-accessible database and travel map tracing West’s route that can aid in navigating these threads. This post provides descriptions of the project materials generation process, the data repository where project materials can be accessed, and the on-line web map where the places and travel routes cited in the book can be viewed. The post concludes with a brief discussion of the means whereby ambiguities regarding places and routes described in West’s book were resolved.

Project Materials Generation Process

The first step in creating the project materials was to generate a table of the places mentioned in the book. This table was then checked against West’s hand-written diary[3] covering the journey, and adjustments were made as needed. Table 1 shows the top portion of the places table.

Place IDBLGF NameModern NameTypeWeb LinkGeoNames ID
2Babun MountainBabunaWaypointhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babuna_(mountain)https://www.geonames.org/796084/
3Bad GasteinBad GasteinWaypointhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bad_Gasteinhttps://www.geonames.org/2782058
4Badia IslandOtok BadijaWaypointhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badijahttps://www.geonames.org/3204641/
Table 1: Top section of places table

The first column of the table gives the place name as spelled in West’s book, the second column gives the modern name and spelling of the place. Places are of two types: layovers where West spent one or more evenings, and waypoints where West passed through, visited on short excursions off the main travel route, or viewed from the travel route. The Link column provides a link to a website for the place (usually a Wikipedia entry), and the GeoNames ID column provides a link to the GeoNames[4] database entry for the place. Both the web link and GeoNames link can be used to locate the places on web maps such as Google Map and Google Earth.

The second step in the process was to create a table of travel routes between places as described in the book and checked against West’s diary. The top section of the routes table is shown in Table 2.

Route IDFromToMode
Table 2: Top section of routes table.

The first column of the table identifies the route segment numbered sequentially starting with the first segment mentioned in the book, and the second column shows the mode of travel. The third and fourth columns show the starting and ending point of each segment. For example, the first route mentioned in the book is a train ride from Salzburg to Zagreb.

The next step in the process was to create a map of the places and routes in the tables described above. Map creation was done using QGIS[5] . Places were located on the map using coordinates provided by the links in Table 1. Travel routes were traced by incorporating an OpenStreetMap[6] layer into the QGIS project and visually tracing the routes on the map. The places and routes layers created in QGIS were stored in GPKG format[7] . Three period maps were also checked to aid in identifying the most likely auto and train routes traveled by West in 1937. The maps were accessed through the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection[8], as shown in Table 3. The maps can be accessed through the links shown.

Map NamePublicationDateDavid Rumsey Historical Map Collection Link
Nr. 16. Oesterreich-UngarnSteiler’s Hand-Atlas1911https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/pg47ot
Nr, 51. Balkan-HalbinselSteiler’s Hand-Atlas1911https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/cq75t5
51. SerbienSteiler’s Hand-Atlas1914https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/bct89i
Table 3: Period Maps.

Once the places and routes were added to the QGIS project, these features were converted to a KMZ format file[9] that can be displayed by applications such as Google Earth[10]. Figure 1 shows the KMZ file map displayed in Google Earth[11]. Here, layovers are shown as red points and waypoints are shown as green points. Auto, boat, and train routes are shown as brown, blue, and magenta lines. The figure shows an example information box for Travnik (opened by clicking on the place’s associated point) containing information derived from the places table.  Similarly, information boxes for travel routes show information derived from the routes table.  The links in the information box are live and lead to the associated web pages.

Figure 1.  Map of travel places and routes displayed using the project’s KMZ file displayed in Google Earth.

The final step in the process was to make the places and routes tables, the KMZ map, the GPKG files, and the web-based map generated by the project available to the public, as described below.

Access to Materials

The places and routes tables, the KMZ map file, and the GPKG format files created in QGIS can be accessed through the Harvard Dataverse, a free data repository open to all researchers from any discipline, both inside and outside of the Harvard community, where researchers can share, archive, cite, access, and explore research data, available at: https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/BLGF-TM/.  The on-line web map can be accessed through HarvardWorldMap, an online, open-source mapping platform developed to lower barriers for scholars who wish to explore, visualize, edit, and publish geospatial information, available at: https://arcg.is/0aqzrn.  Figure 2 shows this map and the information box for a place on the map.  Here, the Link and Geo-ID links in the information box are live and lead to the associated web addresses contained in the places table.  Similar information boxes are provided for travel routes.

Project materials contained in the project’s Harvard Dataverse repository and those provided through the Harvard WorldMap are covered by a Creative Commons CC0 license – No Rights Reserved.  To the extent possible under law, the creator of these materials has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to the materials.

Resolving Ambiguities

Two types of ambiguities were encountered during this project.  First, occasionally sections of West’s book do not correlate with equivalent sections of her diary.  Second, in some cases modern maps show multiple potential routes between places mentioned in the book.

Regarding the first case, an example of a discrepancy between the book and the diary occurs in the book’s Epilogue, where West traces the route Budva to Kotor by auto – Kotor to Sushak by boat – Sushak to Zagreb by train with a side-trip to Plitvise Lakes by auto, but her diary traces the route Budva to Raska by auto – Raska to Belgrade by train – Belgrade to Zagreb by train – Zagreb to Plitvitse Lakes and back to Zagreb by train and auto.  Another example is her boat trip from Sushak to Rab.  The book has a chapter on Senj, but this place is not mentioned in the diary.  The diary does mention a stop at Krk on the way from Sushak to Rab, but examination of the map’s travel route by boat from Sushak to Rab via Krk indicates that it might be difficult to view Senj from the boat.  In situations such as this information provided by the diary supersedes descriptions in the book, with places and travel routes portrayed accordingly.

Figure 2.  On-line web-accessible Harvard WorldMap of book travel places and routes.

Regarding the second case of multiple potential routes, period maps were used to select the most likely route.  For example, there are several train routes from Belgrade to Skoplje shown on OpenStreetMap, but Figure 3 shows a section of the Oesterreich-Ungarn map cited above with a rail line from Belgrade to Skoplje running through Kraguevac-Kraljevo-Raska as described in the book.  Using these places and the other places on this rail line as shown on this period map allows selection of West’s likely route from Belgrade to Skoplje.


West’s work provides valuable insights into the origins and nature of conditions in a region of the world that continues to see violent confrontations among many ethnic groups.  It is hoped that the materials described here can aid in an understanding and appreciation of those conditions.

Figure 3: Section of train route from Belgrade to Skoplje through Kraguevac and Raska as shown on the Nr. 16. Oesterreich-Ungarn map (image used with permission).


[1] Indeed, the book’s dedication reads: “To all my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved”. 

[2] Balkanization can be defined as the fragmentation of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states that may be hostile or uncooperative with one another – usually caused by differences of ethnicity, culture, religion, and other factors such as past grievances.  This definition fits the subjects of West’s book perfectly.

[3] Access to a scan of the diary was provided by the  Beinecke Library (https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/) at Yale University.

[4] GeoNames (https://www.geonames.org) is a free geographical database containing over 25 million geographical names and over 11 million unique features that can be added to and edited by users.

[5] QGIS is a free and open-source cross-platform desktop geographic information system (GIS) application that supports viewing, editing, and analysis of geospatial data (https://qgis.org).

[6] OpenStreetMap is a collaborative project to create a free editable geographic database of the world.

[7] GPKG (GeoPackage) is an open, standards-based, platform-independent, portable, compact format for transferring geospatial information.  GPKG files can be imported into GIS applications such as ArcGIS and QGIS.

[8] The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection is one of the world’s largest private map collections with over 150,000 maps and cartographic items(https://www.davidrumsey.com/).

[9] KMZ is a compressed form of a Keyhole Markup Language (KML) file format for expressing geographic annotation and visualization within two-dimensional maps and three-dimensional Earth browsers. KML was developed for use with Google Earth, which was originally named Keyhole Earth Viewer.

[10] Google Earth is a free computer and mobile device app that renders a 3D representation of Earth based primarily on satellite imagery (https://earth.google.com).

[11] Use of the image of Figure 1 conforms to Google Earth permission guidelines. (https://about.google/brand-resource-center/products-and-services/geo-guidelines/).

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