Tag Archives: India

Mapping an Empire

Mapping an Empire

Matthew H. Edney’s book Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India 1765-1843 is not a book one grabs to read before bed. In fact it is almost impossible to digest in the week that we scheduled to discuss it in my directed reading meeting.  It is, however, an excellent text book on the history and science of surveying and construction of empire. I mean the latter quite literally on paper (maps) and ideologically (colonial minds so to speak).  That being said, it is difficult to provide a simple overview to that Edney’s work is all about. One one level, a base level if you will, it is about mapping. It is also about colonialism, empire, governance, surveying, and more precisely control.

It is surprisingly short on illustrations, although the few it has are excellent. It provides a nice overview to what he calls “A Spatial History of India.” He takes it from the ideological roots of mapping and space representation through to the hard on-the-ground creation of teams that surveyed and marked up the subcontinent into something economically and empirically (and Imperially) useful. What may come as a surprise (or not, depending on how familiar the ready is with Indian history) is that the institutionalization of early colonial India was, in many ways, re-appropriated during independence. Edney does well to distinguish between British India and India proper early on. There are also tedious notes in the introduction explaining the exchange values of British and early Indian currency in their historical values and what they may (roughly) be translated into today.

To take full advantage of this book, it should be taught over the course of a semester when there is enough time for in depth analysis and discussion of the myriad of points made about India, British India, and “Cartographic Anarchy.”  If you do plan to use this book in class go one step further and pair it with D. Graham Burnett’s Masters of All they Surveyed. Both books are from University of Chicago Press–Edney’s in 1990, 1997 and Burnett’s in 2001.  The baselines are the same and while Eden’s covers India, Burnett’s looks at British Guyana and surveying in the South American colonies. There are numerous areas of comparison available to see what exactly was standard policy and practice and what was changed because of the idiosyncratic problems surveys and (colonial) government officials faced on the ground.

Masters of All They Surveyed

I picked up Masters of All they Surveyed back in 2008 to take along on an archaeological field site/school in Belize ran by the University of Texas-Austin. Like Mapping an Empire it is now a casual read in the jungle field diversion. I described to my field colleagues (who were reading things like Rosetta Key  by William Dietrich) as reading someone’s dissertation. Because of the surveying I trudged through it, and in spite of the work, enjoyed it. Moreso now as I see how it follows Edney’s and was one of the books suggested for this reading series.

The Surveyor's Life

The surveying is what hooks me to both of these works. I actually worked as a surveyor during the time I was between going to university. I also worked as a carpenter (which I had done since I was 14), and a boilermaker, but so far neither of those has really permeated colonial science culture). The company I worked for mainly shot right-of-ways and roads for oil well pads and the like. Before I started, one of the owners (who, incidentally, I found out later had went to high school with my grandfather) was an expert witness on the boundary dispute case between the US and Mexico. One of the guys on my grew was the GPS holder for the survey that established the final boundary. He said the work consisted of holding the GPS staff on the US side of the Rio Grande, taking a reading, and then wading to the Mexican side for another reading. This is exactly the same sort of thing that Edney and Burnett talk about in their books.


The process has not really reduced in price either. The total stations, which are a vast computerized and laser improvement to the early British surveyor tools are still hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are one time purchases for a surveyor tool that costs more than a house.  Further ironically, having put off posting this until the weekend, my TimeHop app showed me some posts from a few years ago when I was talking about that very job. What had sparked the memory then was a trip to the Norman downtown Post Office next to some of the city buildings. There in front of city hall as it were is a statue of Abner Norman for whom the town is named. It is a fantastic statue with the man carrying the tools of the surveyor’s trade.

Abner Norman statue downtown Norman, OK.
Abner Norman statue downtown Norman, OK.
Statue detail
Statue detail

The power of surveying and mapmaking cannot be overstated in cases of early colonial power markers and even modern international borders. They are emblems of order among natural chaos, they are tools or empire as easily as rifles or steel propellors are (see Headrick’s early Tools of Empire).  Of all the work that was put into industrializing and creating a colony from architecture to agriculture it is all based on the backs of these early ground expedition crews.  My own research looks at the same men working for, first, the Railroad Surveys, and then the USGS surveys, as they marked out the American West. Maps and Empire lie at the heart of the artifacts and authenticity world that I have slowly built around my work. It is almost as if the surveyors and mapmakers could fall into the hipster class of imperialists. They were there before the merchants, before the buildings, and if it weren’t for them getting into things at the “indie” level (some with government backing–and instruction) you would not have even known where to sail your trading vessel.

All this focus on Britain “out in the world” really belies the argument that it happened here in the US as well. Most people see American History starting in 1776, but it actually goes back much further than that even for just the white people. One of the interesting things is you can follow the same carving up of the North American eastern seaboard in much the same manner as Edney does in India and Burnett does in Guyana. They were products of the Empire as well. I am sure there are the same instances in Australia, but I am not as familiar with their history as I probably should be. To that end I will close with a song that highlights that same struggle and impact as are in both of these books. The song follows two members of the Royal Society as they sail to the American Colonies in order to establish an authoritative line in a border dispute between Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Mason-Dixon Line has become a “dead metaphor” in the US and is more of a cartoon (or television in general) trope of the line demarcating “Yankee Land” from “The South.” It behooves us all to remember that we are not separate form this process, but are fully influenced by the very same policies that shaped British India and British Guyana.


Nature’s Government


In the modern vernacular Richard Drayton’s 2000 book Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World falls somewhere between a “mic drop” and ” could’ve had a v8.” That is to say that his main argument that Britain was just as influenced by its colonial holdings as its colonies were by the crown is either an astonishing bombshell of historical argument or is the most obvious thing you have ever heard. As you follow his argument from the broadest coverage of colonialism down to the minutiae within the offices of Hooker and Gladstone in Kew and Parliament (respectively).

Tipping the scales at just under 350 pages, including nearly 75 pages of notes, this comes in as one of the most dense works read in this series.  The work spans 500 years of history but these centuries are not divided equally throughout the text. The bulk of the work looks at what historians call the “Long 19th Century” which spans from the French Revolution to The Great War (World War I). This section covers much of the same ground as the previous accounts on the Kew Gardens and Hooker’s network of collectors. What it adds is more interaction between Hooker and politics which he had little or no control over. If we compare it to the previous book on Hooker we have people like Gladstone treating Hooker in much the same way he was treating his underling collectors Colenso and Gunn. (If that does not ring a bell, see the post “Imperial Nature“).


India, the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown, shows up with some real heft in the latter portion of the book and it would be a useful addition to any seminar on Indian history even removed from the broader narrative of nature, botany, and Kew (which, incidentally is really impossible to do once Drayton reveals how important they all were to each other). That this book is not part and parcel of every general Victorian England course since its publication in 2000 is a bit of a missed opportunity. While it is not a book one would casually pick up at Barnes and Noble, it is both readable to a general interest audience and in depth enough to be used as a textbook.

bird of paradise flower

Drayton also provide a large canvas to analyze what the subtitle called the ‘improvement’ of the world.  Like many of the Renaissance paintings (if we are to stay with the painting analogy) Drayton’s canvas is painted on both sides. The most obvious, and most displayed side, is the general unidirectional history of how Britain conquered the the world, brought in multitudes of land, culture, and innumerable people under the crown, and how the sun never set on the British Empire without asking permission first. It is when Drayton’s canvas is flipped that the reader is given a view of the influence that flowed back upstream and  into the head of the largest landowning government in the world. That powerhouses of trade and politics in London were (and could be) influenced, however indirectly, is exactly that point which makes this book either breathtakingly important or glaringly obvious.

The importance that agriculture (specifically botany and forestry in the case of Drayton’s smaller argument) played on the establishment and continued success of such an empire is also something knew for readers who are only family with England as a “nation of shopkeepers.”   He even admits in the preface that another subtitle might have been “The agrarian origins of the British Empire” (xvii). As someone who grew up on a farm in the middle of the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas and was active in the Future Farmers of America (FFA)–including Forestry–in high school this seems like a more obvious direction of inquiry than not. Even one of the most popular authors of the 19th century was involved in agricultural reform all across the British Empire.  H.Rider Haggard was sent to South Africa to work of the governor, and through a series of reappointments managed to be on hand when the British annexed the Transvaal. While not evident in his adventure novels, British colonial agricultural practices were an enormous part of Haggard’s life.

Bath Butterfly

The book is lavishly illustrated–even with color plates!–for a university press. Colored plates, maps, and photographs are not random choices, but each further the argument that Drayton structures throughout the text. The chosen illustrations go well beyond the standard portraits of the Joseph’s (Banks and Hooker) in move into very helpful visual analysis additions to the text. It is little wonder that the math through the preface work out Drayton’s labors to around a 15 year endeavor. My favorite image for image sake is Joseph Banks as a Bath Butterfly. My choice for the image that warrants having another book written about it is an image connected with Hooker’s “absentee master” status at Kew. Drayton reveals that it was all Hooker’s traveling abroad, taxonomy work at home, and presidency of the Royal Society that allowed William Thistelton-Dyer to work as the de facto director of Kew even before Hooker officially retired. The photograph shows Joseph Hooker on a collecting trip to, of all exotic places available in 1875, the American West. Since a third of my comps are overseen by a professor of art and art history of that same American West, I was excited to see this connection. Especially given that my original connection to even visiting the University of Oklahoma came under the guise that I would be studying Victorian Science  (and under the very person that I am working through this reading list with). While 1875 is a bit late to be looking at the U.S. as a colony, it does reveal Imperial Science knows no geographic, political, or temporal bounds.

Hooker in the American West

If there is no other example of Drayton’s argument within the book, the very existence of this work would do well as an object lesson for his philosophy.  “Richard Drayton was boen in the Caribbean and educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale. A former fellow of St. Catharine’s College Cambridge, and Lincoln College, Oxford. he is currently (2000) Associate Professor at the University of Virginia” (from the back duskjacket). On top of the back and forth of the author through the academy, the book was published by Yale University Press’ London office.