Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843

Matthew H. Edney, Author
Matthew H. Edney, Author University of Chicago Press $42 (480p) ISBN 978-0-226-18487-6
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Paperback - 458 pages - 978-0-226-18488-3
Book - 467 pages - 978-0-226-18486-9
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Many of us trust maps to represent reality--the world, drawn to scale. University of Southern Maine geographer Edney demonstrates the naivete of this view with his scholarly history of British cartography during the days of the East India Company. In the 18th century, British soldiers, travelers and artists investigated the Indian landscape through erratic route surveys, producing maps and drawings based on subjective or erroneous observations. The Great Trigonometric Survey conducted by George Everest and others in the 19th century was supposed to replace this hodgepodge with accurate, scientific knowledge. A uniform map would facilitate an infrastructure of roads, railways, telegraphs and canals. Moreover, the British thought that the very discipline of surveying would teach the Indians ""habits of order, regularity, industry, and moral rectitude."" The dense detail here about triangulation will be more than the non-specialist wants to know. But this case study offers broadly applicable insights into the relationship between ideology, technology and politics. Surveying in India was thwarted over and over again by local resistance, prohibitive expense and lack of manpower, so that the veneer of orderly science masked underlying chaos. Nonetheless, the resultant maps hanging on office walls in London powerfully symbolized British territorial claims and later shaped the idea of India for the Independence movement. Carefully read, this is a tale of irony about wishful thinking and the limits of knowledge. (Aug.)
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