How empire made the British at home

Geography Militant
October 19, 2001

Geography Militant" was Joseph Conrad's 1923 nostalgic idealisation of Europe's quest to eradicate the "exciting spaces of white paper" on maps. Though it was prosecuted by dedicated and courageous men of science, scholars have long recognised that explorers were the point-men of imperialism and not selfless seekers of geographical knowledge.

Exploration was - and remains - a key component of the West's imperial project. The issue for Felix Driver in this all-too-brief study is how the practices of exploration were articulated in imperial culture at home, or, rather, imperial cultures. In examining the production and consumption of narratives of African exploration in late 19th-century Britain, Driver corrects those post-colonialists who tend to construe "colonial discourse" as being in essence homogenous.

It is impossible to do justice to all the ground that Driver covers as he comes to grips with Britain's "cultures of exploration". From his initial, wonderfully succinct statement of the constructivist understanding of geography - as comprising a collection of disparate practices, carried out in specific spaces (the field, the library, the lecture hall and so on), through which geographical knowledges are authored and negotiated - to his final reflections on the persistence of exploration's cultural significance into the 1990s, Driver examines the cultural divisions within and contested responsibilities of the Royal Geographical Society; the divide between field observation and studious reflection; the politics surrounding the identity claimed for David Livingstone (missionary, geographical scientist or imperial pioneer?); the self-reinvention of the literary flâneur Winwood Reade, first as an explorer and then as a self-professed martyr to science; the debates that swirled around Henry Stanley's violent, sensationalist and ungentlemanly explorations/expeditions into central Africa; the ambiguous legal status of African children exhibited at the Stanley and African Exhibition of 1890 (if not slaves, how were they still property?); and the exploration of "Darkest England" by social reformers. Through all these episodes, the meaning of African exploration was debated by a varied cast of devout Christians and free-thinking atheists, socialists and conservatives, anti-slavery humanists and outright racists, high-minded moralists and imperial pragmatists, and sober scientists and sensationalist populists. This wide-ranging inquiry is built from plenty of original materials, manuscript and printed, and supported with an extensive secondary literature.

The result is a persuasive study of the centrality of exploration and empire to the formation of British identities in the 19th century. But it is also a very frustrating study. The topic is so large that Driver seems barely to scratch its surface. Without full explication, the many revealing quotations and images tantalise the reader. Every chapter cries out to be a book in its own right. Moreover, Driver's reliance on the printed and archival traces left by middle and upper-class men means he cannot say much about the significance of exploration in working-class or female cultures. But these omissions are understandable when we realise that this book is simply the first cut at a huge pie. Historians of geography and empire must adopt the lessons of this book.

Matthew H. Edney is associate professor of geography-anthropology, University of Southern Maine, United States.

Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire

Author - Felix Driver
ISBN - 0 631 20111 4 and 20112 2
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 258

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