Maps, myths and empires

Making History, Drawing Territory
August 13, 2004

Maps are by their nature controversial. They pretend to science but depend on art. For getting from A to B they offer the accuracy of a scientific survey, but as something to hang on the wall, they assert the licence of graphic representation. Either way, every map "presents an argument", as Ian J. Barrow puts it. A map tells a story, and old maps tell old stories. The cartographer must work within the limitations of technology, the requirements of his employer and the prejudices of his age.

His product is certainly a valid historical resource.

In Making History, Drawing Territory , Barrow joins a growing band of scholars engaged in interpreting such material from the most exhaustively mapped territory outside Western Europe, namely India in the 18th and 19th centuries. But, despite its subtitle ( British Mapping in India, c. 1756-1905 ), his book is, as he admits, "only tangentially" a history of this endeavour. Rather, is it an ambitious and often provocative argument about power and territorial control derived from selected case studies to do with maps.

Postage stamps or currency notes might have served just as well. The circumstances of their issue would need to be scrutinised, as would their dimensions, iconography and typography. Clues about the cultural presumption of the issuing authorities might then emerge. But in the process it would be easy to forget that banknotes are currency and stamps are used for posting letters. Just so with maps. In India, the British surveyed and mapped for strategic and fiscal reasons. They wanted to secure their acquisition and realise its potential. Other considerations, such as demonstrating the superiority of British science, legitimising colonial rule, airing notions of possession, refashioning history, extolling the enlightened nature of imperialism and bolstering the sense of a transcendent British national identity, were incidental.

Barrow argues otherwise, but not always conclusively. An examination of the dedicatory cartouches embedded in the maps of the 1780 Bengal Atlas of James Rennell could simply reflect the conventions of the age. They scarcely amount to a credible exercise in rehabilitating the reputation of the East India Company. Likewise, the maps themselves, spattered with battle sites, could be read as portraying the company in the role of aggressor rather than as "the logical and seamless successor to Mughal rule".

The Great Trigonometrical Survey, a mammoth exercise in establishing a mathematically sound framework for all maps of India, did have a wider significance. Matthew H. Edney in Mapping an Empire (1997) explored its significance as a paradigm of acquisition and mastery. Barrow merely compares it to the cut-price surveys conducted in Sri Lanka and highlights its psychological value as a display of technical wizardy.

Lord Curzon's efforts to reinstate the memory of the Black Hole of Calcutta furnish an excellent example of myth-making but have very little to do with maps. And while the naming of the world's highest mountain in honour of George Everest, a surveyor-general, was indeed controversial - and still is - the man is long since forgotten. Yet the name remains. If this is an example of "reverential history" and "charlatanic" national triumphalism, it seems to have misfired badly.

Barrow's research is impressive and his conclusions stimulating, though the one struggles to substantiate the other. The general reader may be challenged by sentences such as: "The construction of the Black Hole complex, the manipulation of emotion by means of a mapped tour of specific locations, the disingenuous assumption of racial narratives, were all endeavours by the Government of India to fuse the Empire's needs for enthusiastic and loyal subjects with its prevailing preoccupation for detailed knowledge regarding facts, events and original moments." But specialists in colonial history, cartography and cultural studies will appreciate his ideas and wish to test them elsewhere, while book-lovers in general will want to congratulate Oxford University Press, India, for reinstating the fold-out map.

John Keay is the author of The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India was Mapped and Everest Named .

Making History, Drawing Territory: British Mapping in India c. 1756-1905

Author - Ian J. Barrow
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 212
Price - £21.99
ISBN - 0 19 566546 5

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