Myths not maps make a nation's borders

Masters of All They Surveyed
January 18, 2002

This book aims "to understand the place of maps, explorers and geographical knowledge in the history of imperialism". What it actually delivers is an absorbing story of British claims to and exploration of British Guyana.

Here are all the traditional stories of intrepid gentlemen going off into the wilds, wrangles about funding, disputes about what they have discovered and how known or unknown it was before they found their way there, how they marked their presence, the loss of all their plant samples in a catastrophe, competition for recognition back home and disputes with other European claimants. Woven in is the thread of the uselessness of it all in such a terrain, but this becomes clear only in the conclusion.

The scholarly and exhaustive nature of the research is clear, and gives a very good idea of the country. After covering the erroneous descriptions of earlier travellers, most of the book concentrates on the journeys of Robert Schomburgk and how he attempted to establish the borders of the only British colony on the South American mainland.

During one of his home visits to England, Schomburgk published Twelve Views in the Interior of Guiana . Through discussion of each illustration, giving the background to its depiction, and how myth and local history helped to establish it as a landmark and the need to fix points on the land so they could be transferred to the map, Graham Burnett shows how unreliable such coordinates are and how subjectively they have been established. It is not enough to draw lines on the map for boundaries, they must be recognisable on the ground, too, and accepted by the inhabitants. The explorer is continually trying to go beyond known boundaries, but the surveyor must stay within them, an unresolved dichotomy faced by Schomburgk in his later work.

The story of the discovery and exploitation of the enormous water lily, Victoria regia , is fascinating. Though seen by other explorers, it was Schomburgk who managed to get this "vegetable wonder" back to England, where a special house was built for it at Chatsworth. It went on show to hundreds at Kew; it appeared as the frontispiece to Twelve Views ; and it became fixed on maps of the colony. It was turned into a symbol for Guyana, as well as for tropical fertility. The words " Victoria regia discovered" can be found on Schomburgk's map, almost as a geographical landmark. The plant is no longer listed in the Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder , though at the time it was made a genus in its own right in honour of the queen, not included among the Nymphaea family.

This is ostensibly the story of the surveying of a single country so boundaries could be established and imperial possession obtained. Those lines on the map almost brought Britain and the United States to war at the end of the 19th century, and they are still under dispute at the beginning of the 21st century.

The author has used Guyana for his example, but many other parts of the world could equally have been utilised to convey the message that no amount of arbitration report volumes, based on land surveys or explorer's accounts, can establish a boundary where none exists on the ground. It was the belief of European imperialists that they could possess land by showing it as belonging to them on a map, "by reliance on memetic artefacts rather than local and dynamic methexis", even when there was no participation or engagement with it.

Susan Gole is international chairman, International Map Collectors' Society.

Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado

Author - D. Graham Burnett
ISBN - 0 226 08120 6 and 08121 4
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £28.50 and £17.50
Pages - 298

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