Quantifiers of a land hard to measure

November 21, 1997

MAPPING AN EMPIRE:The Geographical Construction of British India 1765 - 1843. By Matthew H. Edney. University of Chicago Press, 458pp, Pounds .95. ISBN 0 226 18487 0.

Throughout the centuries India has been fortunate in its geographers. They have been admirably curious about the country's rocks and soils, its animals and plants, its weather, its economy, its habitations and monuments, and its peoples. From Panini the grammarian and Megasthenes the Greek, through Fa-hsien and Hsuan-sang, Al-Biruni and Al-Idrisi, lbn Batuta and the European visitors from the 16th century onwards, accounts of people and places in India have been most compellingly told in geographical form: for geography, of all the fields of study, offers the greatest potential for combining approaches to knowledge from a diversity of subjects; and it is particularly attractive to politicians, administrators and soldiers who recognise the usefulness of knowledge and the power given them by possession of it.

As the British moved from trade to rule in India, they needed to know about the countryside. From the mid-18th century the employees of the East India Company mapped the land. At first, these cartographic exercises were uncoordinated and idiosyncratic, and often the results were kept in manuscript and held secret for fear of giving away intelligence to military opponents. But during the period covered by Matthew Edney's magnificently researched book, great efforts were made to give coherence to map-making and to impart some systematic scientific rationale to the work. James Rennell, the first surveyor-general of the Bengal presidency, and his colleagues in the 18th century, made their maps by preparing detailed route guides, measuring distances between towns and by noting rivers and other topographical features. But early in the 19th century, William Lambton undertook the first trigonometric survey of part of the Madras presidency. This came to be the favoured method of cartographical exploration and by 1843 when George Everest retired as surveyor general of India, a major trigonometrical survey of the whole continent was under way.There was to be no great change in the technology of map-making until the advent of aerial photography.

This scientific enterprise has always been given some prominence in the histories of British India. Without new and better information, particularly about the lie of the land, how could the East India Company have marched its armies about, or raised the revenues on which their state depended? And it has always seemed clear, not just in the history of India but in the history of science also, that the sort of enterprise of which the making of good and accurate maps is a classic example, is an essential element in the making of the modern state and the creation of modern societies.

Edney shows us that arguments formulated in this way are not sustainable. In his detailed trawl through the records of the East India Company he shows just how difficult it was to map India and how contrived the result. We should not be deceived by neat lines drawn on paper: they bear but faint reality. The land is hard to measure, the techniques of doing so are many, and they are in competition with each other for recognition and for resources. Use a chain to measure distances, and by the time a month has passed, the wear on the links has increased its length; observe the stars and relate observation to mathematically constructed tables of where the moons of Jupiter should be, and you are likely to get different results from those taken off the ground; try making a trigonometrical survey of the great Gangetic plain where for hundreds of miles there is no eminence to give you a distant view; combine observation and calculation with hearsay and the written records of the past and soon you discover that your map is no simple representation of the truth.

And all this is before difficulties of human organisation intrude themselves. The Company had an interest to know about India and to make a map; but it was a complex organism. It had a headquarters in London, but others in Bengal, Madras and Bombay. There were military officers and civil officers and there was competition between them; they were ranked in curious professional and social hierarchies; they had to deal with those outside the organisation - people who opposed men walking about with flags and measuring rods and who obliterated the marks engraved in stone. Sometimes these people came to help and offered information; but this was unchecked and often uncheckable. No one wants to pay tax, and from time out of mind the Indian villager adopted ways of preventing his land from being assessed. At the end of the 19th century, most of east Bengal was still unsurveyed; the government of Madras was discovering thousands of unrecorded acres.

So mapping a century and a half ago was not so accurate, nor so rational as maps themselves would have us believe. Edney has uncovered an enormous amount of information which transforms our understanding of the British in India and of the cultural context of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, the book is a bit heavy going: as the author himself might easily have written, the thickly textured prose, striving for a deftly nuanced argument about the creation of a geographical archive which deconstructs the epistemological and ontological claims to truth made by the British as they drew down uncritical inspiration from the rationalism and scientism of the Enlightenment project to privilege their claims to rule and to establish their imperial Self and separate it from the Indian Other, occasionally lacks a lucidity of style and simplicity of expression which an inattentive reader might sometimes take for a tenuous grasp of methodology and a paucity of new ideas - a conclusion which would not do justice to the author's scholarship but which suggests the need for a firmer editorial hand in turning a thesis into a book.

More depressingly, Edney's view of knowledge (like that of too many of us at the century's end) is a rather pessimistic one. He has, in fact, made a significant contribution to our understanding of the technical, social and political difficulties of learning; but he argues this in a framework which is clouded by philosophical and metaphysical doubt about the nature of knowledge and which implies the most sinister of motives for its acquisition. Mapping an Empire has no room in its thesis for the belief that India, the land and its peoples, really exists, or, that if it does, it is either interesting in itself or ever really knowable, especially to "outsiders": we are dealing with constructions and inventions and interpretations, and they are all tainted.

I do not believe that the Indian cartographers, however blinkered they may have been by their situation and their time, did not have a burning desire just to know; or that we, looking back on their efforts, cannot take some pleasure in their achievements as we must surely hope our successors might enjoy the scholarly and scientific work of our generation.The world is full of wonderful things to be known and understood; and we should not shy guiltily away from the quest for knowledge or the uses to which it is put. We demean our intelligence and our critical faculties, we lose our sense of awe and our capacity for compassion if we find the origin of the scholarly vocation only in "the serpent beguiled me, and I did eat".

Gordon Johnson is president, Wolfson College, Cambridge, and director, Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.

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