Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named

Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named

by John Keay

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The Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, begun in 1800, was the longest measurement of the earth's surface ever to have been attempted. Its 1,600 miles of inch-perfect survey took nearly fifty years. Hailed as "one of the most stupendous works in the history of science," it was also one of the most perilous. Snowy mountains and tropical jungles, floods and fevers, tigers…  See more details below


The Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, begun in 1800, was the longest measurement of the earth's surface ever to have been attempted. Its 1,600 miles of inch-perfect survey took nearly fifty years. Hailed as "one of the most stupendous works in the history of science," it was also one of the most perilous. Snowy mountains and tropical jungles, floods and fevers, tigers and scorpions all took their toll on the band of surveyors as they crossed the Indian subcontinent carrying instruments weighing half a ton.

William Lambton, an endearing genius, had conceived the idea; George Everest, an impossible martinet, completed it. This saga of astounding adventure and gigantic personalities not only resulted in the first accurate measurement of the highest peak in the world but defined India as we know it and significantly advanced our scientific understanding of the planet.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this nicely detailed chronicle, British historian Keay (India: A History) portrays the arduous half-century Great Arc project as a pathbreaking scientific undertaking and as an adventure that transcended politics. He introduces George Everest, a cantankerous British colonel who, appointed surveyor-general of India, never saw the famous mountain named after him. Everest's life's work, and obsession, was the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, a benchmark series of measurements running from India's southern tip up to the Himalayas. Begun in 1800 (Everest came on board in 1818), the Great Arc was a basic tool of British imperial domination, paving the way for commerce, conquest, the building of roads, canals, railways and settlement. Razing whole villages, appropriating sacred hills, exhausting local supplies and facilitating tax assessments, the Great Trigonometrical Survey (which spawned the Great Arc) and its sister project, the Survey of India, epitomized the mutual incomprehension and distrust that characterized British-Indian relations. While Keay gives a nod to the impact that British mapmaking had on the Indian people, his narrative, as quaintly colorful as a 19th-century watercolor, focuses on the logistics of the Great Arc (an army of men, instruments, elephants and horses hauling a half-ton theodolite and braving tiger-infested jungles), on the science of surveying and on the monumental ego of Everest, an irascible martinet whose arrogance ultimately tarnished his achievements. Maps, photos and illustrations throughout. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Scottish historian Keay, who has written three other books about the region, tells the tale of a great endeavor to map 1600 miles of the Great Arc of the Meridian. The project took the entire first half of the 19th century, cost more lives that most contemporary wars, required equations more complex than any in the pre-computer age, ended a long dispute over which mountains were the world's highest, and resulted in Mount Everest being named for a man who never saw it. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Product dimensions:
5.36(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.53(d)

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Chapter One

A Baptism of Fever

The word 'jungle' comes from India. In its Hindi form of jangal, it denotes any area of uncultivated land. Indian jungles are not necessarily forested, and today less so than ever. But well away from centres of population there do still survive a few extensive and well-wooded jungle tracts, especially in eastern and central India. Often they are classed as game sanctuaries, a designation which implies few facilities for the visitor but some much-advertised protection for the wildlife.

Here tigers and elephants yet roam, hornbills flap about in the canopy like clumsy pterodactyls, and hump-backed boar rootle aggressively through the leaf mould. In the dry season a safari might seem an attractive prospect. But be warned: 'dry' is high-baked. Like splintering glass, dead leaves explode underfoot to alert the animals. The tracks of crumbled dirt are hard to follow, spiked with ferocious thorns, and spanned by man-size webs patrolled by bird-size spiders.

The wet season is worse still. Then, the vegetation erupts. The tracks become impassable, and the air fills with insects. Only fugitives take to the jungle in the monsoon. Fugitives and, in days gone by when maps were rare, surveyors. In the year 1819, in just such a tract between the Godavari and Kistna rivers in what is now the south-eastern state of Andhra Pradesh, an English Lieutenant, lately attached to the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India and uncommonly keen to make his mark, underwent a baptism of fever.

Matters had gone badly for the twenty-eight-year-old Lieutenant from the start.Barely a month into this, his first season in the field, he had been confronted by a mutiny. 'The infliction of corporal punishment is an odious task,' he noted. But it was either that or abandoning the assignment. His escort obviously knew the perils of the monsoonal jungle and had seized every chance of escaping from the camp back to the city of Hyderabad. Something had to be done. Not without misgivings, the Lieutenant ordered one of these defaulters to be thrashed, whereupon the whole troop, about forty in number, took up their weapons and announced that they would decamp en masse. The British bluff had been called; in this insignificant and still today unfashionable comer of the subcontinent the myth of empire was at stake.

As might be inferred, by 18 19 the British were already well on their way to becoming masters of India. Some areas had been won by conquest and were now under direct British rule; others were merely attached by treaty and remained nominally independent states under their own rulers. This was the case with the large principality of Hyderabad, through whose densest jungle the Kistna and Godavari rivers converged on the coast. Special permission had been obtained for the Great Trigonometrical Survey to operate in Hyderabad; but in 'a native state' the standards of subservience exacted in areas under direct British rule could not be taken for granted.

In fact, they could seemingly not be taken at all other than at the point of a gun. The mutineers, who now repaired to the nearby shade of a mango orchard, comprised a detachment of local troops lent by Nizam Sikander Jah of Hyderabad to protect and assist the British survey. In addition, the Survey had its own escort of twelve men who had been recruited in British territory, were paid out of the Survey's budget and had already amassed many years of loyal service. This in-house escort was now ordered to load muskets and take aim at the mutineers. A volley into their midst was threatened if they did not immediately surrender.

The ploy worked. The mutineers submitted, and this time the Lieutenant offered no apology for calling for the cane. Three men were publicly flogged, then dismissed; and thus, the Lieutenant tells us, 'was settled, very early in my career, a disputed point which had been a source of constant contention and annoyance to Colonel Lambton ever since his entering into the Nizam's territory'.

Colonel Lambton was the originator and now Superintendent of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. For seventeen years he had been spinning a web of giant geometry across the Indian peninsula without ever having had to thrash any of its teeming peoples. Tactful, patient and indestructible, Lambton seemed immune to India's frustrations, the result of a long wilderness experience in North America and of an attachment to science so obsessive and disinterested that even his critics were inclined to indulge him. Colonel Lambton beguiled India; but Lieutenant George Everest, his eager new assistant, chastised it.

The name, incidentally, was pronounced not 'Ever-rest' (like 'cleverest'), but 'Eve-rest' (like 'cleave-rest'). That was how the family always pronounced it, and the Lieutenant would not have thanked you for getting it wrong. Years later a fellow officer would make the mistake of calling him a 'Kumpass Wala'. No offence was meant. 'Kumpass Wala', or 'compass-wallah', was an accepted Anglo-Indian term for a surveyor. Everest, however, accepted nothing of the sort. He detested what he called 'nicknames' and, though it was not perhaps worth a dawn challenge, he demanded -- and received -- abject apologies. Getting on the wrong side of George Everest was an occupational hazard with which even British India would only slowly come to terms.

With the mutiny quelled and the mutineers 'finding that, when they knew me better, good behaviour was a perfect security against all unkindness', a self-righteous Everest pressed on for the jungles beside the Kistna. It was July, the month when the monsoon breaks. On time, the heavens duly opened just as he climbed a hill to his first observation post.

Survey work was conducted during and immediately after the monsoon because, regardless of the discomfort, it was only then that the dust was laid and the heat-haze dispersed. In the interludes of bright sunshine, the atmosphere was at its clearest...

The Great Arc. Copyright � by John Keay. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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