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Mapping an Empire; The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843

Mapping an Empire; The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843

by Matthew H. Edney

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In this fascinating history of the British surveys of India, Matthew H. Edney relates how imperial Britain used modern survey techniques to not only create and define the spatial image of its Empire, but also to legitimate its colonialist activities.

"There is much to be praised in this book. It is an excellent history of how India came to be painted red in the


In this fascinating history of the British surveys of India, Matthew H. Edney relates how imperial Britain used modern survey techniques to not only create and define the spatial image of its Empire, but also to legitimate its colonialist activities.

"There is much to be praised in this book. It is an excellent history of how India came to be painted red in the nineteenth century. But more importantly, Mapping an Empire sets a new standard for books that examine a fundamental problem in the history of European imperialism."—D. Graham Burnett, Times Literary Supplement

"Mapping an Empire is undoubtedly a major contribution to the rapidly growing literature on science and empire, and a work which deserves to stimulate a great deal of fresh thinking and informed research."—David Arnold, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History

"This case study offers broadly applicable insights into the relationship between ideology, technology and politics. . . . Carefully read, this is a tale of irony about wishful thinking and the limits of knowledge."—Publishers Weekly

Editorial Reviews

D. Graham Burnett
There is much to be praised in this book. It is an excellent history of how India came to be painted red in the nineteenth century. But more importantly, Mapping an Empire sets a new standard for books that examine a fundamental problem in the history of European imperialism.
Times Literary Supplement

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University of Chicago Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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Mapping an Empire

The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765â"1843

By Matthew H. Edney

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1997 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-18488-3


The Ideologies and Practices of Mapping and Imperialism

The activities of the East India Company in sponsoring science are an obvious point of approach to the whole ideology of British rule. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India shows the workings of British policy better than still another study of Macaulay's education minute. Susan Faye Cannon, 1978

Imperialism and mapmaking intersect in the most basic manner. Both are fundamentally concerned with territory and knowledge. Their relationship was the subject of Jorge Luis Borges' famous fantasy of an empire so addicted to cartography that its geographers constructed an "unconscionable" map at the same size as the empire itself, coinciding with it point by point. This satire is rooted in an important realization: knowledge of the territory is determined by geographic representations and most especially by the map. Geography and empire are thus intimately and thoroughly interwoven. "In order to set boundaries to their empire and to claim to have reached those that were marked out," Claude Nicolet writes of the Romans, they "needed a certain perception of geographical space, of its dimensions and of the area they occupied." More generally, Nicolet argues, "the ineluctable necessities of conquest and government are to understand (or to believe that one understands) the physical space that one occupies or that one hopes to dominate, to overcome the obstacle of distance and to establish regular contact with the peoples and their territories (by enumerating the former and by measuring the dimensions, the surfaces and the capacities of the latter)." To govern territories, one must know them.

In the case of the British conquest of South Asia in the hundred years after 1750, military and civilian officials of the East India Company undertook a massive intellectual campaign to transform a land of incomprehensible spectacle into an empire of knowledge. At the forefront of this campaign were the geographers who mapped the landscapes and studied the inhabitants, who collected geological and botanical specimens, and who recorded details of economy, society, and culture. More fundamentally than even Susan Cannon recognized, the geographers created and defined the spatial image of the Company's empire. The maps came to define the empire itself, to give it territorial integrity and its basic existence. The empire exists because it can be mapped; the meaning of empire is inscribed into each map.

Imperial British India was far more dependent on maps than early imperial Rome had ever been. The steady expansion of map literacy in Europe since 1450—driven by new print technologies, protocapitalist consumption, and humanist culture—meant that by the eighteenth century the map had become, and has since remained, the dominant vehicle for conveying geographical conceptions. The intellectual process of creating, communicating, and accepting geographical conceptions, whether at an individual or sociocultural level, is thus often referred to as "mapping." It is a process which in the modern world depends heavily on the actual production of maps, which is to say mapmaking per se. Just as, in Samuel Johnson's phrase of 1750, "when a book is once in the hands of the public, it is considered as permanent and unalterable; and the reader ... accommodates his mind to the author's design," so maps shape and manipulate mental geographical images. The mapmaking process and the resulting maps are in turn dependent on aculturated conceptions of space. As with any other form of representation—graphic or textual, artifactual or ephemeral—meaning is invested in all aspects of cartography: in the instrumentation and technologies wielded by the geographer; in the social relations within which maps are made and used; and, in the cultural expectations which define, and which are defined by, the map image.

This study of the surveys and maps which the British made in and of South Asia during the first hundred years of their ascendancy is accordingly a study of the British conceptions of what India should be. It is a study of how the British represented their India. I say "their India" because they did not map the "real" India. They mapped the India that they perceived and that they governed. To the extent that many aspects of India's societies and cultures remained beyond British experience and to the extent that Indians resisted and negotiated with the British, India could never be entirely and perfectly known. The British deluded themselves that their science enabled them to know the "real" India. But what they did map, what they did create, was a British India. Wrapped in a scientistic ideology, each survey and geographical investigation was thoroughly implicated in the ideology of the British empire in South Asia.

A Spatial History of "India" to 1780

The creation of British India required the prior acceptance by the British of "India" as signifying a specific region of the earth's surface. Changes in the European involvement with Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced important changes in geographical conceptions, which were in turn more broadly accommodated and disseminated through cartographic representations. The issue here is that unless a region is first conceived of and named, it cannot become the specific subject of a map. Conversely, a mapped region gains prominence in the public eye. For example, there could be no maps of "Southeast Asia" until the Second World War, when the several colonial spheres of interest were replaced by a single theater of war; the distribution of maps of that theater subsequently led to the general acceptance of Southeast Asia as a region sufficiently coherent and meaningful to warrant its own academic discipline. For South Asia, changing economic and political activities led to new geographical conceptions which, by the later eighteenth century, had developed into an image of India that coincided with the territory of the subcontinent and which was given meaning by the commercial and imperial ambitions of the British.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans conceived of Asia as an ill-defined series of exotic and fabulously wealthy countries. There was Cathay (China), Cipangu (Japan), and "the Indies." The conception of the Indies derived from Hellenistic Antiquity. It originally signified all the lands east of the Indus, the traditional eastward limit of the Hellenistic world. The Hellenistic image of the Indies was adapted by Renaissance Europe from the geographies of Ptolemy and Strabo and, although the Ptolemaic map was quickly supplanted by new maps constructed by Portuguese navigators, the Hellenistic nomenclature survived. India intra gangem—the Indies this side of (within) the Ganges—comprised all the lands lying between the Indus and the mouth of the Ganges and included the peninsula, which Ptolemy seems to have transformed into Taprobana, the oversized Sri Lanka. India extra gangem—the Indies beyond (outside of) the Ganges—comprised all the lands further west, specifically Indochina and modern Indonesia. Some Renaissance geographers carried the name to its logical extension and called China "India superior." Christopher Columbus's conviction that he had indeed reached the Indies in 1492 resulted in the name being transplanted to the New World. The Indies henceforth became the East Indies, or East India. Thus, the London merchants who sought to compete with the Portuguese in the spice trade, and for which they received a monopoly charter from Elizabeth I in 1600, soon acquired the popular name of the "East India Company."

The initial plan of the English merchants was to establish trading centers in what is now Indonesia in order to control the supply of spices. They did so, but were evicted by their Dutch coreligionists in 1623. The English resorted to trading across the whole width of the Indian Ocean, from Arabia and East Africa to the Malay peninsula and further east to southern China. They established several trading centers, known as "factories," of which three on the coast of the subcontinent were dominant by 1700: Madras (Fort St. George), Bombay, and Calcutta (Fort William). The East India Company appointed a council of traders at each of these factories to manage the Company's affairs in each portion of the subcontinent. Each small bureaucracy was known as a "presidency" because its governing council was headed by a president; this name continued to be used even when the three small administrations were transformed into major territorial governments.

The three presidencies were functionally distinct during the initial period of English involvement in South Asia, that is, before the mid-eighteenth century. Administratively, none were responsible for the others. More often than not, they competed rather than cooperated with each other. The principal presidency was Madras. Bombay and Calcutta gave access to the markets and produce of the great Mughal empire, which dominated the north of the subcontinent, but the empire also regulated the English traders. Madras, on the other hand, lay on the southern fringes of Mughal power so that the English there enjoyed much greater economic flexibility. Located at the center of the Indian Ocean trade routes, and set up as an early version of a free-trade zone, Madras flourished. The French Compagnie des Indes sought to emulate the English success when it established its own factory at Pondicherry, just to the south of Madras.

European maps accordingly framed the subcontinent in three distinct ways in this early period. Beginning in the early 1500s, general maps showed the traditional region of the Indies, from the Indus to Indochina. The subcontinent was, of course, a prominent feature of these maps, but it was not their focus. Later in the sixteenth century, Europeans began to produce maps that framed only the peninsula south of the river Krishna, the area of their principal involvement. The third framing developed in the early seventeenth century and focussed on the polity of the Mughal empire. These maps emphasized the seat of Mughal power in the northern plains. They also included the Mughal territories west of the Indus: the Punjab, the Hindu Kush, and on occasion Afghanistan. They omitted the peninsula.

The three framings began to merge in the eighteenth century. In part, this was a manifestation of the Enlightenment's encyclopedic mentality, which produced massive tomes intended to present all available knowledge to their bourgeois readership in a systematic manner. Geographical encyclopedias took the form of huge multivolume texts, which contained many small maps, as well as huge multisheet cartographic extravaganzas. These maps were constructed at such large scales, and were physically so big, that the cartographer could simply copy data directly from survey maps into the expansive graticule of latitude and longitude; he would not have to omit any data to ensure the new map's legibility.

The prominent French cartographer J. B. B. d'Anville published the first such map of the Indies in 1752. He constructed his Carte de l'Inde in four sheets at a scale of about 1:3,000,000 (figure 1.1). It comprised almost one square meter of paper, too large to be reproduced here in its entirety. It was framed like all other maps of the Indies, extending from the Indus to the China Sea, with the subcontinent on the left and Indochina on the right. It was not much smaller in scale than maps of the two regional framings, and d'Anville copied data from them directly into the larger frame. The quality of d'Anville's sources was variable. As the region of most European activity, the peninsula was shown in greatest detail; d'Anville used the same sources to construct a somewhat larger-scale map just of the Carnatic, which was published in 1753. For the rest of the Indies, d'Anville's data was so sparse that the map was dominated by substantial areas of white space. D'Anville himself acknowledged that he would never have made this map with such sparse data had not the Compagnie des Indes specifically commissioned him to do so; nor was he reluctant to express his dissatisfaction with the map once it had been published.

More significantly for the idea of India, the southward expansion of Mughal power under Aurungzeb (reigned 1658–1707) in the later seventeenth century led to the merging of the two regional framings in the early eighteenth century. As the empire now encompassed all but the southernmost tip of the subcontinent, in name at least, European cartographers extended their maps of the empire to incorporate the peninsula. Hermann Moll's "The West Part of India, or the Empire of the Great Mogul" (1717) is just one of several maps which equated the subcontinent (the west part of the Indies) with the empire (figure 1.2). The map's frame now encompassed the entire region usually considered to be India per se, specifically the lands south of the entire circuit of northern mountains and including the lands west of the Indus. Nonetheless, there is still an ambiguity in such maps between the old regional concept of the Indies and the Mughal empire.

It is no coincidence that the early eighteenth century was also the period when the English and the French began to meddle seriously in South Asian politics. The prize was the immense revenue derived from land taxation, revenue which promised to far surpass the profits which could be realized even by monopoly trade. Initially, both European trading companies rented out their regiments to Indian princes; soon they sought to control the princes' finances directly. During the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the global rivalry between the English and the French spilled over into a struggle for control of the Carnatic. A paradoxical consequence of this conflict was a major shift in English interests away from the south to the north, to Bengal, and to the heart of the Mughal empire. In what might have remained a comparatively minor aspect of the war, a small British army under Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey in 1757, by intrigue as much as by force of arms. The English merchants found themselves in control of one of the richest provinces of the Mughal empire. Clive subsequently negotiated, in 1765, a formal position for the Company as the province's diwan, or chief financial and administrative officer. Thereafter the Company steadily eroded the position of the Nawab until they pensioned him off altogether in 1772.

The Company's dramatic territorial growth subsequent to Plassey did not take place in a vacuum. At home, the Company's territorial gains did not please many in Parliament. A series of political arguments over the very existence of the Company culminated in William Pitt's India Act of 1784. The Company's mercantile and territorial functions were separated in order to curb the excesses of the 1760s. As Calcutta was now the most important presidency, its governor was promoted to be governor general of Bengal and given authority in political and military affairs over both the Bombay and Madras presidencies. The governors and the commanders-in-chief of all three presidencies were henceforth to be appointed by the British Crown. And, perhaps most importantly, a parliamentary "Board of Control" was established to oversee, and if necessary to veto, the decisions made by the Company's directors; the board's president became a member of the cabinet. The 1784 act accordingly serves as a useful date for marking the conversion of the Company from a mercantile corporation to a major territorial power. I should also note that the conscious efforts at this time by the English to incorporate the Scots into the home and colonial governments meant that the English East India Company is henceforth more properly referred to as being British in character.

In South Asia, the British territorial acquisitions were part of the larger process of the Mughal empire's slow disintegration. The forms and rituals of the empire remained, and the mughal himself remained the wellspring of authority. Even so, actual control of Mughal territories increasingly devolved onto the provincial governors and to new territorial powers. The Marathas had long been in conflict with the Mughals in western India and they now established new dynastic states. They also entered into a three-way contest for control of the empire, competing with the Afghans and the Mughals themselves; by the 1780s, the East India Company had replaced the Afghans in the struggle.


Excerpted from Mapping an Empire by Matthew H. Edney. Copyright © 1997 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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