- Masters of All They Survived: Exploration, Geography, and a Bristish El Dorado.
Turn-of-the-century popular novels about British Guiana, such as Frank Atkins’s The Devil-Tree of El Dorado (1896) and Robert MacDonald’s The Rival Treasure Hunters: A Tale of the Debatable Frontier of British Guiana (1910), sought to justify Britain’s right over territory disputed with Venezuela and Brazil through their indigenous characters, who clamor to be British and who seek protection from latter-day slavers in neighboring countries. “I think you are British in any case,” one of MacDonald’s characters assures the descendants of an Incan group, holed up in a mountain studded with diamonds, “for the flow of the waters, it has been decided, is the real boundary, and your lake drains into the Potaro, no matter where the outside rivers go” (345).
The origins of this idea that territorial differences might be settled according to Britain’s superior ability to safeguard Amerindian rights and through selective interpretations of “natural” boundaries is one of the many historical and geographical patterns traced by D. Graham Burnett in his powerful study Masters of All They Surveyed. British Guiana is one of the more overlooked gems in nineteenth-century Britain’s crown. Much of the scholarship about Guiana divorces it from its context as Albion’s only possession in South America, amalgamating it with the slave and sugar plantation economies of the British West Indies. Masters of All They Surveyed, however, expertly redresses this imbalance, using Guiana as a “point of departure for a revision of attitudes towards the boundary itself and its history” (258) generally, while simultaneously sketching its particular role.
Focusing in a broadly chronological way on the explorations of Robert Schomburgh—who in the 1830s and 1840s undertook a number of surveying expeditions into the interior of Guiana—Burnett’s book charts the construction of a physical and rhetorical identity for British Guiana that arose out of a complex combination of “absent-minded imperialism,” the evolving role of the explorer and geographer, and the vagaries of personal ambitions and abilities. Burnett’s analysis of “instrumentation—speciroduction,” proposes that “colonial territory came into being as a result of the passage of certain individuals—explorers and surveyors—who made distant land posssessable by means of a set of powerful linked texts” (2); at the same time, geographical construction of a colony like Guiana ultimately depended on the progressive erasure of the “idiosyncrasies of the explorer’s experience” (16). Chapter 2 particularizes this claim by exposing British Guiana’s preoccupation with precedent, legitimating passages, artefacts, and precursors and by charting explorers’ obsessive engagement with their predecessors’ routes (which, in Schomburgk’s case, meant that of Walter Raleigh in his search for El Dorado in the 1590s). The chapter offers a fruitful analysis of earlier maps of Guiana and crucially inserts the story of the Carib leader Mahanarva into the discussion.
Chapter 3 considers the construction of terra incognita and its significance to the execution and reception of Schomburgk’s first expeditions. In Chapters 4 and 5, the book’s core, Burnett offers a compelling account of how Schomburgk’s expeditions fashioned landmarks and their implications to the practice of geographical exploration and colonial consolidation. These landmarks, he demonstrates, were inscribed onto the “wilderness” of the interior, recorded in Schomburgk’s books, turned into icons through the exhibition of the enormous Victoria regia lily, and evoked through a mythologizing of the near-void interior of Guiana as “thickly colonized by Amerindian spirits” (183). They also relied on a dialectic about the visibility and invisibility of the geographer’s own body in which the geographer served on one level as “master of all I survey” and on another level found himself effaced from the geography being depicted or mapped.
“Boundaries,” Chapter 6, broaches questions of demarcation and delimitation and related border arbitration in different areas of the territory. With its deconstruction of the concept of “natural” boundaries and its contention that territorial appropriation in Guiana took place in “a...