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Geographies of Empire: European Empires and Colonies c. 1880–1960 (review)
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Geographies of Empire: European Empires and Colonies c. 1880–1960. By Robin A. Butlin (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009) 673 pp. $125.00 cloth $54.00 paper

For the first century or more of its existence as a social science, geography was closely connected to colonialism and imperial expansion. The discipline has not, however, experienced the kind of severe self-questioning about the relationship that has helped to tear anthropology apart during the last few decades. This immunity may be due to the fact that the colonial connection has never been disguised, or it may be due to the absence of a central, defining, and justifying construct like anthropology’s “culture” that could be exploded by postcolonial criticism. In any case, geography has been spared both the agony and the surge of intense creativity that have transformed anthropology.

This circumstance is immediately apparent in Butlin’s encyclopedic overview of the connections between geography and empire. In his introductory chapter, Butlin surveys a wide range of approaches to understanding imperialism, placing them, when he can, in geographical contexts. He describes and comments on ways in which contemporary geographers have addressed the involvement of their predecessors with imperialism, but he betrays little evidence of reflection about what this involvement implies for the basic concepts of the discipline, either in his [End Page 280] commentary or in the works that he discusses throughout the book. For better or worse, the engagement of recent academic geography with the history of colonialism does not seem to have affected the core of the field in a major way.

Most of the book is divided into chapters defined by standard categories of geographical analysis—population size and movement, patterns of settlement and land usage, mapping, transportation, urban areas, and economic and environmental interactions. In each one, Butlin is mainly concerned to identify the interpretive questions about colonies and imperialism that are prominent in the literature on the topic and to summarize important contributions, sometimes adding his own comments and pointing out, if not often resolving, disagreements between the texts that he summarizes. His emphasis on studies by geographers is helpful because such research is often neglected by specialists in colonial history, but he does not ignore the work of scholars in other fields. Each chapter proceeds methodically—even relentlessly—from one discussion to the next—beginning with a description of the sub-topic followed by sequential summaries of several contributions, comments, and then the next sub-topic. More conventionally historical chapters about exploration and geographical associations are organized in the same way. The book is essentially a compendium, an extremely thorough and useful one, but not a volume that most readers (except, perhaps, students using it as a course textbook) are likely to go through from cover to cover. No central thesis is evident, nor does the author claim that he is presenting one. Scholars are likely to find chapters on topics outside their immediate areas of expertise more interesting than ones that deal with literatures that are familiar to them, but the breadth of coverage is so wide that almost all readers will find a great deal that is new to them.

Woodruff D. Smith
University of Massachusetts, Boston