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  • The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America Before Independence by S. Max Edelson
  • Deryck W. Holdsworth
The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America Before Independence. By S. Max Edelson (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2017) 464 pp. $35.00

This wonderful book is a weighty 350 pages of always interesting text that draws from several generations of scholarship by historians and historical geographers, with a twenty-seven-page map bibliography linked to a stunning web compilation ( Some of the maps are detailed, large-scale surveys of fortifications, towns, or plantations; others are linear surveys of extensive river valleys or portrayals of vast regions. Coverage stretches from Newfoundland and the maritime northeast, a land of fish and fur, to Caribbean islands where further sugar plantations were anticipated. Edelson gives particular attention to the tricky issue of the frontier, including in his scope the Indian territories west of the Alleghany Mountains and the surveys to assess the plantation potential of the former Spanish lands in Florida. The map collection is the foundation for seven well-argued chapters.

These maps were the basis from which London’s Lords of Trade and Plantation, or the Board of Trade in its later labeling, considered the best scenarios for managing the American colonies from the end [End Page 147] of the French and Indian Wars (1763) to the War of Independence. They regarded the earlier royal and proprietary colonies as messy and often corrupt, concocting plans for the better management of colonial settlement in newly acquired territories through direct control. New lands needed detailed surveys, and the promotion of plantations and settlements benefited from new high-resolution maps. Not surprisingly, many lands proved to be less desirable than surveyors had imagined.

The Board of Trade also sought to limit the western expansion of American settlers by delineating Indian-controlled lands west of the Allegheny Mountains. These lands were later incorporated into an enlarged Quebec for governance. Edelson considers each map as evidence of a metropolitan vision of American space. A contemporary rendering of London, however, situating the Treasury Building in Whitehall with its four rooms for the Plantation Office, where all these maps, atlases, and reports were collected and consulted, would have further enriched the text.

Rather than quibble with the depth of coverage for certain regions, or the treatment of particular cartographers and surveyors, in such a magisterial effort, some vital enabling factors should be noted. This book can stand as a model for how the digital humanities can foster individual scholarly excellence. Thanks to the fellowships and grants that made this book possible, future researchers are spared from having to visit dozens of scattered archival and map depositories; the maps now exist on one stunning web platform.

Edelson’s chapters offer a compelling argument about what led American colonists to resist an imagined imperial geography. American settlers, who struggled for generations to make their respective colonies home, erased the lines on the maps that sought to bind them to a British commercial realm. Canadian readers aware of ongoing Indian claims to their part of Turtle Island, however, might bristle at the author’s use of the term settler colonialism, but that is a topic for another book!

Deryck W. Holdsworth
Pennsylvania State University


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pp. 147-148
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