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  • Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India
  • Lisa Blansett
Matthew Edney. Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765–1843 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). Pp. 458. $35.00.

One of the major Enlightenment projects undertaken by the British lay in the area of measurement. Indeed, a kind of fetish for accuracy formed the foundation for a variety of instrumental practices that affected social order, spatial planning, and state formation. Another project was the construction of the British Empire, pushing the boundaries of the kingdom beyond the reaches of the setting sun. Examining the intersection of these two projects from an interdisciplinary perspective is a prodigious undertaking. Matthew Edney, whose academic title itself defies disciplinary boundaries, has produced an excellent study of mapping and empire, interesting and provocative in its analysis of the collusion between cartographic practices and the practices of “conquest and government” (1). As “associate professor of geography-anthropology and American and New England studies and faculty scholar in the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at the University of Southern Maine” (book jacket), Edney has sought to dismantle the notion that the map is the territory, that it functions as an accurate and transparent transcription of the world. In fact, Edney rather boldly calls the assumptions underlying the realist-map “incorrect and lazy” (339). Despite this single instance of moralizing, his work modifies the assumptions of positivist science that he finds in the history of cartography and geography. Instead he examines shared codes and representations of “the arena of overlap between the ideology of map-making and the ideology of empire” (32). [End Page 113]

The book is thus presented as a revision, and as such, sets out to transform the way scientists, including geographers and, to a certain extent, historians of cartography, have seen and re-presented one textual object, the map. To this end, Edney incorporates recent theories of representation, textuality, and cultural production. His most prominent invocation is of Michel Foucault, in particular his theories of knowledge detailed in The Order of Things (trans. 1970) and his history of the disciplinary panopticon (Discipline and Punish [trans. 1977]). Edney argues very ably that surveying, mapmaking, and the material map create an archive of knowledge, which then provides the reproducible documents for systematic control of India. Most compellingly, to my mind, he suggests that the map itself becomes the master metaphor of the archive and of knowledge, the symbol of property and domination.

Edney’s comprehensive study covers the construction of the archive from the surveys of Bengal conducted by James Rennell, for the East India Company from 1765 to 1771, to the end of the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) under the towering figure, George Everest. Of the book’s four parts, sections 1 and 2 function in part as background in that they provide a history of science and an overview of the East India Company’s work in India. I found these two sections the most interesting: Edney theorizes the map and the gaze, as well as the class, racial (and, only briefly noted) gender implications of practicing British empiricist science; and how, through mapmaking, the British were able to create “an essentialist opposition between the Indians and themselves” (33). In addition, parts 1 and 2 detail important epistemological ruptures between its two historical points. With a variety of drawings, he demonstrates how science and aesthetics figure the gaze, as evinced in representations of the picturesque in India which, consequently, had to be refigured to fit the landscape. Edney also traces the differences between the two types of survey, the route survey with surveyor pushing a perambulator over hill and dale (all the while avoiding the odd pothole in the road), and the GTS in which “the surveyor first calculated the relative positions of locations and then plotted them” (105). The latter method is more abstract and more accurate, and creates a more perfect panopticon for the British. The British also used the mathematical skills required of trigonometry to create a “socio-intellectual hierarchy,” and “hierarchical division of labor by race” to keep most Indians out of helping map their country, thus limiting indigenous...

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pp. 113-115
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