The Americas 61.2 (2004) 270-271
[Access article in PDF]
Histories of British empire in the Americas tend to emphasize British activities in North America and the Caribbean. D. Graham Burnett reminds us that Britain's imperial project began with the sixteenth-century exploration of what is now Guyana by Sir Walter Ralegh, whose quest for El Dorado produced not only dreams of wealth and glory but an early map of Guyana's interior. As Burnett shows, later authorities would both appropriate and amend this map as part of the process of staking nineteenth-century territorial claims. In a book that draws from methods of literary analysis, imperial history, and the histories of science and cartography, Burnett uses the case study of a human agent (surveyor Robert H. Schomburgk) active in a mid-nineteenth century colonial territory (British Guyana) to further two distinct scholarly projects. First, Burnett analyzes traverse survey techniques for insight into cartographic and navigational science. Second, he looks at how imperial governments used science to justify territorial claims. Burnett's work, which draws heavily on Schomburgk's diaries, reports and maps, introduces the explorer as a key agent of empire as well as important to histories of discovery and science.
At the heart of the book is the story of Schomburgk's commitment to making a traverse survey of the British colony of Guyana, a small territory tucked between Venezuela and Brazil on the northern coast of South America. Schomburgk, a German-born and naturalized British citizen twice mapped Guayana in the 1830s and 1840s at the combined behest of the Royal Geographic Society and British government. In the process of drawing from Ralegh's example in order to surpass the earlier explorer's findings, he claimed territory and residents for Britain's empire. Burnett argues that Schomburgk both set and exceeded boundaries and limits, laid the foundations of a long-standing border dispute that would pit British Guyana against its neighbors Brazil and Venezuela, and influenced Guyana's image of the national body as one in constant danger of "dismemberment."
Burnett first delves into the arcana of the theoretical underpinnings and naval origins of the traverse survey, and the ideal surveyors found in Alexander von Humboldt's examples of rigorous, repeated measurement. Burnett brings the reader on the explorer's cartographic journey, using tools of literary and historical analysis to examine how theoretical ideas affected practice. Interested in the contingent nature [End Page 270] of mapmaking and empire-building, Burnett reexamines the surveyors' mental construction of place and inclusion of "landmarks" selected from among existing landscape features to argue that the selection process undermines the legitimacy and utility of boundary markers. That is, Burnett shows mapping's power to both draw attention to and dematerialize real places. Imperial mapmaking was both a scientific and highly personalized process, with explorers' interests influencing both procedure and production; boundary surveys produced "an ambivalent process of progressive erasures" rather than "a crescendo of imperial expansion" (p. 256).
In Burnett's analysis, Schomburgk emerges less as a terrible figure, as previously portrayed, and more as a well-meaning but sometimes bumbling and inefficient scientist who loses instruments to rust as well as accident and has limited success with meteorological observation due to relentlessly overcast skies. He is a "pilgrim" retracing Ralegh's steps, a sympathizer with indigenous peoples who nonetheless frequently misinterprets their names of topographical features for place names, and a firm believer in British moral superiority, at least as regards management of native peoples. Burnett seems to sympathize with Schomburgk's perspective, portraying Brazilian and Venezuelan governance and cartographic practices in broad and derisory brushstrokes and arguing that the series of maps produced in subsequent Boundary Commission efforts cancel each other out. In dismissing historical maps on which nineteenth- and twentieth-century officials based their nationalist geographic imaginings, Burnett misses an opportunity to...