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  • Surveying and Mapping in Colonial Sri Lanka: 1800–1900
  • Subho Basu
Surveying and Mapping in Colonial Sri Lanka: 1800–1900. By Ian J. Barrow. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008. 232 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

In recent years, colonial mapping of South Asia has drawn the attention of a substantial number of scholars. Following J. B. Harley’s works, these studies tend to problematize maps as an objective scientific entity. Mathew Edney, for example, in an influential study regarded colonial [End Page 160] mapping as discursive tool of British imperial domination of India.1 Manu Goswami asserted that national space, a notion that implies a territorial-political isomorphism of India, was produced by economic exigencies of the British imperial state in the mid and late nineteenth century.2 Sumathi Ramaswamy has outlined how colonial maps were transformed into anthropomorphic forms of mother goddess symbolizing motherland in the Indian nationalist imagination.3 Ian J. Barrow, who is definitely a leading figure among scholars engaged in studying maps as a scientific intellectual tool of colonial control and domination, has argued in his earlier monograph Making History, Drawing Territory that colonial maps simultaneously signified the British possession of India and highlighted the separateness of British identity from Indian identity through a divergent projection of histories of possession.4 In his current work on the history of surveying in Sri Lanka under Dutch and British rule, Barrow follows research threads of his earlier study in a rather uncharted field.

Barrow starts with a simple query: why did the colonial survey office of Sri Lanka produce inferior-quality maps? The obvious implication of his investigation is that maps are essential tools of modern governance and rule of property. For him, inferior quality maps produced by a colonial survey department cast doubts on the modernity of the British regime in Sri Lanka. Barrow establishes his case in two different ways. First, Barrow starts with the wider theoretical question about the universalistic nature of science introduced through the agency of the colonial state. His verdict is in favor of the much disputed, theoretically loaded term “colonial science.” For Barrow, the scientific exercises of the colonial state, such as surveying, were so deeply embedded in the colonial power relationship that results of such scientific works cannot be viewed as universal. Barrow also contests the wider consensus [End Page 161] in Sri Lankan historiography that after the colonial state reformed its administrative apparatus in 1833, modernity “burst in upon the colony.”5 In the process, Barrow problematizes two broad streams in Sri Lankan history that placed the colonial state at the center stage of the island nation’s political development. Instead of viewing the colonial state as the harbinger of progressive modernity or alternatively as super exploiter of the local population, Barrow maintains that the colonial state was rather an incompetent institution incapable of instituting far-reaching changes. For him, the survey department, a crucial tool of the colonial government in controlling peasantry and land, was a rather mediocre, cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus that failed to match the expectations of a modern state.

Barrow elucidates his argument through a detailed empirical history of the survey and settlement department. He starts his story with the Dutch survey of coastal Sri Lanka, which was under Dutch control for nearly 138 years. He argues that the Dutch surveyors Jacob Burnat and Altendorff produced the most accurate map of the coastline of Sri Lanka. According to Barrow, the establishment of a survey department was intricately tied to British colonial expansion in Sri Lanka. The British ruling elites established the department in August 1800 soon after taking control of Dutch possessions in maritime Sri Lanka, and the department witnessed a revival when the new province comprising the Kandyan kingdom was added to their dominion. Yet the department was soon saddled with the responsibility of public works, such as road building, and thus was overburdened with work. Moreover, the surveyor general’s office was coupled with the position of civil engineers, and thus road building acquired priority over surveying. Barrow moves forward with a depiction of a decaying survey department that neither built good quality roads nor produced an adequate number of good maps...