Maps and Empire: New Books

Three academic books out this month deal with the subject of mapping, surveying, and empire-building:

The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence by S. Max Edelson (Harvard University Press) covers the period between the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. From the publisher:

Under orders from King George III to reform the colonies, the Board of Trade dispatched surveyors to map far-flung frontiers, chart coastlines in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, sound Florida’s rivers, parcel tropical islands into plantation tracts, and mark boundaries with indigenous nations across the continental interior. Scaled to military standards of resolution, the maps they produced sought to capture the essential attributes of colonial spaces—their natural capacities for agriculture, navigation, and commerce—and give British officials the knowledge they needed to take command over colonization from across the Atlantic.

Britain’s vision of imperial control threatened to displace colonists as meaningful agents of empire and diminished what they viewed as their greatest historical accomplishment: settling the New World. As London’s mapmakers published these images of order in breathtaking American atlases, Continental and British forces were already engaged in a violent contest over who would control the real spaces they represented.

Maps and visualizations to accompany the book are available online[Amazon]

The First Mapping of America: The General Survey of British North America by Alex Johnson (I. B. Tauris) seems to cover similar territory, if you’ll pardon the pun, though I have very little information about it. [Amazon]

Finally, Daniel Foliard’s Dislocating the Orient: British Maps and the Making of the Middle East, 1854-1921 (University of Chicago Press) “vividly illustrates how the British first defined the Middle East as a geopolitical and cartographic region in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through their imperial maps. Until then, the region had never been clearly distinguished from ‘the East’ or ‘the Orient.’ In the course of their colonial activities, however, the British began to conceive of the Middle East as a separate and distinct part of the world, with consequences that continue to be felt today.” [Amazon, iBooks]

Related: Map Books of 2017.

Empty Maps and Virgin Territory

Herman Moll, New England, New York, New Jersey and Pensilvania, 1729. Wikimedia Commons.
Herman Moll, New England, New York, New Jersey and Pensilvania, 1729. Wikimedia Commons.

The Guardian continues to track the issue of Palestine’s absence from Google Maps. In a long essay that is definitely worth your time, Petter Hellström links the issue with the long history of colonial maps that omitted the indigenous populations that settlers would soon displace.

Because Palestine, after all, has been removed. It is there on old paper maps, of the Holy Land, of the Roman and Ottoman empires, of the British mandate. Yet in our digital age, a search on Google Maps for Israel produces a map without Palestine. It displays Israeli urban centres down to a few thousand inhabitants, and even marks Ma’ale Adumin, an Israeli settlement on the occupied West Bank. At the same time it shows no Palestinian place-names or urban centres, not even major ones like Gaza City, Khan Yunis or Nablus. The dotted, inconsistent borders of the occupied territories leave the impression that they are not claimed or administered by anyone. […]

Historians of cartography have long studied the practices and consequences of cartographic omission. In a landmark study, “New England cartography and the Native Americans”, published posthumously in 1994, the British historian of cartography J. B. Harley analysed seventeenth-century maps to follow the progressive replacement of the Native Americans with European settlers. In Harley’s analysis, the maps were something more than historical records of that process. Because they made the colonists visible at the expense of the indigenous population, they were also instruments of colonial legitimisation.

Many colonial mapmakers preferred to leave the areas of predominantly indigenous presence blank, rather than to reproduce an indigenous geography; one example is Herman Moll’s 1729 map of New England and the adjacent colonies, seen above. The traces of indigenous presence, past and present, were gradually removed from the maps as the colonists pushed west. The apparent emptiness helped to justify the settlers’ sense that they had discovered a virgin territory, promised to them by Providence. The pattern was the same in all areas of colonial activity, including Australia and Africa.

[WMS]

Previously: Google, Palestine, and the Unbiased Map.

Made in Algeria: An Exhibition of Colonial Cartography

made-in-algeria

Opening today at the Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France, and running until May 2nd, Made in Algeria: Généalogie d’un territoire is an exhibition of nearly 200 “maps, drawings, paintings, photographs, films and historical documents as well as works by contemporary artists who surveyed the territory of Algeria.” The exhibition examines not only the cartography of the French colonial period, but the political and cultural narratives—to say nothing of the territory itself—created by colonial mapmaking. Lots of material on the exhibition’s website, but it’s French-only. [via]