Monday, February 23, 2009

In the case of the British conquest of South Asia in the hundred years after 1750, military and civilian officers of the East India Company undertook a massive intellectual campaign to transform a land of incomprehensible spectacle into an empire of knowledge. At the forefront of this campaign were the geographers who mapped the landscapes and studied the inhabitants, who collected geological and botanical specimens, and who recorded details of economy, society, and culture. More fundamentally...the geographers created and defined the spatial image of the Company's empire. The maps came to define the empire itself, to give it territorial integrity and its basic existence. The empire exists because it can be mapped; the meaning of empire is inscribed into each map.
- Matthew H. Edney, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843 (my emphasis).

Perhaps the British empire was so powerful because it employed exceptional cartographers, who were able to draw the world in relation to England. Why else would the Prime Meridian pass through Greenwich, if England weren't the center of the world? Thinking about what cartography breathes into existence--it makes the geography knowable to outsiders, makes them somewhat insiders even if they have never explored or encountered it. We can connect to others, just by knowing where they are on the map. Can a place be real to you if you've never been there before? How does cartography distort or subvert your imaginings of space?