Mapping an Empire

^ Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Image included in Börner’s Atlas of Science, via scimaps


Mapping and land surveying were the physical outcome of colonial practices during Renaissance and Enlightenment, where invented lines demarcating a territory materialized the old obsession of fixing, enlarging and protecting borders. As Foucault put it when analysing Machiavelli’s Prince in Security, Territory, Population (1978), Machiavelli’s problem was not power of a sovereign being legitimate or not, but precisely how to ensure the sovereign’s power. Drawing the first cartographic representation of an uncharted land was very much linked in colonial times to claiming rights of sovereignty over the place. The stunning and meticulous Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) of India from the 18th century developed by Col. Lambton and Sir George Everest among others proofed a very efficient tool of control. In Mapping an Empire: the geographical construction of British India 1765-1843, Matthew H. Edney relates how imperial Britain employed modern scientific survey techniques not only to create and define the spatial image of its Indian empire but also to legitimate its colonialist activities as triumphs of liberal, rational science bringing ‘civilization’ to irrational, mystical, and despotic Indians. The reshaping of cartographic technologies in Europe into their modern form, including the adoption of the technique of triangulation (known at the time as ‘trigonometrical survey’) at the beginning of the nineteenth century, played a key role in the use of the GTS as an instrument of British cartographic control over India.

Foucault added that sovereignty and governance of a territory have progressively evolved towards the allowance of circulation of value to take place, rather than a fixation of the borders. However, I would argue that we might be assisting to a contemporary redefinition of territorial boundaries, in order to keep on with such circulations of capital. The increasing re-colonization that almost every nation is carrying out of their commons (nature reserves, or underground and water resources) is reshaping the role of sovereignty within those national boundaries.

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