Surveying and Statecraft II or ” The empire exists because it can be mapped”

In the last post, I discussed surveying boundaries and used the Mason-Dixon line as the example.  In this post I will discuss another form of statecraft that has been attributed to geodetic surveying: domination.  I suspect that using geodetic surveying to establish domination may be a glorified form of cadastral surveying – the surveying to establish property boundaries between property owners – and that it may have been done in other settings than the example I will use: the Great Arc surveying of India by Britain.  However, cadastral surveying can be performed using theodolites and chains only, while to perform the survey of India, astronomical techniques of establishing longitude and latitude were necessary as well as triangulation.

To understand the effect of the geodetic survey of India, one must know some of India’s history.  India has been known since classical times.  Eratosthenes (276 to 194 BC) mentions it and may even have drawn a map which included it.  The map shown in my post, “Virtual Lines”, was a late-medieval re-creation of a map, probably based on text by Eratosthenes that survived.  Both the Indus and the Ganges Rivers are shown the map, and the eastern most boundary of land is the eastern edge of India.  By the time of Strabo (c 63 BC to c 24 AD), land to the east of the Ganges shows up on a late reconstruction of his map, with everything east of the Ganges river is referred to as “India extra gangem”, while the area between the Indus to the Ganges is labeled “India intra gangem”.1 Tales about “the Indies” ranged from fabulous to outright fable – strange lands filled with strange and exotic people, and places to find spices, silks, teas and other unobtainable luxury items.

From pre-history, the land that would become India has been populated with people following a number of religions – principal among them are Hinduism and Buddhism, with significant other beliefs, sects and religions.  The areas were broken up among various local kings and rulers, with little, if any, overall coordination.  The Moslem conquest of India began around 1200, and resulted in Moslem rulers, sultans, controlling varying sized areas.  Each sultan’s dominance was dependent on the sultan’s ability to conquer and maintain his grasp.  The sultanates were unstable: a majority of sultans left office having been assassinated.  The Mogul (Mughal) conquest began in 1526, spread throughout the sub-continent, and was stable for nearly 200 years.  By 1700, the Mogul Empire was at its largest: in the north, it included Kashmir; to the west, Balochistan was included; the east extended to and included Bengal; and in the south, the Kaveri basin, leaving only a small area at the southern tip and Sri Lanka not under Mogul control.  “Following 1725 the empire declined rapidly, weakened by wars of succession, agrarian crises fueling local revolts, the growth of religious intolerance, the rise of the Maratha, Durrani, and Sikh empires and finally British colonialism.”2

European interest in the Indies in the late middle ages was driven by the hope of finding sea routes to sources of goods from the East, and being able to replace the supply chain of Arab traders and Venetian merchants.  The interest was expressed by Portuguese voyages of discovery in the 1400s, leading to the successful rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and establishment of trade with the lands finally reached.  A side effect of this was, of course, Christopher Columbus’s inadvertent discovery of a continent blocking his voyage to the Indies.

The English joined the trading competition somewhat late: the charter of the East India Company, representing London merchants, was granted in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I, and the next hundred years were spent setting up places to trade in “the Indies”, competing with other European countries such as the Portuguese, Dutch and French.  In 1615, a diplomatic mission sponsored by King James I succcessfully negotiated a commercial treaty with the Mogul Emperor, Nuruddin Salim Jahangir, permitting the Company to set up a “factory”, a trading post, in Surat, just up the coast from Bombay.  In 1670, after the restoration of the monarchy in England, King Charles II amended the charter to include the right to acquire territory, mint money, command fortresses and troops, make war and peace, and administer civil and criminal authority over their territorial acquisitions.

By 1700, the East India Company had established a number of factories, but their main three trading centers were in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, which were operated as essentially independent entities:

  • Bombay is now Mumbai: on the western side of the sub-continent, just under half way up the coast from the southern tip.
  • Madras: near the southern tip on the eastern side, across the straits from Sri Lanka/Ceylon.
  • Calcutta is now Kolkata: on the eastern side in eastern West Bengal.

Below is a link to the Google Map of India. You may have to zoom in a bit to see all of the cities mentioned above.,-95.677068&sspn=49.844639,61.083984&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=India&ll=20.097206,77.255859&spn=29.508738,30.541992&z=5

In 1708, there were a few more changes: other English merchants wanted to participate in the India trade, and after those merchants formed an association, the East India Company merged with the new association, changing the charter to represent English, as opposed to just London, merchants.  1708 was also the year of the Act of Union between England and Scotland, and after that was ratified, the English East India Company became known as the British East India Company.

The trading rivalry between Britain and France became more intense in the 1700s, at the same time that the turmoil in the Mogul Empire began the process of dissolving the authority of the Mogul Emperors.  Evidently, during this time, both Britain and France sent troops, ostensibly to protect their trading investments, but both rented regiments to Indian princes.  Soon, the British were managing the princes’s finances directly.  The competition between Britain and France culminated in the Seven Year’s War (1756 – 1763), which extended to all of their territories (see the last post’s mention of the French and Indian War on the North American continent).

It was about this time that a British army under Robert Clive (the legendary “Clive of India”) attacked and defeated the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey (1757), which led to the East India Company governing Bengal.  There were further territorial gains, and some unfortunate financial reverses for the Company which led to the India Act in 1784, changing the Company’s relationship with the British Government from a mercantile entity to a territorial power, under the control of and supported by the British Government.

We can now look at the surveying done by the British.  In 1764, James Rennell received a commission in the Bengal Engineers as a surveyor for the East India Company.  Clive was impressed with his work, and promoted him to Surveyor-General in 1767.  Rennell was wounded during an action in 1776, retired from active service in 1777, and returned to England to work on geographical matters at East India House in London.  In 1782, he issued his first map, titled “Hindoostan”, and titled his memoirs “Memoir of a Map of Hindoostan; or the Mogul Empire”.  The map included all of the sub-continent, and while he referenced Hindoostan, in his memoir, he used the term “India” as if it were interchangeable with the Mogul Empire.

In his very thorough and intelligent book, Mapping An Empire, Matthew H. Edney describes the overall effort of mapping of India by the British:

In the case of the British conquest of South Asia in the hundred years after 1750, military and civilian officials 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 the 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.  …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.3

The mapping started with Rennell and continued, with surveyor-generals operating out of each of the three British trade centers, and then centralized in the Great Trigonometric Survey in 1802.  The plan was to survey both longitudinally and latitudinally, and was originally projected to take 5 years.  That was a bit too short by, roughly, 70 years.  Work was still being done by the GTS as late as 1876, and may have continued longer than that.  However, the Great Arc, the longitudinal survey, 1600 miles, was completed in about 1843, at which point, the Superintendent of the GTS and Surveyor-General of India at the time, both positions held by George Everest, packed up and went back to England.  In the following illustration, the map of India is overlaid with the triangulation paths of the GTS and other surveys.4

In a book named The Great Arc, John Keay details the trials and travails of the surveyors.  Evidently in addition to a climate to which they were not accustomed and in which they suffered from fevers, malaria, and other tropical physical indignities, they encountered hostility, not too surprising, from the indigenous people, and other perils such as tigers, scorpions, floods, etc.  They were very tough, and moved from surveying site to surveying site with heavy Ramsden theodolites and repeating circles, none of which had the portability of the French repeating circles.

Did they know what they were doing beyond the surveying?  Absolutely.  Everest, in his first expedition, put down a mutiny and publicly flogged several of the natives whose services had been “lent” to him by the local Nizam-ul-Mulk, the Administrator of the Realm.  He evidently felt that having his authority questioned put the entire presence of Britain in India at risk.

The history is much more complex than I can describe in this short post, though dominance was clearly the main theme of the British with exploitation a close second.  Some of India was conquered by military force, some by negotiation, and some by performing indispensable services, like managing the finances for local authorities – in essence, taking over the exchequer – then taking over the rest of the government.  The financial benefits to the Crown were enormous, ranging from taxes to tributes, cheap labor, the monopoly of the tea trade, etc.  All of it was supported by the surveyors, defining the land, as much for effective taxation as for military advantage.  The surveyors used surveying techniques we have already discussed.  No new techniques were developed, this remained an engineering problem, as well as a survival problem.

New discoveries were only of what was there, geographically, most of which was already known by those who had preceded the British.  There are some impressive geological features that were discovered, such as the Deccan Traps, volcanic lava that consists of “…multiple layers of solidified flood basalt that together are more than 2,000 m (6,562 ft) thick and cover an area of 500,000 km2 (193,051 sq mi) and a volume of 512,000 km3 (123,000 cu mi).”5 There was a quest to find the headwaters of the Ganges – not the longest or largest river in the world, but worthy of exploration nevertheless.  And of course, Chomolongma was “discovered” during the Great Arc surveying, and the British renamed it “Mount Everest” as a tribute to “worthy” George Everest, flogger of natives.

The action in the novel, Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1901 and set in about 1888, a little after the surveys were mostly completed.  But in the story, Kim becomes an operative of a British spy network run by the head of the Ethnological Survey, Colonel Creighton.  Education is arranged for Kim, so that he can be trained as a surveyor, with a compass and a measuring chain.

The great game, as it is called in the book, the contest between Russia and England for dominance in the Northwest region of India, required surveyors, and one of the uses to which Kim, the character, is put is to recover the surveying notes of a pair of Russians.  Kim and friends are successful at separating the Russians from their baggage, the native baggage carriers are given permission to split up all of the baggage and provisions amongst themselves, while Kim retains the one basket that has their notebooks in it.  He searches through the basket and discards everything he doesn’t need or want to carry out of the mountains:

“The books I do not want.  Besides, they are logarithms – Survey, I suppose…The letters I do not understand, but Colonel Creighton will.  They must be kept.  The maps – they draw better maps than me – of course. …The rest must go out of the window.”  He fingered a superb prismatic compass and the shiny top of a theodolite.”6

And out the window goes everything except the letters and maps that Kim kept, theodolite, compass, books, dropped down a thousand foot cliff into an impenetrable forest.

In the story, Kim is the son of an Irish soldier and an Irish mother, both deceased.  The advantage of being a “sahib” plays in his favor in a number of ways: he is described as a clever lad due, no doubt, to the “inherently greater intelligence” of a person of European parentage, and once others know he is a “sahib”, they help provide him with a path to success.  There are other themes and strains within the book, but the reader is never allowed to forget that Kim is different than the “natives”.  The educational opportunities for the natives who work for the GTS were such that they could taught to perform the mechanical operations, essentially provide the data, but were not taught the mathematics necessary to reduce the data to information.

The Great Trigonometrical Survey and, indeed, the whole mapping enterprise were significant for the ideological image of geographical space that they created.  More than a network of astronomically determined places ever could, the trigonometrical surveys held the promise of a perfect geographical panopticon.7 Through their agency, the British thought they might reduce India to a rigidly coherent, geometrically accurate, and uniformly precise imperial space, a rational space within which a systematic archive of knowledge about the Indian landscapes and people might be constructed.  India, in all of its geographic aspects, would be made knowable to the British.  The British accordingly constructed the Great Trigonometrical Survey as a public works which could not be undertaken by the Indians themselves, but which was as concrete and as necessary as irrigation canals and military roads for pulling together, improving and defining India and its inhabitants.  And the spatial significance of the trigonometrical surveys was inscribed into the maps the British produced.  They defined India.8


This, then, shows a completely different side of performing geodetic surveying:  in support of statecraft and domination.  While measurement itself is based on scientific and mathematical concepts, the use to which the results are put comes a surprise, perhaps.  At a deeper level, one of the reasons to measure and reason about the world has always been to control – though usually the control is thought of as control of the material world or the environment rather than the world of human relations. But that thought opens other doors, for other posts.

1 Brown, Lloyd A., The Story of Maps, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, N.Y. 1949,1977. The map attributed to Eratosthenes is on p. 51, and that attributed to Strabo is on p. 56.

3 Edney, Matthew H., Mapping An Empire, The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765 – 1843, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill. 1990, 1997. p. 2.

4 Keay, John, The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named, Perennial/HarperCollins Publishers, New York, N.Y., 2000, 2001.  Following p. 76.  Credit is given to C.R.Markham, Memoir of the India Survey (c. 1870).

6 Kipling, Rudyard, Kim, Penguin Books, London, England. 1989.  Originally published in 1901, the volume that I have is based on the American Burwash Edition, 1941, with Kipling’s final revisions.  The introduction is by Edward Said.

7 “panopticon”, as used by Edney, is defined as an “instrument… of permanent, exhaustive, [and] omnipresent surveillance”.  p. 24.

8 Edney, Matthew H., Mapping An Empire, The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765 – 1843, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill. 1990, 1997. pp.319-320.

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