Signs of Empire


Sujata Moorti

Old Dominion University

Copyright © 1999 by Sujata Moorti, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    Review of:

    Matthew H. Edney. Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    James R. Ryan. Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    Maps. Truth. A mind travels across the graded map, and the eye allots the appropriate colours to the different continents. The body takes longer to make the same journey. Decimal grids, according to Arno Peters, are vastly different from Mercatur’s map, in existence since the middle of the sixteenth century. And there is a big, painful difference, thought Askar, between the Somali situation today and that of the early 1940s when all the Somali-speaking territories, save Dejbouti, were under one administration. And so it was again, for a brief period in 1977-8, when the Ogaden was in Somali hands. But the Somalis, government and people, were busy fighting a war on the ground and in the corridors of diplomatic power and no one released an authorized map of the reconquered territory. Truth. Maps.
    --Nurrudin Farah, 243.

  1. The epigraph reveals poignantly the manner in which maps, images, and names fix places and concepts in our collective imagination and shape our ways of seeing. While these ideas have circulated before the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, they have been extended now to explore the epistemic violence that accompanied the material processes of colonialism. Postcolonial scholars, writers and poets have interrogated the practices by which European modes of thinking created a particular vision of colonies that continue to shape contemporary thought. The two books examined here continue this mode of analysis and broaden the debate. In the trend established by postcolonial historiography, the two books explore the colonial context within which particular epistemic and cultural formations came into being. They focus upon how two imaging technologies--map-making and photography--were deployed in the maintenance of Empire both to justify the conquest of territory and to cultivate a particular image of Empire in the popular imagination.

  2. Read separately, each book provides a textured and nuanced account of British imperial practices and the contours of the resultant imaginative geography. Both enhance understanding of the processes of knowledge-building during the late Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian eras. They outline the emergence of new global regimes of cultural knowledge and the imperial command of commodity capital. Read together, they make important contributions to an analysis of the symbolic regimes of imperialism, particularly the role of imaging technologies in the constitution and maintenance of imperial geographical discourse. They reveal the role of representational practices in exerting cultural hegemony; maps and photographs become important ways of representing, promulgating, and reproducing global geography from a British imperial perspective.

  3. First published in 1990 and reissued in 1997, Matthew Edney's book about map-making and surveying techniques in India provides an interesting counterpoint to James Ryan's work on photography. Edney's book is limited to the Indian subcontinent and to the East India Company's practices of surveying (1765-1843). By exploring Company archives Edney displays how the choices of surveying techniques, particularly the establishment of the Great Trigonometrical Survey, allowed the Company to control, consolidate and unify the territories of the South Asian subcontinent. Ryan's book spans the British Empire, from 1838 through the early-twentieth century, and reveals the multiple uses of photography that allowed the British to produce a unified discourse of Empire, thereby naturalizing and domesticating imperialism.

  4. The two books allow us to see what Said calls the poetics of space, the process by which geographic space acquires emotional and rational sense, converting the vacant or anonymous reaches of distance into meanings for the British (Said 55). Maps and photographs are flat: they do not speak, they are spoken. Their meanings reside elsewhere; they come from outside and often preexist the image, but the map or photograph gives form to these meanings and extends them. In the words of Roland Barthes, the two books examine how images of colony are influenced by a socious , neither disincarnated nor disaffected but historically conditioned. By analyzing the right of sight the British arrogated to themselves and the ideology of imperialism it effected and sustained, the texts interrogate the colonial gaze and its role in constituting knowledge. Consequently, both books address only the British as spectators; how colonized subjects may have viewed these images evidently falls outside the authors' purviews.

  5. Mapping was an integral part of the mercantile history of India. Map-making and surveys were some of the processes through which Company officials tried to transform a land of "incomprehensible spectacle into an empire of knowledge" (Edney 2). Edney examines the practices by which geographical knowledge was compiled, the underlying theories of classification and their implications for the governing of India, and the process by which these vast amounts of knowledge were transformed into textual forms that were deployed by the colonial state in fixing, bounding and settling India. Exploring the mutually constitutive relationship between imperialism, cartography and geographical discourse, Edney provides a chronological account of the survey practices established by various surveyors beginning with James Rennell in 1765 and ending with Sir George Everest's retirement from the post of Surveyor General of India in 1843. Through his examination of mapmaking processes, Edney unravels what the British thought India should be; he argues that cartographic India was an Orientalist construct of, by, and for the British. The British mapped their India; they mapped the India that they perceived and that they governed. British India (as a map) was a product of Enlightenment thought and inherently flawed. Edney reveals the gaps between the cartographic ideals espoused by surveyors and their practice of cartography.

  6. Maps represent a technology of knowledge that attempts to capture the truth about a place in pure scientific form. As Anne McClintock (1995) has argued, maps are also a technology of possession, promising that those with the capacity to make such perfect representation must also have the right of territorial control. Edney provides a wonderful account of the manner in which Company maps conflated the subcontinent with India, thereby giving form to an amorphous landscape. The Company maps naturalized this entity as "India"--a geographical entity, political state and cultural nation--which Britain was later to govern. Edney shows us the fissures that were sutured to create this construct. Yet these maps and surveys were unable to present a unitary and singular image of India, "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" (Edney 319). Edney argues that this failure disclosess the inherent problems in Enlightenment thought and the institutional structures of the Company that effected a cartographic anarchy. Undergirded by Foucault's theory of the panopticon and state surveillance, Edney asserts that British maps of India formed a disciplinary mechanism: they were primarily instruments of state power. He claims that Company officials used maps and surveys to consolidate their territories; however, he fails to illuminate precisely how they became ideological tools.

  7. Edney's book deals primarily with the technical and contextual aspects of map making: institutional constraints, particularly the absence of resources to cope with the materials produced by surveyors; political constraints; the absence of sufficient financial resources; difficulties of the Indian terrain; and difficulties with the 'natives.' Mapping an Empire demonstrates how Enlightenment ideals of scientific rigor and systematicity, when transported to the colonies, both relied on the natives and their processes of collecting data yet repeatedly erased the contributions made by Indians to the cartographic project. Edney's book is a significant intervention in the field of geography, revealing with great insight how scientific practice intersected with cultural and political practices. It fails, however, to explore the epistemic violence effected by the transference of European Enlightenment thought to South Asia. It acknowledges but fails to discuss how the new map-making technologies erased pre-colonial knowledges.

  8. Expanding the field of study to other parts of the British empire, Ryan's Picturing Empire explores the diverse ways in which photographs became an integral part of colonial culture and were used by the colonial state to demonstrate its mastery and power over its subjects. Like Edney, Ryan locates the role of photographs within dominant discourses of geography. He argues that imperial photography presented a one-way vision for audiences: the British view of colonies. Photographs staged the British gaze; they enabled Victorians to symbolically travel through, explore and possess colonies. The technology allowed viewers to measure and comprehend territories and bodies from a distance, and the resulting photographs appeared to emerge from a self-effacing perspective. As presented to British audiences, the photographs were decontextualized from their colonial locales and reinscribed within a framework that answered to the political and psychological needs of the imperialist project. The rhetoric of the technology itself coincided with colonial discourses, particularly the belief that the British were bringing the light of civilization to dispel the darkness of the colonies.

  9. Ryan provides richly textured anecdotes of the different ways in which individual expedition leaders and photographers employed visual technology. Structured by the concerns of cultural studies, Picturing Empire examines the different domains within which the technology of photography was deployed, such as hunting, anthropology, military expeditions, and classroom instruction. Ryan explores the imperial ways of seeing that structured photographs, the ways in which images were used both in the metropolis and in the colonies to chart an imaginative yet naturalized geography of empire. The book illustrates the manner in which colonial regimes of representation became the terrain where definitions of nation and empire were contested and negotiated.

  10. The emergence of photography in 1839 coincided with British overseas expansion. The Royal Geographic Society (RGS)--the primary institution sponsoring photographic technology in various expeditions--legitimized its use as scientific evidence. For instance, David Livingstone on his Zambezi expedition "used photographs 'stamped with his own interpretation' as a form of incontrovertible evidence, a means of naturalizing his colonial vision: rendering the unfamiliar familiar and the unknown known; converting complex environments into the constituent categories of European scientific knowledge" (Ryan 36). Just as map-makers tried to explore and fill in all the blank spaces on the world map, photography, under the aegis of the RGS, became part of an ambitious collective enterprise of visual survey. Many of the photographs from expeditions focused on the untapped resources available, thereby legitimizing British conquest of these territories.

  11. By 1858, photography was used specifically as a systematic and scientific process of documenting racial difference. It was adapted by travelers, scientists and colonial officials as a necessary element of a scientific endeavor to make and collect images of racial types. The camera was deployed globally, from China to Australia, to gather ethnological data in a variety of settings, including the working classes in London. Commercial photographers and those sponsored by the RGS shared the Victorian preoccupation with race as a marker of national identity and bodily differences. Exhibitions and books became sites through which to display these results and to reiterate the naturalness of the British imperial imperative.

  12. It is in the use of photography as an anthropological tool that we can see best how domestic and imperial concerns are interlinked. Apart from documenting the exotic Otherness of colony, Victorian photographers often tried to classify and identify working-class populations within the metropolis. The language and the aesthetic frames used for images from domestic terrain replicated those used in the colonies. The outside unknown world was collapsed with the terra incognita of London.

  13. The photographs Ryan discusses did not operate autonomously but were shaped by a range of institutional practices. Examining the Department of India Office publication The People of India, he points out how the book constructed "knowledge of racial types relative to their political co-operation within the administrative frameworks of colonial authority" (156). The People of India project was started in 1856 and published between 1868 and 1875; it presented 486 photographs of different subcontinental ethnic groups and cultures. While the aesthetics of imaging often shaped audience understanding of the photographs, the accompanying text offered moral evaluations and fixed their meanings rigidly. Ryan exploresThe People of India as an exemplary account of "imperial surveillance; part of the imperial desire for the total visibility of peoples and places" (158). Along with similar publications and exhibitions, it constructed Orientalist knowledge of colony.

  14. Apart from functioning as an ethnological tool that asserted European racial superiority, photographs were an "indispensable record of the progress and achievement of empire" (Ryan 12). They represented a form of collective colonial memory, reiterating the presence and significance of Empire. Since British imperialism was sustained in large measure by regular shows of military force, photography was enlisted as a natural tool to highlight the might and power of Empire both in Britain and in the colonies. Examining the Abyssinia campaign (1867-1868) and other military expeditions, Ryan reveals the complex ways in which photography was deployed both to justify military interventions and to ensure British success. To a large extent, he argues, photography enabled the British to wage the Abyssinian campaign as a media performance.

  15. By the end of the 19th century, photography had been completely incorporated within geographical discourses and within academe; photographs became integral to the generation and legitimation of geographical knowledge. Ryan illustrates the use of colonial photographs as a pedagogical tool in instructional programs created by the Colonial Office of Visual Instruction Committee (COVIC). The COVIC project was entrusted with the task of developing textbooks and lantern slide lectures to educate British children about Empire--and later, to educate the children of Empire about the mother country. Images of empire produced under different regimes of knowledge were to be united to present a robust and unifying image of Empire. Like the RGS, COVIC attempted to "construct a solid visual framework into which parts of the Empire and their inhabitants could be firmly placed as imperial possessions" (Ryan 190). The pedagogical project replicated a European tradition which produced colonies as legible and knowable. In particular, the Orient was experienced and represented as picture or exhibition, and travel to the East was presented as an encounter with the exotic and the sensual.

  16. Ryan's book is aimed at a much broader audience than Edney's, which tends to be far more technically detailed. The photographs in Ryan's book illustrate the aesthetic principles of the period. By including photographers' descriptions of their métier, Ryan is able to show us what they believed they were and how audiences were expected to understand the photos. Nonetheless, Ryan repeatedly asserts that the images are polysemic, open to multiple readings, and consequently he refuses to outline how audiences interpreted of these photographs. In particular, he does not provide any sense of how colonized peoples understood these images or employed them.

  17. Both Mapping an Empire and Picturing Empire reveal effectively how maps and photographs were deployed as tools of scientific discovery. They exemplify Mary Louise Pratt's understanding that discovery has no existence on its own: "It only gets `made' for real after the traveler (or the survivor) returns home and brings it into being through texts: a name on a map, a report to the Royal Geographical Society, the Foreign Office, the London Mission Society, a diary, a lecture, a travel book" (204). Neither book provides a technologically determinist account; rather they emphasize how these technologies of seeing were deployed to promote the Orientalist vision of Empire. Both authors (Ryan more than Edney) point out the gendered nature of these representational regimes. They fail, however, to explore the significance of the masculinization of discovery or the subsequent impact of these gendered discourses. Developing these ideas may provide insight to the enduring power these images continue to hold in the popular imagination.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Farah, Nurrudin. Maps. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

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