Geographies of an Imperial Power: The British World, 1688-1815

Geographies of an Imperial Power: The British World, 1688-1815

by Jeremy Black


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From explorers tracing rivers to navigators hunting for longitude, spatial awareness and the need for empirical understanding were linked to British strategy in the 1700s. This strategy, in turn, aided in the assertion of British power and authority on a global scale. In this sweeping consideration of Britain in the 18th century, Jeremy Black explores the interconnected roles of power and geography in the creation of a global empire. Geography was at the heart of Britain's expansion into India, its response to uprisings in Scotland and America, and its revolutionary development of railways. Geographical dominance was reinforced as newspapers stoked the fires of xenophobia and defined the limits of cosmopolitan Europe as compared to the "barbarism" beyond. Geography provided a system of analysis and classification which gave Britain political, cultural, and scientific sovereignty. Black considers geographical knowledge not just as a tool for creating a shared cultural identity but also as a key mechanism in the formation of one of the most powerful and far-reaching empires the world has ever known.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253031587
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/06/2018
Pages: 330
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is author of A History of Britain: 1945 to Brexit; Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Future; War and Technology; and Fighting for America: The Struggle for Mastery in North America, 1519–1871. Black is a recipient of the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize of the Society for Military History.

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Accumulating Knowledge

"THOSE PARTS OF the Earth which were anciently known, have their coasts engraven (as usually) with the shade falling outwards whereas the parts anciently unknown have their coasts shaded inwards." The potential of geography, understood as the depiction of the world, was ably captured at the outset of the century by Edward Wells (1667–1727), an Oxford academic, in the first map of his New Set of Maps Both of Ancient and Present Geography (1700). Dedicated to Princess Anne's young son and would-be successor, William, Duke of Gloucester, who, in fact, was to die the following year, these maps had pedagogic purposes. The full title of the book made these purposes clear: "the most remarkable differences of ancient and present geography may be quickly discerned by a bare inspection or comparing of correspondent maps; which seems to be the most natural and easy method to teach young students." Wells revealed contemporary knowledge as far more extensive. Indeed, as he proclaimed with the first map, an entire hemisphere was "unknown to the Ancients" unless America was their Atlantis. Even so, the Ancients could not map it.

The struggle of the Ancients and Moderns was one in which geography, or, rather geographical knowledge, was very much on the side of the latter. Moreover, in an analog of other contemporary Ancient/Modern debates, debates in which Britain took part in a wider discussion, the celebration of the Modern was linked to the culture of Protestant northern Europe and, more particularly, to the new British state, and the related Anglicanization of Classical and Hebraic traditions and forms. The Moderns benefited from the emphasis on incremental fact gathering and thus the constant novelty of the new. As a result, the contrast between Ancient and Modern knowledge became much wider, and more striking, with time.

In consequence, geographical knowledge of the Ancient world was increasingly distinguished with specific texts and maps for those of the Bible and the Classics. This was an important instance of the growing differentiation, or segregation, of geography and history, as also, for example, of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries; although, in each case, it is important not to adopt too schematic an approach. Indeed, at the same time, works continued to place both together, as in Alexander Adam's A Summary of Geography and History, Both Ancient and Modern (1794) and William Pinnock's A Comprehensive Grammar of Modern Geography and History (1828).

It is necessary not to read back from modern definitions of either history or geography. In the case of geography, it is particularly important not to read back from modern academic concerns and definitions, not least because there were no Regius Professors of Geography at Cambridge and Oxford, as was the case with history. Instead, geography in effect was understood by contemporaries as a gazetteer, in the form of a guide to places and their locations and characters, one that was essentially organized by country. As such, geography offered an account that was at once both mathematical and descriptive, notably topographical. This was very different to later approaches, and the latter can be applied with value, but that does not mean that eighteenth-century accounts were therefore deficient. Indeed, a positive reevaluation has been offered from the perspective of historical geography.

Gazetteers enjoyed both popularity and longevity. The General Gazetteer or Compendious Geographical Dictionary, a work of 1762, published in a number of versions by the prolific miscellaneous writer Richard Brookes, appeared in its fifteenth edition in 1819, although in practice, there were more editions if the versions are all included. As an example of the non-specialized nature of publications, Brookes produced similar works on natural history and medicine and also translated a French history of China. Thomas Salmon defined the field at the start of his New Geographical and Historical Grammar (1749): "By Geography is understood a description of the surface of the natural terraqueous globe, consisting of earth and water, which is represented by the artificial globe." By 1770, this work had reached its eleventh edition, and by 1785 its eighteenth. Alongside this description of geography, and what can be garnered from books that include geography in the title, there are the varied uses of geography understood as spatial awareness.

Wells's works were popular and indicated strong contemporary interest in geography. His Treatise of Ancient and Present Geography, Together with a Set of Maps, first published in 1701, appeared in a fifth edition in 1738, and his Historical Geography of the New Testament ... Adorned with Maps (1708), in a third in 1718. So also with the response to Wells's older contemporary Herman Moll (ca. 1654–1732). They operated in different milieux, and it was instructive that Wells, a clergyman, was from 1702 a holder of rural rectories. Moreover, he wrote on ecclesiastical and Classical matters, and his geographical studies were aspects of these.

In contrast, Moll was very much a London-based cosmopolitan figure, like indeed George I (r. 1714–27) and George II (r. 1727–60). Moll, Geographer to the King, was a key figure in the spread of geographical information. His activities revealed the entrepreneurial nature of London publishing and also the way in which London served as a clearinghouse for information and as a forcing house for new projects. The scale of the city and its openness to talent were both important in these respects. Thus, Moll knew Dampier, Defoe, Hooke, Locke, and Swift. The World Described, a folio atlas by Moll, proved especially significant. At least eight London editions appeared, as well as two Dublin ones.

Moll's geographies were an attempt to define, as well as to satisfy, a field. The lengthy titles provided the prospectus but also placed geography as a complete guide, and one that encompassed history as well as exploration. There were parallels with Wells, notably with his Atlas Geographus: or, a compleat System of Geography, Ancient and Modern (1711) as well as with John Senex's A New General Atlas: Geographical and Historical (1721). Moll's publications included A System of Geography, or a New and Accurate Description of the Earth in all its Empires, Kingdoms and States. Illustrated with History and Topography, and Maps of every Country. Fairly Engraven on Copper, according to the latest Discoveries and Corrections, by Herman Moll. To which are added Alphabetical Indexs of the Names, Ancient as well as Modern, of all the Places mentioned in the Work. And a General Index of Remarkable Things (1701).

As an instance of his engagement with British expansion, specifically in the Caribbean, came a View of the Coasts, Countries, and Islands within the limits of the South Sea Company. Containing an Account of the Discoveries, Settlements, Progress and Present State; together with the Bays, Ports, Harbours, Rivers, etc. (1711). Moll's map of the Caribbean marked in Spanish trade routes and thus threw light for the public on the options for British naval action. At the same time, as with other maps, but not always with printed discussion, there was no hint of the role of disease. In practice, disease was greatly to affect British amphibious operations in the Caribbean, notably against Cartagena in 1741. Maps and figures of British operations there — for example, of the base the British temporarily established in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in 1741 — did not make reference to disease.

The role and, therefore, place of geography was made both dynamic and significant by increased knowledge of the world and by an awareness, indeed conviction, that this increase would continue. The third edition of Moll's The Compleat Geographer (1709) emphasized its use of recently appearing travelers' accounts and included a list of the travelers used.

Moreover, this process in geography, one of observation, description, dissemination, and comprehension, that went back to the fifteenth century, and in many respects earlier, could serve as a universal prototype for knowledge. Exploration, generally presented as discovery, provided a rhetoric that was applied to the search for truth in the natural world, as well as to personal relationships, the understanding of self, and changes in human society. The last provided a way to locate and explain the past, underlining the relationship between geography and history. Some episodes proved of particular interest — for example, the development and diffusion of the printing press. The incremental nature of enhanced geographical knowledge looked toward the empirical nature of scientific advances (and what was held to be the empirical nature) and vice versa. The theme of new discoveries in the accounts of voyages of exploration encouraged a call for new discoveries on the part of experimental philosophers. These discoveries crucially were, it was argued, to be grasped and validated through experience, and to be disseminated through print.

In short, knowledge was not to be referential to the past, as on the pattern of theology or law, but to be focused on the new. The past therefore was to be understood in part as a sequence of such new knowledge, rather than as a source and site of fundamental authority. In turn, the flood of new information, or, rather, of reports or rumors of information, created pressures for comprehension and analysis. In both description and analysis, measurement was to help inform practice and for geographers and others. Geography, therefore, as a developing, in part new, subject was a potent force of change in eighteenth-century society and one that both benefited from, but also underpinned, a strong respect for "new" empirical knowledge, compared to more traditional forms. This prospectus provided a challenge (implicit or explicit) to the older learned professions. Indeed, geography thereby was an aspect of the development of a "creative class," one primarily located in urban society, scientific culture, and a degree of secularism. Geography can be seen as sharing in many aspects of the development of science, not least in the contingent nature of organizations. Like most British science, geography in Britain was essentially a collaborative, public enterprise. A key element intellectually was the claim to system, and this was seen in titles as in A New Moral System of Geography, Containing an Account of the Different Nations Ancient and Modern: Their Situation and Climate — their Rise and Fall — their Customs and Manners (3rd ed., 1792).

Turning to another aspect of modern analysis, knowledge as power, and as a means to power, is a major and established theme in the scholarly literature in a number of subjects, and the power of place is an aspect of this discussion, not least as this power can be seen as "produced." More particularly, geography has been frequently linked by modern scholars to imperialism and to the construction of national identities. At times, these themes can be seriously overworked and can, in part, underplay the extent of autonomy in the pursuit and use of knowledge, in short the specific issues involved in individual branches of knowledge and, linked to this, the extent to which both issues and branches were not just about power. This can be seen, for example, in John Green's The Construction of Maps and Globes (1717) which included an appendix "wherein the present state of geography is considered. Being a seasonable enquiry into maps, books of geography and travel. Intermixed with some necessary cautions, helps, and directions for future map-makers, geographers, and travellers." A prolific "Grub Street" writer, Green referred to this inquiry being an "unprecedented" attempt, and continued: "The abuses of negligent and unskillful geographers, had long since made something of this kind necessary, in order to put a stop to those spurious maps and incorrect books which were daily published by them, and continued more and more to involve geography in error and contempt. ... The best accounts of travellers are not free from errors; their many irreconcilable differences perplex and mislead us, and much of countries remain undiscovered."

Nevertheless, there is also a fundamental basis for the approach focused on knowledge and power. As this book will show, the quest for geographical information was an important and dynamic aspect of statecraft and of public identity, and both in Britain and with reference to foreign states. The meaning, sources, and means of this aspect varied, but one key element was the significance, alongside systematization, of empiricism in eighteenth-century thought. This is a parallel with the position as far as the accumulation, understanding, and use of historical knowledge were concerned. Knowledge was there to be acquired but not by means of magic or prophetical means. The pursuit of knowledge through rational exploration, and its subsequent assimilation and dissemination, proved particularly important in the Western world. Moreover, this work was to be publicly presented and, thus, to be verified or queried in the public sphere. For Edmund Burke in 1777, it appeared appropriate to use the map as the image of knowledge, one appropriate for both historical and geographical knowledge. He wrote to William Robertson about the latter's just-published History of America: "now the Great Map of Mankind is unrolled at once; and there is no state or gradation of barbarism, and no mode of refinement which we have not at the same instant under our view. The very different civility of Europe and China; the barbarism of Persia and Abyssinia. The erratic manners of Tartary and of Arabia. The savage state of North America and of New Zealand."

Such information, and notably for Western powers, was not that of a static world, but, rather, of one that was changing rapidly and significantly, and was seen in this light by contemporaries. This change was not least due to interaction with the environment, but also to the information produced by exploration and the assumptions confirmed by it.


It may appear obvious to make a move now to discuss exploration during the century, but there are some issues with such a move. Focusing on exploration tends to become a positivist, progressive account of activity and results, one that appears a quasi-immutable process of improvement, as well as being an account of white men. Moreover, precisely because there is a lot of information on the topic, it is easy to devote much space to it, and, in contrast, to devote less to other aspects of the accumulation of knowledge, or to make exploration serve to establish a general model or rule for the latter. As far as geographical information was concerned, exploration was certainly newsworthy, but it was not the sole source of such information.

There was also the question of what exploration excited attention. Dramatic voyages were favored by the public (not sailors), not least because, aside from the drama, fortitude, and heroism involved, and the ease with which voyages could be linked and compared in order to provide a narrative of progress, much of the news was readily present in London, and especially because so many of the voyages were of naval vessels. In contrast, there was a marked tendency to underplay the significance of exploration across the land frontiers of British colonies.

The nature of the British world was such that it was best placed to serve as the basis for exploration. This was a reflection of Britain's oceanic position on the edge of Europe, its extensive maritime activity, its unprecedented naval strength, and the location and extent of Britain's colonies already at the start of the eighteenth century. The record of exploration by other states, particularly France, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia, and Portugal, indicated that Britain was very much not alone in these factors or consequences. Nevertheless, there was a particular energy to British exploration, one that was encouraged by a governmental position that was both supportive and relatively permissive. The latter was notably so as a consequence of partly successful moves against the monopolistic commercial position of the chartered companies after the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688–89, especially the Royal African Company. These companies had been associated with the government of James II and with earlier royal privileges.


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Table of Contents

PrefaceList of Abbreviations1. Accumulating Knowledge2. The Spatial Matrix of Military and Political Power3. Territorialization and the Mapping of Authority4. The Public Sphere5. The Debate on Tourism, Religion, and Culture6. Responding to Novelty7. Responding to the Transoceanic World8. Responding to Coal and Commerce9. Geographies in Retrospect10. ConclusionsSelected Further ReadingIndex

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