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Linking Science to the Colonial Agenda

Seema Alavi

By Ian J. Barrow
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 212, Rs. 575.00


The book under review analyses some of the early maps and surveys the English East India Company commissioned to highlight the significance of cartography in the making of British power in India. It offers information about advancements in British cartography as colonialism evolved in India, and establishes the link between it and the making of a mature colonial state in India. Ian Barrow argues that the two processes shaped each other and helped legitimate colonial power and project it as the most natural thing to have happened in India. The drawing of maps sketched the history of possession for the British in India, and also kept an eye on British public opinion on the operations of the Company in India. They not only provided good press to the Company at home but also helped in forging a cohesive British national identity.   Scholars of early modern Indian history recognize in this book many familiar names that dot the Company rule in India: British Surveyor General James Rennell, Sir Joseph Banks, the president of the British Royal Society, the astronomer Reuben Burrow and William Lambton, the champion of trigonometrical surveys. The book not only offers new biographical insights into these personalities, but also helps locate their contributions in a graded scale of British scientific advancement. For instance, Rennell, the author of Bengal Atlas, represents an early cartography style that is dependent more on route surveys, whereas Burrow and Lambton, with their astronomical and mathematical precision, help make the transition to the more advanced cartography that relies on trigonometrical surveys. And yet their gradations as men of science and their occasional tension-prone relations on the merits of their case notwithstanding, each one used their knowledge not just to illuminate the geography of Bengal but also to ‘naturalize’ Company power in India. This was important both for the renewal of the Company’s charter as well as for the larger interests of British colonialism in India. Rennell dedicated plates of his Bengal Atlas to Britishers associated with the history of Bengal. He thus served the pressing interests of the English Company both in the colony and at home. While in India Bengal was projected as a legitimate British territory, the message sent to Britain was that it was the British people as a whole and not just the Company that was the beneficiary of the governance that was all set to be introduced. Lambton, ...

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