Survey of India turns 250: Remembering a British past when mapping was for the sake of conquering

Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, as more and more territories came under the British rule, a series of surveys and mapping exercises were carried out.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi | Published:April 11, 2017 6:14 pm
Surveyors measuring the Calcutta baseline in 1832 based on a sketch by James Princep. (Wikimedia Commons)

The office of the Survey of India completed 250 years on Tuesday. Entrusted with the duty of collection of data, mapping and topographical research, the institute came into existence in 1767, three years after the British East India Company emerged victorious in the Battle of Buxar. At present, the Survey of India holds a very important place in the sector of research and analysis within the country and in fact serves as a reference point for several Southeast Asian countries as well. However, an examination of the institute’s inception would reveal a much darker past, when its establishment was firmly tied with the British ambitions of conquest.

There is an interesting relationship that the process of knowledge production and political power share with each other. Quite often, those in power have the privilege to produce knowledge. On other occasions though, it is the ability to produce knowledge that aids in achieving power. In case of establishment of the Survey of India, it was the production of quantifiable knowledge — data, maps and census — that was seen as a necessary step by the English East India Company (EIC) for efficiently conquering and administering India. In the words of economist U. Kalpagam, “the production of colonial archive is the immense project of conquest, rule and the administration of a vast subcontinent called the ‘Indian empire’.”

Maps and surveys in India

Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, as more and more territories came under the British rule, a series of surveys and mapping exercises were carried out. The task at hand was to represent India pictorially and to demarcate its territories. This administrative requisition gained currency once the revenue collection and regulation of states gained importance. The Bengal Atlas and the Map of Hindoostan published by James Rennell in the 1780s serve as examples. These maps were dedicated to the commander in chief of British India Robert Clive and governor general Warren Hastings. The maps also carried with them memoirs, providing information about the area’s history, the revenue it generated under previous rulers, and the inhabitants of the region. About the inhabitants, the information generally revolved how likely or unlikely they were to resist conquest. For instance, James Renell writing about the inhabitants of Mewat in his memoir states that “its inhabitants have ever been characterised as the most savage and brutal: and their chief employment, robbery and plundering.”

Map of Hindoostan by James Rennel. (Wikimedia Commons)

Over time the idea of different kinds of surveys — military, topographical, trigonometrical and the revenue surveys evolved. Each of them had their own administrative purposes. For instance, the military surveys had to be done in a way to chalk out encampments and existence of forts. Important military surveys conducted during this period were those of Travancore and the Nizam’s dominions. Topographical surveys were done to mark out administrative boundaries of villages and other territorial units. The foremost topographical survey in the south was the one carried out by Colin Mackenzie in Kanara and Mysore.

From the nineteenth century the use of trigonometric method marked a historic moment in the process of surveying. This was the first time that a purely geometric method was utilised for making geographical calculations. The method of measurement through triangulation was conceived by the EIC officer William Lambdon and later under his successor George Everest, it became the responsibility of the Survey of India. One of the greatest accomplishments of the trigonometric survey was the measurement of Mount Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga. Reportedly, a large number of lives were lost in this mammoth task of measuring these Himalayan giants.

“An account of the Trigonometrical Operations in crossing the peninsula of India, and connecting Fort St. George with Mangalore” (1811) (Wikimedia Commons)

At present the Survey of India’s main task revolves around country’s military requirements. Over time it began to deploy modern technologies like aerial photography and UAV technology to carry out their tasks.

European obsession with scientific knowledge

From the eighteenth century, political power in Europe was no longer established through rituals and coronations alone. The process of ‘official’ knowledge building had a huge role to play in determining those in power. The control over counting and classifying populations, maintaining registers of birth, marriages and deaths, carrying out topographical measurements, were always of making political power visible.

This obsession with statistical measurement coincided with what is coined as the ‘scientific revolution’ in Europe that was a breakaway from the tradition through the use of mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and astronomy for the sake of understanding nature. The transformation in official knowledge building in Europe was reflected in the administrative practices carried out in the colonies.

Isaac Newton’s Principia is believed to have developed the first set of scientific laws. (Wikimedia Commons)

The control and maintenance of the colonies required the codification of their social and geographical aspects. For that matter, the governance of the colonies through statistical means often served as an experiment, which later validated its use in their home countries. Anthropologist Bernard S. Cohn in his work writes that “the projects of state building in both countries — documentation, legitimation, classification and bounding, and institutions therewith — often reflected theories, experiences and practices, worked out originally in India and then applied in Great Britain, as well as vice versa.”

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  1. V
    Apr 12, 2017 at 5:39 am
    Why stop at the Maps? The legal and administrative systems which the british set up,which we follow religiously even to day, was designed to perpetuate their subjugation of Indians.Every thinking Indians know that
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