Mapping Empires and National Identities

To be frank, I have often forgotten the importance of maps and borders when planning a course or writing a paper. It appears that this is a grave mistake. Mapping, according to Matthew Edney and Thongchai Winichakul, has been and continues to be an important tool that empires and nations use to define the extent of their power and influence. Though they wrote their books prior to the recent creation of Southern Sudan, both arguments can be applied to the long story that is the independence of Southern Sudan.

First, Edney’s Mapping an Empire examines the history and technologies of mapping in British India, providing a picture of how cartography is used to delineate, maintain and extend imperial influence on a newly subjugated region. In many ways this is an example of scientific history and, more specifically, the history of the scientific revolution as a byproduct of the Enlightenment.  As the British East India Trading Company moved deeper in India, they needed to map and draw the boundaries of their influence. As a result, teams of surveyors created thousands of documents, collected, copied and then sent to Britain, that Edney uses to tell the story of surveyor generals and the beginnings of a British India. Ultimately, his greatest contribution to the historiography is the fusion of science and history in providing a new approach to imperial and cartographic studies. Most importantly, he argues that mapping was not just used to demarcate the extent of empires, but rather, it is another tool that is used to actually create empires.

But on the other hand, Winichakul examines the creation of a modern Thailand through the development of its borders. In the same vein as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Siam Mapped details the growth of Thai nationalism in conjunction with the solidifying of Siam’s geographical limits. Put succinctly, Winichakul argues that the conditions were just right for the creation of a modern Thailand through the use of borders. Here he explains that we can see the nation as a geographical and political entity. Basically, Thailand, because of its borders and unique political situations, became a geo-body. Historians tend to view Thailand in terms of regional or global trends, such as the Cold War and China as a world power. Furthermore, Winichakul consistently shows how the concept of the “other” significantly influenced the development of a Thai identity and nationalism. In Siam Mapped therefore, he argues that a nation can be built from the creation of a geographical entity or geo-body. Once the national boundary is established, then the individuals within the boundary can create an identity based on the characteristics of their geographical borders and based on whom or what they are not. Much like Linda Colley’s Britons, this work shows how borders provide direction in determining the identity and characteristic of an individual within a larger nation as opposed to those who are not within those borders.

In teaching survey courses for world history and especially western civilization courses, these two books have provided a useful theme to tie multiple regions, eras and events into a consolidated course. Though I personally prefer the economic approach, I undoubtedly would include concepts like mapping and the “other” into narratives where it fits perfectly. For example, how could anyone discuss the lead up to both World Wars without mentioning the dramatic rise of nationalism and the Race for Africa? Both topics are ripe with cartographic references and easy to explain in terms of the creation of national identities and empires. A better example is the story of Southern Sudan’s independence. It is a story of how imperialism created borders where none had existed incorporating too many ethnicities that ultimately fought for supremacy. In the end, borders were used to define Southern Sudan, creating a national identity. Here both Edney and Winichakul provide tools to understand this event. However, this approach would not work as well in the first half of world history surveys. Still whether one embraces or disdains this theme, explaining the modern period without mentioning a map would be tantamount to hypocrisy. In some ways since 1400, world history is ultimately a story of how the earth was redrawn.

One thought on “Mapping Empires and National Identities

  1. I agree that both of these books provide a great framework for historians to implement the concept of maps as more than simply pieces of paper that depict geographic boundaries at a distinct point in history. Never before had I appreciated the importance of maps in making history and in studying it. Maps are important to a myriad of historical events including imperialism as highlighted in these two books. The concepts in Mapping an Empire help to indicate that more powerful nations were able to dominate weaker nations by understanding spatial and cultural geography. The us vs the other dichotomy in Siam Mapped is very important in depicting the idea of nationalism. I think these are significant concepts for a world history course.

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