Review: The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence

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New Map of EmpireEdelson, S. Max. The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017. 464 p. $35.00. LC: 2016043748. ISBN: 978-0-674-97211-7.

In The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence, S. Max Edelson undertakes an engaging and densely detailed history of the period between the end of the Seven Years’ War and the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and the American War for Independence. Edelson presents a compelling analysis of the role new conceptions of spatial geographies of the North American continent played in the unravelling of Britain’s imperial aspirations, and the emergence of newly empowered colonial identities. The author’s primary framing device throughout this book is the cartographic ambitions of the Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations–or more commonly, the Board of Trade–and the manner in which its efforts to survey and quantify newly acquired colonial possessions in the maritime northeast (namely Quebec and Nova Scotia), Florida, and the West Indies, demonstrated a reformist program of “systematic governance” (17) that was at once both rationally pragmatic and moralizing in its scope. These newly acquired spoils of war gave the Board of Trade a collection of colonial laboratories within which it attempted to tightly manage and better regulate the process of colonization from its onset, whether that be by the establishment of jurisdictional boundaries, pre-approved land use, initial grants of land, taxation, and requirements for settlement. This experimentation was predicated upon a comprehensive program of surveys and mapping of unfamiliar territory, and in particular waterways and other strategic points for trade or defense.

The New Map of Empire is organized into chapters that individually address the Board’s cartographic efforts in relation to Britain’s acquired possessions from France and Spain following the Seven Years’ War; its involvement in establishing and holding a western border between colonists and the indigenous populations forced ever further into the continent’s interior; and comprehensive atlas compilation projects which sought to keep up with the ever-shifting idea of Britain’s North American empire. In each of these case studies, Edelson demonstrates that the fixation upon colonial dependence (both economic and political) that drove much of the Board’s cartographic activities on the continent, enacted a flawed part-to-whole, or metropolitan center-to colonial margin dynamic that privileged the larger imperial good over local colonial concerns. Edelson outlines the Board of Trade’s consistently empirical approach to what was an opaque and disorienting set of realities—and which differed greatly from one region and colonial holding to the next. The author’s detailed treatments of military surveys, and mapping of forts, strategic ports and dangerous waterways, demonstrates well the advantages of experiential “route knowledge” (80) of terrain and the pitfalls inevitable in its lack, and serves as an engrossing parallel history of eighteenth century military cartography within this text. Yet in its attempts to map and quantify all colonial unknowns, and viewed from the abstracting distance of Whitehall, the Board of Trade’s cartographic programs ensured that not only was the British political class physically out of touch with its colonies and their inhabitants, but in conceptual terms was also guilty of fundamentally misrecognizing the realities of lived colonial experience. Instead of acknowledging that this experience was predicated upon territorial propriety (particularly in colonists’ outright dismissal of the continent’s indigenous populations’ conceptions of territory and borders), political autonomy, and respect for hard-won regional knowledge on the ground, Edelson demonstrates how fully the Board and its supporters instead sought to instrumentalize surveyed colonial spaces as mercantile platforms for the benefit of the economically struggling British empire.

In his extensive treatment of numerous maps and atlases from this period, Edelson methodically demonstrates the manner by which colonial terrain was forcibly abstracted on paper–and in many instances served as visual cover for gaping omissions of information, willful denial of lived realities, or simply as surfaces onto which imaginary ideals could be projected. In falling prey to enlightenment rationalizations of the environments and activities of all-too-human subjects—and by treating these environments as visual abstractions in the forms of maps, navigational charts, and atlases—the Board of Trade’s failed program of regulated colonization, according to Edelson’s analysis, reveals the inherent impossibility of sustaining the North American colonial experiment solely for Britain’s economic gain.

The New Map of Empire’s accompanying MapScholar digital atlases present a rich trove of archival examples compiled by Edelson, and they visually support his strident claims of the Board’s program of systematizing regulation. Their independent digital presence allows these maps to get the visual treatment they deserve, but viewing the atlases on a different platform from the text often made the experience of reading The New Map of Empire challenging and disjointed. These digital atlases warrant careful looking and separate study from Edelson’s history, which for the most part shies away from extensive visual analysis, opting instead to use their contents as anchors within a larger conceptual framework of politically fraught Early Modern spatial geographies.

The New Map of Empire is a fascinating and essential historical work about a transitional phase in political, military, and cartographic history. It will appeal to a wide range of students and researchers with a deep investment in the Early Modern period, colonization, and relations between indigenous peoples and colonizers. It would also potentially interest students unfamiliar with, yet curious about this period of North American history. It is strongly recommended for both undergraduate and graduate libraries, and its companion digital atlases will be an invaluable open access resource to anyone researching eighteenth century cartographic history and colonization.

Rebecca A. Lane
Principal Cartographic Resources Cataloger
University of Texas Libraries, University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas

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