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Topic: Controlling space
Controlling space
For an explorer, naming places asserts your power over the land and disempowers native people from it. It maintains the belief that the land has been newly ‘discovered’ while simultaneously concealing native markers of identity.
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George Everest, surveyor general of India between 1830 and 1843.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

The mapping of India by eighteenth and nineteenth-century British explorers is clearly linked to British colonial rule and the creation of India as a geographical entity. The British in India often mapped lands not yet under their power for a number of scientific, economic and political reasons. However, the very act of mapping and naming Indian lands made them ‘fair game’ for the British. Symbolically it opened up the entire subcontinent to their rule. They mapped the India of their imagination and perceptions, in the process washing over and erasing native geographies.
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Detail of index chart to the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, 1870.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

British exploration also gave Indians a very real sense of what British rule would be like. Explorers and surveyors stoked up Indian grievances for the future with the autocratic way they often went about the task. This included clearing vast areas of land, disrespecting sacred areas and using up local resources.

British India was defined by the creation of British districts and anglicised place names that undermined local culture and custom. Early attempts to standardise Indian place names were sometimes absurd, with, for example, ‘Crotchy’ written for Karachi and Allahabad interpreted as ‘Isle of Bats’. Similarly, the anglicised Kerala perhaps comes from Cherala, meaning land of coconuts.

Since independence in 1947 the places and buildings associated with colonial rule and its ‘heroes’ have been largely demolished or renamed. For example, in New Delhi, Curzon Road has become Kasturba Gandhi Marg and Queensway is now Janpath; Bombay has been renamed Mumbai and Calcutta is now Kolkata or Kolkotta.
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Latitude observations during the Survey of India, 1905.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

The act of renaming in India still has immense political and cultural significance as part of the desi

Even the name ‘India’ is, to many, intricately bound to British rule

re to shake off the colonial legacy and to assert regional, national or even religious identity.

Even the name ‘India’ is, to many, intricately bound to British rule and a growing number of Indians are pressing to rename it. The preferred alternative is ‘Bharat’ – the name of a legendary Indian king – which was officially adopted after India became a Republic in 1950. According to Dipankar Chakrovorty, a journalist living in Delhi: ‘Names are important. Because they have associations… One’s own name is important to everyone. There must be many who detest the idea of their countries or cities being rechristened.’

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Topic: Controlling resources
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Exploration is not just a matter of finding new lands or encountering unknown ethnic groups. Many prospectors are looking for mineral riches such as gold, diamonds or oil. Other explorers follow, and these groups have an enormous impact on the environment and indigenous people.  > more

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Topic: Controlling people
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Explorers have seized indigenous people to act as guides into unknown regions, as human trophies, as scientific evidence, or even as potential subjects of social experimentation. The number of people cruelly kidnapped by explorers will never be known.  > more
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