John Keay on How India Was Mapped

February 6, 2015
The Great Arc - The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped

The Great Arc - The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped

by: John Keay

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John Keay spoke during a session at T2F Karachi titled The Great Arc - The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped on 5th of February. Starting at 7 PM and suffering from a few technical glitches, for the next hour John took us through the history of explorers who ventured through thick and thin to plot Indian territory, from the southern tip right up to the northern mountains.

A bit about the speaker:
Born in 1941 in Devon, England, John Keay was educated at Ampleforth College, York and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a scholar in Modern History. His tutors included the historian A J P Taylor and the playwright Alan Bennet. He first visited India in 1965 and has been returning there about every two years ever since. After a brief spell as a political correspondent, he assisted in the revision of the last edition of John Murray’s Handbook to India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (1975) and wrote Into India, his first book. A string of acclaimed works followed – and continues. The paperback of his The Honourable Company has been reprinted a dozen times and India: A History went into a new and expanded edition in 2010. The ‘exquisitely written’ (Observer) China: A History has also become a classic. Midnight’s Descendants promises more of the same.

In 2009 the Royal Society for Asian Affairs awarded John Keay its Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal for his literary contribution to Asian studies, and in 2009 the Royal Literary Fund appointed him to a Literary Fellowship at the University of Dundee and then (2013) at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He has lectured for the British Council all over India and has frequently accompanied tour groups in South and Southeast Asia.

In pin-drop silence, not unlike a classroom at British Universities, John Keay began from the start when East-India Company commissioned explorers in the late 18th and early 19th century to begin mapping process of India. Complicated machinery was ordered from UK which miraculously arrived despite capture by French Navy and 100-foot long chains were used for calculation. These chains were shaded using boxes to make sure they didn't expand because of the heat.

The process was arduous and required a lot of human resources. The measurements were conducted in all sorts of environments (jungle, bogs, deserts, farmlands) and weathers (except monsoon), using triangulation methods to maintain accuracy. At several places they had to wait because princely states or rulers of the area didn't permit them to continue mapping through their territory, often causing delays of months. Many of the people were lost in the process; some got sick and died, some eaten by tigers in the jungle, others met their fate in unfortunate ways. The process of mapping, however, continued. The scenes and behavior of the people of 18th and 19th century India were very interesting and cultures were briefly touched upon that were relevant to the explorers mission.

One of the reasons for mapping India was to lay claim to it. Since East-India Company was already functioning and its competitors (Portuguese, French etc) laying claims to various territories, this was one way to know the land and have advantage both business and military. Needless to say the map was extremely handy during the war of 1857. By 1860 most of the India was mapped and only few parts remained. The mapping expedition was led by John Everest who led the team all the way to mountainous heights resulting in the tallest mountain, Mount Everest, named after him. The instruments and measuring chains are now part of British Museum.

The event concluded with Q&A session and a survey form by British Council.

Some pictures from the session (clicked from mobile camera and at reduced file size):


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