Author Archives: Benjamin Sacks

The Geographical Imagination and Britain’s Entanglements ‘East of Suez’

280px-SuezCanal-EO

The Suez Canal continues to loom large in the consciousness of British foreign policymakers. (c) 2015 Wikimedia Commons.

By Benjamin Sacks, Princeton University

The phrase ‘East of Suez’ looms large in our geographical imagination. Long after the end of formal empire and even the Cold War, it embodies a particularly Orientalist conception of exotic peoples, vibrant Kiplingesque colours and untapped wild landscapes. Why does this term still conjure such emotional responses, and why is it back in the news?

In the midst of this month’s unsettling developments, from terrorists attacks in France, Mali, Egypt, and elsewhere, to the constant media frenzy surrounding the US presidential campaign, Britain quietly moved back ‘East of Suez’. On 1 November Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa ceremonially began the (re)construction of HMS Juffair (first erected in 1935) in Mina Salman Port, Britain’s first permanent military base east of the Suez Crisis since 1971. The new base will provide logistical, materiel, and offensive support for Royal Navy operations in the Middle East and South Asia. Rather more surreptitiously, Britain has also heavily invested in expanding Oman’s Duqm port, 120 kilometres (75 miles) southwest of Masirah Island, to accept Royal Navy vessels (including the forthcoming Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers). In both cases the war against ISIS, Yemeni militants, and bolstering defence, trade, and communications links have been cited as reasons for expansion.

In step with the British Empire’s dissolution, the Aden crisis, financial problems, and unstable domestic developments, in 1968 Harold Wilson decided to close all formal military bases east of Egypt’s Suez Canal, thereby reducing military costs and refocus Britain’s diminished post-War resources on NATO, Europe, and the North Atlantic theatre. While many commentators praised Wilson’s decision as opening a new, postcolonial chapter in Britain’s foreign policy, others believed that the move was a dangerous, short-sighted mistake. The 1982 Falklands War and 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars galvanised both supporters and opponents of the ‘East of Suez’ policy. As The Economist argued however, ‘In reality, Britain never left the Gulf’. Even after 1971 Britain maintained significant military and geopolitical influence in Oman, the Gulf States (Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar), Malaysia, and Brunei, as well as at Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory and at Hong Kong (until 1997). Arguably, it enjoyed greater success through so-called ‘soft-power’, maintaining strong economic and broadcasting relationships with Arabian and South Asian states.

Why does ‘East of Suez’ remain such an emotionally-charged phrase for contemporary audiences? A quick survey of British newspapers evidences how Labour, Conservative, and independent journalists all use the term to evoke particular political sentiments. The Independent used it to highlight anger from human rights campaigners. The BBC, while noting criticism of UK-Bahraini ties, also discussed the latter state’s longstanding relationship with Britain. The Telegraph simply described ‘East of Suez’ as a ‘welcome renewal of friendships in the Gulf’.

Irrespective of where one’s political beliefs lie on the spectrum, geography and geographical writing have played central roles in embedding ‘East of Suez’ in our collective conscious. The Royal Geographical Society’s extensive archives reveal how this phrase was used to promote particular imaginations and responses throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Early, Orientalist-charged uses of ‘East of Suez’ underscored geography as an imperial discipline. Between the 1880s and the First World War, Suez expanded from the Canal and Peninsula, to a symbolic geostrategic marker, and finally to a border between ‘known’ and ‘unknown’, ‘us’ and ‘them’.

In an 1886 memorial, ‘East of Suez’ meant exactly that. The largely undocumented Sinai desert east of the Suez Canal. This reference nonetheless is important, for it provides us with evidence as to how the RGS conceived of the Suez Canal in the 1870s-1890s: as a geographical place. This narrow notion soon changed, however. In the Georgian period Ernest Young, a Belle Epoque travel writer on Siam (Thailand) and Finland, deliberately (and vaguely) described the geography in-between Europe and Russia and Southeast Asia as ‘Somewhere East of Suez’, conveying a romantic notion of uncharted mountains and pirate-laden waters. As the RGS reviewer laconically noted, Young’s Orientalist perspective was undoubtedly a function of his day job as a schoolmaster. The following year Rachael Humphreys, an early female FRGS, published Travels East of Suez, reiterating the term’s intensely imperial meanings. This time, ‘East of Suez’ referred not the Near East nor Fertile Crescent, but to the Indian Subcontinent. This broadness suggests the pre-First World War use of ‘East of Suez’ to describe a generalised, homogenous Asian ‘Other’, exoticising the grand adventure of Britain’s colonial exploits beyond the Canal. Belle Epoque literature, from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1900-1901) to near-endless accounts of British explorers, undoubtedly influenced Humphreys’ selection of her title.

By the 1930s ‘East of Suez’ was firmly entrenched as the Empire’s dividing line between Europe and an occasionally mysterious Asia. In 1936 Kenneth Mason recalled the moment aviation came to India: ‘I look back with mixed feelings to twenty-five years ago, when in December 1910 the first plane seen east of Suez arrived at Allahabad and began what were optimistically called “joy-flights”‘ (5). Here ‘East of Suez’ enjoyed a physicality, the sense that it served as an actual obstacle for the advancement of British civilisation, a feat that must be traversed each time the Empire sought to impose a European convention onto the Orient.

The War changed all that. ‘East of Suez’, even to the RGS, became a byword for Britain’s need for oil. G M Lees’ 1940 article, for instance, defined ‘East of Suez’ as Arabia, and Arabia as a potential oil source for the British war effort.

By 1968, when the newly-published monograph Great Britain in the Indian Ocean 1810-1850 was reviewed in The Geographical Journal, the consequences of Britain’s Asian ‘adventure’ were very much on reviewer Antony Preston’s mind. ‘As Great Britain’s “East of Suez” commitments are under such heavy fire’, he wrote, ‘one may well wonder how we came to be saddled with so many treaty obligations and colonial responsibilities’. ‘East of Suez’ had ceased to be a term of imperial excitement. Instead, it succinctly described the weight of imperial fatigue, eating away at a post-War Britain eager to tighten its finances and responsibilities.

In the wake of the 1982 Falklands War and the RGS’s now-famed 1983 discussion of the islands’ environmental and political geography, such political geographers as John House (Oxford) used ‘East of Suez’ as a term to describe the expansion and limitation of Soviet naval operations in relation to British and American counterparts. ‘East of Suez’ no longer carried a clear imperial meaning; instead political geographers identified it as a fault line between Capitalism and Communism. Bizarrely, House declared that the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean ‘would be of little significance in the global nuclear balance’ (13), thereby forgetting two millennia of history. In the twenty-first century, ‘East of Suez’ conveys two distinct, but intertwined meanings: the return of formal British military bases to the Indian Ocean (see Blake 2009), and the expansion of British soft power in South and Southeast Asia.

References

books_icon (1886) Geographical Notes, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography8(5): 328-38.

books_icon C R M (1914) Review, From Russia to Siam, by Ernest YoungThe Geographical Journal 44(6): 586-87.

books_icon (1916) Review, Travels East of Suez, by Rachael HumphreysThe Geographical Journal 47(2): 138.

books_icon Mason K (1936) The Himalaya as a Barrier to Modern CommunicationsThe Geographical Journal 87(1): 1-13.

books_icon Lees G M (1940) The Search for OilThe Geographical Journal  95(1): 1-16.

books_icon Preston A (1968) Review, Great Britain in the Indian Ocean 1810-1850, by G S GrahamThe Geographical Journal 134(1): 134.

books_icon House J (1984) War, Peace and Conflict Resolution: Towards an Indian Ocean ModelTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 9(1): 3-21.

books_icon Blake R (2009) Airfield Closures and Air Defence Reorientation in Britain during the Cold War and its Immediate AftermathArea 41(3): 285-99.

60-world2 Lindsay I (2014) HM Ambassador’s speech to the Bahrain Business Forum, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 10 December.

60-world2 (2015) British Secretary of State for Defence visits OmanBritish Embassy Muscat, 1 October.

60-world2 ONA (2015) British Secretary of State for Defence hails Sultanate’s efforts in solving regional crisisMuscat Daily, 1 October.

60-world2 (2014) We’re back: A new naval base in Bahrain is an echo of the pastThe Economist 13 December.

60-world2 Merrill J (2015) Royal Navy base construction begins in Bahrain as Britain seeks a return to ‘East of Suez’The Independent, 1 November.

60-world2 Gardner F (2015) UK builds first permanent Middle East base for 40 yearsBBC News, 1 November.

60-world2 More C (2015) A welcome renewal of friendships in the GulfThe Telegraph, 1 November.

Airshow Geographies

By Benjamin Sacks, Princeton University

Airbus wide-body aircraft display, 2006 Farnborough Airshow. Courtesy MilborneOne/Wikimedia Commons.

Airbus wide-body aircraft display, 2006 Farnborough Airshow. Courtesy MilborneOne/Wikimedia Commons.

Every two years the world’s most important defence and civilian aerospace manufacturers decend onto a rural Hampshire airport to show of their latest, greatest, and (in some cases) most lethal hardware. At the 2014 Farnborough Airshow Boeing and Airbus competed for orders of their next-generation 787 and A350 wide-body long-haul aircraft; Boeing went so far as to fly its aircraft through a stunt routine to convince potential buyers of the 787’s manoeuvring capabilities. Wifi manufacturers announced roll-out of their flight-based technologies on major airlines. Bombadier and Embraer announced new regional jetliners, and the British, French, and American air forces announced orders and program extensions. In June 2015 Farnborough International, the show’s organisers, publicised plans to begin a new airshow in September 2017, in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. But the Shoreham airshow crash on 22 August 2015 – in which 11 people died – serves to remind us of the inherent dangers of bringing low-flying aircraft, often still undergoing flight tests, so close to crowded audiences.

Airshows, like airspace, constitute contested geographies, spaces of performance, politics, power, and technology. Despite their prominent place in aviation history, few geographers have critically examined the airshow as contested space. In a 2001 Area article, Heather Nicholson (Leeds) recounted the importance of such specific sites as airshows in childhood geographies; the airshow, like zoos and carnivals, become privileged spatial memories; important markers in a child’s expanding world (p. 134).

Matthew Rech (Newcastle) has redressed this gap in his 2015 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers study, ‘A critical geopolitics of observant practice at British military airshows’. Approaching airshows through what Fraser Macdonald termed ‘observant practice’, or how “types” of seeing (e.g., ‘gazing’, ‘glancing’, staring) can manipulate — and be manipulated by — show controllers through dazzling demonstrations, fly-bys, and promotion or suppression of particular images and narratives (p. 537). Site selection for instance can play important subliminal roles, the selection of a “country site” as Farnborough, intended to evoke a timeless England, or Brize Norton, a famed RAF base with barriers, signs, and other symbols of ‘secrecy, security, and safety’ (p. 538). Such images convey strength, ‘prowess’, ‘an architecture of control’, and nationalism, as well as more child-like wonder, amazement, curiosity, and sheer excitement. The consequences — particularly from a fiscal standpoint — can be huge.

Rech’s argument has a strong historical foundation, lending additional credence to his contemporary, sociological observation. From the 1910s, airshows conveyed the ‘rhetorical force of flight’: a host of metaphorical meaning ranging from the airman, who seemingly took on superhuman qualities wherever he (or she, from the 1930s) went, to the ‘futurist aesthetic’ of the aircraft themselves: their glistening fuselages, engines, the triumph of metal over nature. Rech is careful, however, to also stress what is not displayed: the most secret, most advanced, most important aircraft. This balance between display and intimidation, and secrecy and the threats of the unknown, remains central to any airshow geared toward military hardware.

The audience undergoes a physiological and psychological process when attending an airshow, particularly one with air force equipment. In what Rech refers to as ‘technofetishism’, the moral barriers between casual weekend observer and the lethal equipment on the other side of the tape blur; internal questions concerning the aircraft’s or system’s purpose is clouded in excitement and pride in the nation-state (pp. 541-42).

60-world2 Aviation Week (2014) Farnborough airshow accessed 6 November 2015.

60-world2 Tovey A (2015) Farnborough flying high as it lands China air show deal The Telegraph.

60-world2 Johnston C and Jenkins L (2015), Shoreham plane crash: seven dead after fighter jet hits cars during airshow 22 August.

books_icon Nicholson HN (2001) Seeing how it was? Childhood geographies and memories of home movies Area 33(2): 128-40.

books_icon Rech MF (2015) A critical geopolitics of observant practice at British military airshows Transactions of The Institute of British Geographers 40(4): 536-48.

ICHC 2015: the global history of cartography

logo-ichcBenjamin Sacks, Princeton University

Antwerp, Belgium recently hosted the 26th International Conference on the History of Cartography, bringing together 150 of the world’s leading historians of cartography, geographers, spatial specialists, and young career scholars and practitioners. The biannual conference seeks to promote the critical historical study and analysis of maps, map makers and geographers, and their impact in society. conference director Joost Depuydt, Universiteit Antwerpen, and Imago Mundi, the history of cartography’s flagship academic journal, closely collaborated to bring the conference to fruition. A large Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) contingent attended, including (amongst others) retired RGS-IBG librarian Francis Herbert, Peter Barber, the British Library’s director of maps, former British Library map director Tony Campbell, Catherine Delano-Smith, Imago Mundi‘s chief editor, early modern map expert Chet Van Duzer, Matthew Edney, director of The History of Cartography series, and Imre Demhardt, a director of the International Cartographic Association.

The week-long conference has become famous for its single-panel, single-room format, with no concurrent sessions. Each panelist presents to the entire conference. The week format also provides ample time for panels on nearly every conceivable topic in the history of cartography and the history of geography. Both Karen De Coene (Universiteit Gent) and Joaquim Gaspar (Universidade de Lisboa) articulated the longevity of maps’ usefulness: De Coene demonstrated how composite atlases remain potent sources of understanding the formation of geographical knowledge networks; Gaspar investigated how accurate the 1569 Mercator world map proved to be for maritime navigation – some two centuries before its full adoption by shipping firms.

Linda Rui Feng (University of Toronto) highlighted how textual and non-cartographic evidence (e.g., manuscripts, letters, poetry) could be used to reconstruct early maps and regain previously lost geographic knowledge. ‘The concept of map (tu) in pre-modern China was a highly capacious one’, she argued, ‘and existed as part of an interface across the genres of text, pictorial illustration (also termed tu), and painting (hua)’ (Programme 32). Her work echoed David Cooper and Ian Gregory’s (Lancaster University)’s 2011 Transactions article ‘Mapping the English Lake District: a literary GIS’. In the latter piece, Cooper and Gregory discussed the possibilities of incorporating an array of visual, contemporary, quantitative, and qualitative information – from geographical coordinates to Thomas Gray’s 1769 account of his walking tour – via GIS to create a truly interdisciplinary understanding of one of the British Isles’ most famed natural regions.

ICHC 2015 Antwerp attendees. Photograph (c)  2015 Joost Depuydt.

ICHC 2015 Antwerp attendees. Photograph (c) 2015 Joost Depuydt.

Borders, boundaries, and their complex geographies constitute an important, recurrent theme in RGS-IBG journals. In ‘Border Landscapes’ (Area June 1989) Dennis Rumley (University of Western Australia) reported on a conference held to grapple with borders’ historic and contemporary problems: combating negative perceptions of border regions as poor, peripheral frontiers (175), critically examining ongoing bilateral border disputes, and re-examining historical disputes in a search for future solutions. Alec McEwan (International Boundary Commission) took a more focused slant, carefully deconstructing a century-old African boundary dispute. In ‘The establishment of the Nigeria/Benin boundary, 1889-1989’ (The Geographical Journal March 1991) he concluded that despite two clear imperial agreements cementing the boundary, a propitious lack of accurate and readily available maps, combined with the constantly-changing nature of the Okpara River, led to a nearly a hundred years of sociopolitical headaches, antagonism, and missed diplomatic opportunities. In a similar vein, Madalina Veres (University of Pittsburgh) turned her attention to the Habsburg’s forty-year failed effort to secure late eighteenth-century Lombardy’s frontier. She concluded that despite the Habsburg Empire’s best efforts, the deft use of conflicting maps and surveying engineers by three other monarchs prevented the region from being conclusively demarcated or controlled. Catherine Dunlop (Montana State University), author of the recently-published book Cartophilia: Maps and the Search for Identity in the French-German Borderland, buttressed Veres’ and McEwan’s respective points. In her analysis of Alsace’s fractured history, she promoted the role of maps as peaceful tools of negotiation and clarity, even in regions famed for armed conflict.

As Federico Ferretti’s 2014 study on the role of cartography in the promotion of a unified Italy keenly demonstrated (see ‘Italy: A tale of popular geographic circulation‘, Geography Directions, 15 November 2014), maps have and continue to serve as vital assets in legitimising particular conceptions of ‘the state’, while subordinating or eliminating competing visions from public and private discourse. At ICHC 2015 Zef Segal (Ben Gurion University) examined how competing German states, actors, and organisations created, promulgated, and manipulated maps to promote their particular perspective of territory generally and ‘Germany’ specifically. In so doing, his ongoing research intends to unearth the complex cartographic and geographic politics of Germany’s modern formation.

Geography is inherently global, a fact Max Moerman (Barnard College/Columbia University) kept close to heart as he embarked on his now in-press book, The Japanese Buddhist World Map: Religious Vision and the Cartographic Imagination. After identifying ships on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese Buddhist world maps ‘that otherwise vehemently rejected the cartography of European exploration and its attendant cosmology of a global Earth’ (Programme 52), Moerman launched an investigation into Japanese maps’ global history. He uncovered that Buddhist map makers negotiated the inclusion of particular European and Far Eastern geopolitical and topographical elements into a ‘cartographic hybridity’ that both reflected Japan’s gradual opening to the West and Japanese efforts to rectify their position within this globalising world. Moerman’s focus on the negotiated symbiosis of ‘East and West’ fits well with current trends in RGS-IBG scholarship.

Mark Monmonier (Syracuse University) identified an area of geographical scholarship little examined in RGS-IBG journals: patents and invention. Transactions, for instance, has only discussed patents and the invention of geographic/cartographic-aiding devices in the context of agricultural efficiency (e.g., David Nally, ‘The biopolitics of food provisioning’ January 2011). In ‘Inventors and cartographic creativity’, he detailed how geography, exploration, cartography, and transportation has spurred a vast range of inventions, inventors, and gadgets, ranging from the vital to the curious.

Building off of James Ackerman’s 2009 The Imperial Map and Peter Barber and Tom Harper’s Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art (2011), Katariina Kosonen (University of Helsinki) discussed the influence of maps in popular newsprint and media. In ‘Passive resistance and raging propaganda’, she recounted the various means newspaper and magazine maps influenced or reflected charged public opinions in young Finland’s struggle to maintain independence from Soviet Russia. Kosonen tapped into a important topic of current geographic inquiry: the diffusion of geographic knowledge through mass media, how it is manipulated, and what it means for geopolitics and the discipline itself. Geography, as Frances Harris (Kingston University) wrote in a 2011 Geographical Journal commentary, is especially well suited to take an important place in media’s visual future.

Tim Hall, Phil Toms, Mark McGuinness, Charlotte Parker, and Neil Roberts’ vital January 2015 Area article ‘Where’s the Geography department?’ sounded the alarm to secure maintaining academic geography’s future as a distinct discipline in British higher education. At ICHC 2015, scholars and research librarians detailed various efforts to keep geography and cartography influential, relevant, and technologically advanced. Martijn Storms announced the successful merger, digitisation, and promotion of the Netherlands’ three most important map collections, with the intent of connecting historical and contemporary Dutch mapping and geographical knowledge to academics and policy-makers.  G. Salim Mohammed updated the academic community on Stanford University’s acquisition of the David Rumsey Map Collection, one of the most important private, digital collections in the United States. Later in 2015 Stanford will open the David Rumsey Map Center, a fully-digital geographic and geospatial library, to the public. ICHC 2017 will be held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

books_iconCooper D and Gregory I N (2011), Mapping the English Lake District: a literary GISTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 36: 89-108, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00405.x

60-world2Ferretti F (2014), Inventing Italy and the circulation of geographical culturesGeography Directions, 5 February 2014.

books_iconFerretti F (2014), Inventing Italy: geography, Risorgimento and national imagination: the international circulation of geographical knowledge in the 19th centuryThe Geographical Journal 180: 402-13, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12068.

books_iconHall T, Toms P, McGuinness M, Parker P, and Roberts N (2015), Where’s the Geography department? The changing administrative place of Geography in UK higher educationArea, 47: 56-64, DOI: 10.1111/area.12154.

books_iconHarris F (2011), Getting geography into the media: understanding the dynamics of academic-media collaborationThe Geographical Journal, 177: 155-59, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2010.00396.x.

books_iconInternational Conference on the History of Cartography (2015), ICHC 2015 Antwerp: Programme & Abstract of the 26th International Conference on the History of Cartography: Theatre of the World in Four Dimensions, Antwerp: FelixArchief.

books_iconMcEwan A C (1991), The establishment of the Nigeria/Benin boundary, 1889-1989The Geographical Journal 157: 62-70, DOI: 10.2307/635145.

books_iconNally D (2011), The biopolitics of food provisioningTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS 36: 37-53, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00413.x.

books_iconRumley D (1989), Border landscapesArea 21: 175-76.

60-world2Sacks B J (2014), Italy: a tale of popular geographic circulationGeography Directions, 15 November 2014.

60-world2Sacks B J (2015), What happened to the American geography department? Geography Directions, 8 April 2015.

Crowd-Sourced Maps: A Way Forward?

by Benjamin Sacks, Princeton University

OpenStreetMap is catalysing an open-sourced mapping revolution.

OpenStreetMap is catalysing an open-sourced mapping revolution.

In the mobile Internet age, nearly every individual has the capacity to create. Despite the rapid transformation of cartography from analogue to digital, elite to everyman, maps remain biased, nuanced, meaning-laden documents, much as J B Harley and David Woodward first argued in their respective late twentieth century scholarship. Joe Gerlach (University of Oxford) has sought to both connect existing studies of maps with open-sourced cartography, as well as investigate digital, crowd-sourced mapping on its own terms and merits. In ‘Editing worlds: participatory mapping and a minor geopolitics’ (Transactions April 2015) he examined what OpenStreetMap means for cartography as a geopolitical tool in international affairs.

According to Gerlach, the Cold War dominated twentieth century geopolitical cartography; he recalled Gearóid Ó’Tuathail’s weaved narrative imagining ‘Halford Mackinder and Henry Kissinger acting out manifold “belligerent dramas” over the spectre of a world map’ (273). This intimate association with realpolitik and its manifestations (war, trauma, Mutually Assured Destruction, colonisation, proxy conflict) might have provided geopolitics with a measure of ‘institutional rigour’ (borrowing from Edoardo Boria) but at the expense of cartography’s legitimacy. Grassroots, open source mapping moves to restore cartography’s geopolitical credentials by distancing itself from the Cold War’s more onerous legacies. Gerlach suggested that a ‘minor’ revolution in cartography is underway. Not minor in size or scale, but rather in its sociological and literary sense: ‘an examination of the non-representational aspects of this representational practice as a way of spotlighting the often unspoken, anticipatory politics of mapping’ (274). Or, in other words, the culture(s) and movement(s) of open-source, grassroots mapping.

This is a brave new world, at least from a scholarly standpoint. What does cartographic inclusiveness mean? How does mass-participatory, often non-moderated cartography influence geopolitics at the local, regional, or international levels? By its very nature, such mapping is ‘uncertain and experimental’, outside the bounds of traditional scholarly or political cartographic analysis. At its core, the maps are moved, influenced, and popularised by the crowd; subject to its rational and irrational drifts, pulls, and tendencies.

Programmes like OpenStreetMap seek to free the user from restrictions imposed by such official, controlled maps as Ordnance Survey and United States Geological Survey charts. In so doing, users become active authors in cartography and, by extension, the multi-dimensional geographical landscape. In Peru, for instance, a digitally-aware audience has effectively and efficiently subverted the military’s de facto monopoly on maps, identifying, creating, manipulating, and distributing their own cartographies via OpenStreetMap. Through social gatherings, group GPS expeditions, and checking each others’ work, contributors established themselves – however deliberately or accidentally – as a national cartographic force, competition to the military’s own carefully controlled maps.

Of greatest importance is the sheer excitement open source mapping brings to cartography. Like Wikipedia of the 2000s, OpenStreetMap is still in its childhood, subject to referee issues, inaccuracies, and end-user problems. Regardless, by providing free-to-use, easily manipulated cartographic tools to the public on desktop and mobile devices, geographic knowledge can reach an audience few twentieth century geographers – and especially those of a Cold War persuasion – could have foreseen.

books_iconBoria E (2008) Geopolitical maps: a sketch history of a neglected trend in cartography Geopolitics 13 278-308.

books_iconGerlach, J. (2015), Editing worlds: participatory mapping and a minor geopolitics. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers,                         40: 273–286. doi: 10.1111/tran.12075

books_iconÓ’Tuathail G, Dalby S and Routledge P eds (2006) The geopolitics reader 2nd edn Routledge, London 237-54.

What happened to the American geography department?

By Benjamin Sacks

Today, Dartmouth College remains the only Ivy League institution to maintain a distinct geography department. (c) 2015 Wikimedia  Commons.

Today, Dartmouth College remains the only Ivy League institution to maintain a distinct geography department. (c) 2015 Wikimedia Commons.

Tim Hall et al.’s recent Area examination of the changing fortunes and distribution of British geography departments identified both shifts in scope and funding. The geography department was ‘neither stable historically nor universal in nature’, and has been subject to merging, reclassification, separation, and redistribution since the mid-1990s (p.58). This problem however is also the discipline’s trump card: inherently interdisciplinary, geography can stand on its own and be classified with other related disciplines without significantly threatening its future. The United Kingdom continues to dominate geographic research and study, leading most recognised international league tables (e.g., QS World University; THES). The 2013 ESRC-RGS-AHRC report into Britain’s standing within academic geography trumpeted the country’s extraordinary impact in primary (field) research, geographical theory, and GIS development, despite the fact that the number of free-standing geography departments dropped from 47 (1995) to 33 (2013). In sum, geography’s preeminent position in British higher research and education is guaranteed as long as further fiscal cuts are not implemented. Hall et al also noted other, mostly Commonwealth countries, where geography research and education has expanded or diversified since the end of the twentieth century.

The situation is unfortunately vastly different in the United States. Despite longstanding efforts by the National Geographic Society and the American Geographical Society to expand geography education at the secondary- and university-levels respectively, geography remains a little-studied or even -understood discipline. At present it remains the only major academic field not to receive national education funding. As recently as 2010 the National Assessment Governing Board admitted the failure of American geography education. ‘The consequence’, they conceded, was ‘widespread ignorance of our own country and of its place’ in the world. World events change the situation little. This time last year, Kyle Dropp (Dartmouth), Joshua Kertzer (Harvard), and Thomas Zeitzoff (Princeton) surveyed 2,066 Americans on their knowledge of Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Eighty-four per cent could not identify Ukraine on a world map. The average answer, calculated from all guesses, suggested that Ukraine was located somewhere in Western Europe and the Mediterranean – over 1,800 miles from its actual position. Distressingly, they uncovered a direct inverse correlation between knowledge and support for US military intervention. The less likely participants were able to accurately identify Ukraine’s geographical position, the more likely they wanted Washington to intervene on Kiev’s behalf.

In 1900, nearly all major American colleges and universities maintained active (even thriving) geography departments. Today, only one Ivy League university – Dartmouth – still hosts an independent department, and few programmes still exist at private universities. The situation at flagship public universities has fared somewhat better, largely thanks to their role as ‘land-grant’ institutions. The University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison stand out as particularly internationally competitive programmes. This dilemma is all the more worrying when one considers the importance and impact of United States’ foreign policy.

What accounted for this seismic change, particularly given the rapid expansion of international affairs programmes at the undergraduate and postgraduate level? In 1987 Neil Smith, then at Rutgers, examined the collapse of Harvard’s geography department following the end of the Second World War. Echoing Jean Gottmann’s declaration that the closure of the Harvard department was ‘a terrible blow’ from which American geography ‘has never completely recovered’, Smith recounted how Harvard president James Conant declared that ‘geography is not a university subject’, ignoring both British investment in the discipline and competing American universities own departments (159). Geographers on both sides of the Atlantic criticised Harvard’s decision, adding that the university had neglected the programme for at least a generation, crippling its scholarly output and the careers of its faculty even as knowledge of international studies, lands, and peoples rapidly expanded in importance. Other American private institutions soon followed Harvard’s decision to terminate the department. Yale’s programme dragged on – near death – until 1967; Pennsylvania incorporated theirs with Wharton Business School, only to close the department in 1963. Columbia’s department – easily the most prodigious of the Ivy League – finally ended in 1986 due to a lack of popularity and funding. The collapse of Columbia’s department evidenced the American geography education’s cyclical crisis: lack of investment in primary-level geography education led to little undergraduate or postgraduate interest in geography, which in turn led to calls for programme closures.

A positive example, however, remains: the United States Military Academy at West Point continues to require its students to undertake courses in environmental, human, and scientific (engineering) geography, a tradition established with the introduction of French geographical and engineering methodology at the Academy’s founding in 1802.

books_icon Tim Hall, Phil Toms, Mark McGuinness, Charlotte Parker, and Neil Roberts, ‘Where’s the Geography department? The changing administrative place of Geography in UK higher education‘, Area 47.1 (2015): 56-64.

books_icon Roger M Downs, ‘The NAEP Geography Report 2010: What Will We Do Next?‘ Journal of Geography 111.1 (Jan., 2011): 39-40.

books_icon Kyle Dropp, Joshua D Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff, ‘The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene’The Washington Post, 7 April 2014.

books_icon ‘Geography Framework for the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress’, National Assessment Governing Board, accessed 8 April 2015.

books_icon Neil Smith, ‘“Academic War over the Field of Geography”: The Elimination of Geography at Harvard, 1947-1951‘, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77.2 (Jun., 1987): 155-72.

Cartography in Times of War & Peace

An c.1855 military map of the Crimean theatre, from Francis Herbert's personal collection. © 2015 The Author.

An c.1855 military map of the Crimean theatre, from Francis Herbert’s personal collection. © 2015 The Author.

By Benjamin Sacks

On 2-6 December 2014 an international group of leading scholars of historical geography – including a large Royal Geographical Society contingent – converged in Ghent, Belgium to mark the centenary of the First World War and cartography’s extraordinary role in it. Soetkin Vervust, a PhD candidate in the University of Ghent’s Department of Geography, successfully organised and directed this week-long summit critically examining armed conflict’s diverse impacts on cartography, surveying, geographical information collection and dissemination, spatial awareness, and culture.

Francis Herbert, the RGS’s retired research library director and Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries, exhibited well over one hundred maps, guidebooks and ephemera from his personal collection. The trove spanned from the Crimean War (1853-1856) to decolonisation, with an appropriate emphasis on the two world wars. As a whole, Herbert’s collections vividly demonstrated how globalisation and technological advances in communications and transport brought military mapping from the battlefield into the very heart of popular culture. The Herbert Collection is particularly interesting as the source of much of much of his extensive scholarship, including (amongst numerous examples) ‘The “London Atlas of University Geography” from John Arrowsmith to Edward Stanford’ (1989).

A number of presentations pursued this theme. James Akerman, director of the Newberry Library’s Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for Cartography, discussed the fascinating, and occasionally bizarre, proliferation of battlefield guidebooks circulated immediately following the First World War. While many volumes published between 1918 and the early 1920s were authored with due care, respect, and deference to the conflict’s nearly unimaginable horrors and extraordinary loss of life, some guides smacked of sensationalism and reductionism, pointing out the best restaurants and stage shows to enjoy following an afternoon jaunt to the still-fresh craters of Ypres. Ralph Ehrenberg, director of the Library of Congress’s Geography and Map Division, similarly recounted the War’s dynamic role in popularising military engineers and cartographers, pilots, and their maps in the rapidly-globalising United States. Ehrenberg’s work on cartography, cartographers, and aviation complements and extends Michael Heffernan’s 1996 Transactions article examining the RGS’s intelligence-gathering role(s) in the First World War, and provides a fascinating historical context to Alison Williams’ 2011 Transactions article on the ‘multiple spatialities of UK military airspace’.

Joel Radunzel, a veteran of the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a current graduate student of Mark Monmonier at Syracuse University, combined a technical expertise of military strategy with historical and contemporary cartography data to critically examine how and why British forces reacted in particularly ways before, during, and after the 3rd Battle of Gaza (1-2 November 1917). Radunzel shed important new light, unavailable from existing, non-geographical analyses, into the British military’s decision-making processes, identifying the extents and limitations of their battlefield knowledge, and geographically-pinpointing where and when their intelligence of allied and enemy movements was correct, incorrect, and by how much.

Cartography in Times of War and Peace highlighted the maturation of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as a vital tool of historical analysis. Sandra Domingues and the Centre for Geographical Studies at the University of Lisbon brought the work, travels, and lives of the First World War’s Portuguese military postal service to life with a remarkable fusion of traditional maps and ArcGIS-based visualisations. Photographs and letters were georeferenced to their precise location in the trenches. Likewise, Utrecht University Library showcased how GIS digitisation revealed the city’s many fortresses and their centuries of influence on urban development.

The University of Ghent Conference Centre, host of 'Cartography in Times of War and Peace'. © 2015 The Author.

The University of Ghent Conference Centre, host of ‘Cartography in Times of War and Peace’. © 2015 The Author.

Napoleonic Iberia was a hotbed of cartographic experimentation and development. Pilar Chias and Tomas Abad (University of Alcala) elucidated the little-known world of Spanish military cartographers who operated alongside the Duke of Wellington’s forces against the French emperor. Spanish field surveyors incorporated their intimate knowledge of local geographies to create beautiful, highly useable, and secretive three-dimensional maps. These works of art provided allied armies with a level of battlefield intelligence the French could never hope to obtain, and undoubtedly played an important role in Napoleon’s eventual defeat in Spain. Kelly Henderson (Adelaide, Australia) reminded the audience that one British engineering surveyor active in the Iberian campaign was William Light (1786-1839), the ‘genius’ behind Adelaide’s equitable grid plan. The Light model subsequently became an important method in designing and administering nineteenth century Victorian colonial cities as far afield as Mumbai (Bombay) and Hong Kong. Henderson’s deep biographical and cartographical research articulated the global acquisition, production, and reproduction of planning knowledge from Britain and Spain to Australia. Their respective studies remind geographers from all fields of the very personal nature of maps, mapping, and exploration.

Belgium has been an importance centre of geographical discourse and cartographic advancement since at least the sixteenth century. Participants visited the Mercator Museum in Sint-Niklaas, where Gerard Mercator’s groundbreaking aardglobe (1541) and hemelglobe (1551) are carefully preserved and displayed. Jan de Graeve’s extensive personal collection of surveying instruments, another conference ‘treat’, also stressed Belgium’s historical position as a crossroads for geographers and cartographers. His collections include a rare copy of Roland and Duchesne’s Atlas-Manuel de Géographie, in effect, a cartographic proclamation of King Leopold’s global imperial ambitions.

On Saturday, 6 December the Brussels Map Circle hosted a one-day annual meeting celebrating the Ghent conference and highlighting ongoing major research in cartographic/geographic scholarship. Imre Demhardt (University of Texas, Arlington), a chair of the International Cartographic Association, updated audiences on his ongoing investigation into the diverse origins of the United States Corps of Engineers, and their efforts to survey, map, and rework the vast American landscape.

Suggested Sources

60-world2 ‘Cartography in Times of War and Peace‘, The University of Ghent (archived).

books_icon Herbert, F, ‘The “London Atlas of Universal Geography” from John Arrowsmith to Edward Stanford: Origin, Development and Dissolution of a British World Atlas from the 1830s to the 1930s‘, Imago Mundi 41 (1989).

books_icon Heffernan, M, ‘Geography, Cartography and Military Intelligence: The Royal Geographical Society and the First World War‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.3 (1996): 504-33.

books_icon Williams, A, ‘Reconceptualising Spaces of the Air: Performing the Multiple Spatialities of UK Airspaces‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 36.2 (Apr., 2011): 253-67.

Italy: A Tale of Popular Geographic Circulation

by Benjamin Sacks

Italy: designed by geography. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Italy: designed by geography. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

In 2002 Harvard historian David Armitage advanced his groundbreaking ‘Three Concepts of the Atlantic World’, a part-historiographical, part-theoretical attempt to describe the transnational movement of peoples, goods, and ideas in the early modern era. Admitting, of course, that the Atlantic Ocean cannot be conceived of in isolation to the Pacific, Mediterranean, or Indian oceans, or indeed to non-Atlantic continents (an point since strenuously articulated by Peter Coclanis), Armitage proposed three, intertwined paradigms: Circum-Atlantic, or ‘a transnational history’; Trans-Atlantic, or ‘an international history’; and Cis-Atlantic, or a ‘national or regional history within an Atlantic context’ (15). In sum, Armitage argued that we could not analyse or articulate national histories without critically accounting for time, context, and space. A study of Cadiz, Spain, for instance, historically one of the Atlantic’s most important and dynamic ports, cannot be comprehensively accomplished without: identifying its particular relationship(s) with other ports, nations, peoples, and ideas, its geography; or how ideas, groups, goods, and communications circumnavigate the sea (and the world) before returning in often exotic, repackaged forms.

While still a relatively recent phenomenon in historical study, geographers have long practised precisely the same analytical methods. Federico Ferretti’s recent Geographical Journal article is an excellent case-in-point. In ‘Inventing Italy – Geography, Risorgimento and National Imagination’, Ferretti documents and critiques how politicians, geographers, journalists, and merchants united – both consciously and unconsciously – to promote a modern worldview of ‘Italy’ from 1861, following Giuseppe Garibaldi’s successful efforts to merge the various Italian peninsular states. As their discussions and depictions of a unified Italy spread, so to did global conceptions of ‘Italy’ as a singular national identity, gradually erasing centuries-old perceptions of Italy as a squabbling cornucopia of city-states. From a narrowly topographical standpoint, Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich famously dispelled any notion of a united Italy as ‘a mere geographical expression’; a collection of micro-states connected only by their shared space on a geographically ideal and compact peninsula with convenient physical boundaries (403). But the coterie of writers, politicals, cartographers, and populists who tasked themselves with promoting post-1861 Italy swiftly dispelled this gross misconception.

Recalling Derek Gregory’s conception of ‘geographic imaginations’, Ferretti supports the view that political “realities” are often entire or partial geographical constructs, products of sociocultural and economic belief shifts. Or, to put another way, if they believe it, it is real. Italy had to market itself to become a legitimate force.

In the three decades prior to Italian unification, Count Annibal Ranuzzi devoted his life to the promotion of a serious, unified Italian geographic discourse. He and colleagues developed sophisticated correspondence networks with such established organisations as the Royal Geographical Society and l’Académie des sciences. Apart from his extraordinary technical and networking abilities, Ranuzzi was also an adept political strategist. In 1840, observing the rapid growth of formal geographic study throughout Europe and North America, the Count declared that a vital ‘shift’ must soon occur in the discipline’s maturation: ‘Critical geography, comparative geography, is just being born, and much time will be needed before it penetrates and prevails over the entire field of geographical studies’ (409). Geography, as Ranuzzi and a mélange of progressive European experts realised, could be promoted as a potent political tool – the active, engaged study of people, power, and states.

Geography is a remarkably natural means of political persuasion. Maps, as Ranuzzi depicted, beautifully lend themselves to manipulation, self-interest, and national celebration, á la J B Harley and David Woodward’s scholarship. The printed word – journal articles, journalism, literary accounts, and travel writing – on Italy too promoted a sense of ‘the nation’ both before and after Italian unification. Although Ranuzzi was sadly marginalised following unification for his complex political relationships, his efforts – as well as that of his contemporaries – strongly influenced the establishment of national, pan-Italian learned geographical societies and even, in the mould of the Royal Geographical Society and the National Geographic Society, Italian imperial expeditions serving dual academic-political goals.

books_icon Armitage, D, ‘Three Concepts of the Atlantic World‘, in Armitage, D and Braddick, M, eds., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

books_icon Coclanis, P, ‘Drang Nach Osten: Bernard Bailyn, the World-Island, and the Idea of Atlantic History‘, Journal of World History 13.1 (Spring, 2002): 169-82.

books_icon Ferretti, F, ‘Inventing Italy. Geography, Risorgimento and Natiional Imagination: The International Circulation of Geographical Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century‘, The Geographical Journal 180.4 (Dec., 2014): 402-13.