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'A day of comparatively small things': spatial anxiety in the high British Empire

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Around the turn of the twentieth century, surveyors under the auspices of European Empires apparently eliminated much of the remaining blank space on the world map. Exploration and border demarcation parties made significant inroads into interior regions of Africa, the high mountains and deserts of Central Asia, and Arctic regions. At the same time, however, a host of fears regarding spatial understandings and practices crystallised among numerous agents, from men of science in metropolitan and colonial hubs to junior surveyors beyond the fringes of effective European control. If, as Joseph Conrad famously claimed, British geography triumphed in this era, it was a curiously ambivalent victory.

This paper examines how concerns over understanding and enacting spaces travelled within and beyond the British Empire through the dispersal of images, texts, and key individuals. These mobile elements often originated at the outskirts of empire rather than in established centres. Far from being immutable, they were repeatedly reformulated, facilitating anxieties that were widespread but far from homogeneous across different settings. The paper also shows that agents of imperial science questioned the very elements that many recent scholars consider constitutive of a spatial modernity emanating from Europe, such as maps, borders, and exploration narratives. In their place, previously overlooked regions and disparaged non-Western epistemologies became increasingly vital within British spatial imaginaries.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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