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Cambridge University Science Magazine

In Francis Bacon’s manifesto Novum Organum published in 1620, he called for an active scientific method by which the natural world must be observed, explored and questioned, thereby laying out the foundations of Western scientific practice. The title page depicts a ship passing through the mythical Pillars of Hercules, prepared and ready to explore uncharted waters, imagery that links the notions of scientific discovery and territorial discovery. The Latin at the base of the pillars, “Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia”, translates to “many will travel and knowledge will be increased”.

Baconian natural philosophy created the culture and outlook for the interest in exploration and systemisation of knowledge. These ideas fundamental to a Western notion of scientific discovery both justified and exploited the imperialistic endeavours of the empire. This article will explore one of the clearest intersections of scientific discovery and imperial exploration exemplified in the practice of geology and, specifically, geological mapping.

As David Turnball writes in his 2003 book Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers, “...the processes of science and mapping are jointly embedded in the concept of ‘discovery’ and ‘exploration’. Territorial discovery and scientific discovery are both conflated with, and mediated by, maps…”

A map is a way of representing relationships between elements in space. The famous underground tube map exemplifies the power of a cleverly constructed map. Geological maps are less commonly encountered and depict the geological features of an area, for example, faults, or stratigraphic rock units. Earth scientists and geologists undertake mapping to learn about the geological history of an area. This data is used in palaeontology and can illuminate past geological history and climate. Although the data that comprise them are physical, these maps are still highly political. The generation and collection of the data require the geologist to visit the area of interest physically. It is, therefore, only possible under certain political conditions, as such work involves liaisons with the government, local people and researchers. Even so, a paper by Dahdouh-Guebas et al., in 2003, reported that in research conducted by the most industrialised countries in the least developed countries, 70% of papers do not have local research institutes as co-authors.

Resource extraction is a physically, economically and intellectually labour-intensive task requiring vast amounts of technical knowledge specific to the resource being extracted. For instance, in petroleum extraction, the historian Katayoun Shafiee coins this as ‘petroknowledge’. Geological maps are precious as they can help identify possible areas of resource exploration and therefore reduce the financial risk in undertaking such large scale tasks. The geological mapping process requires geologists to visit the site of potential resources, identify the rock outcrops (rocks visible at the surface) and mark them on a map. Using this information, they can then produce a cross-section and interpretation of the area’s geological history. Therefore, geology increased the efficiency of resource extraction and was employed by the British Empire to sustain its expansion. Geology was quickly recognised as not only valuable to the natural philosopher but the business man and British Empire.

The East India Company saw the commercial value of geology and established The Geological Survey of India in 1851. The primary objective of this survey was for hunting coal fields and iron deposits to supply the railways. The economic utility of geology meant that these large-scale operations were prioritised and funded, which increased the scope and prestige of geology as a science and consolidated the link between scientific research and commercial application.

Geological mapping also served to justify the Empire by furthering the power and prestige of British imperial science, thus cementing British control over their Empire. Many of the names used in the geological time scale, such as the Silurian and Cambrian, originate from British Geology. The historian of science Robert Stafford, in 1998 argued the “International prestige of British geology and the territorial extension of his own stratigraphic nomenclature across the world’s emerging geological maps as a scientific corollary of British imperial and commercial expansion.” Geological mapping was yet another way the British Empire could exert influence in even the language and terminology used within the international scientific community.

With mapping also came the collections of specimens such as fossils and minerals. We only have to look at museums, such as the Sedgwick Museum at the University of Cambridge (which is currently undergoing a process of decolonisation), which display many artefacts from around the world collected by the British Empire. These museums were designed to put people in awe of the scope and power possessed by the Empire. They also provided a systematic and rich source of specimens for geologists (useful for geological education and therefore the efficiency in resource extraction) and all manner of scientists to conduct research; however, this was only for the benefit of British scientists. For example, in her 2016 thesis, Aja Tolman talks about how Britain was careful to keep a monopoly on museums making sure only the duplicate of specimens were held in India. These displays of knowledge were for the benefit of Britain only.

This article scratches the surface of the intersection between mapping, scientific discovery and imperialism. Scientific discovery through the means of mapping during the British Empire was both a consequence and driver of the British Empire’s insatiable need for resources. The British Empire saw these maps as a display of power and by extension, the Empire’s power and control over the natural world and, therefore, the people who inhabit it

Octavia Rooks is a 4th Year Natural Sciences student at Jesus College studying Earth Science . Artwork by Natalia Pacheco.