Burnett, D. Graham. Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El
Dorado. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. vx, 298 pp. ISBN 0226081206.
I first spotted this book at the Denver meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries (2001), where the editors of Terrae Incognitae asked me to consider reviewing it. I admit that the book’s attractive dust jacket illustration (a historic watercolor sketch of surveyors in the tropics) and its catchy title (a familiar play on words) intrigued me. I also admit that the words “El Dorado” in the book’s subtitle fascinated me, for I am interested in how mineral riches have lured explorers throughout history. Where, I wondered, was this British El Dorado? Upon opening the book and glancing at the introduction, I learned that it dealt with the exploration and surveying of a portion of South America that Sir Walter Raleigh (aka Ralegh) had eyed as early as the sixteenth century. The British maintained an interest in this area well into the nineteenth century as it seemed to promise hidden riches—both mineral and territorial. A quick glance through the book’s index revealed references to Alexander von Humboldt, maps, landmarks, landscapes and enchantment—in short, many subjects dear to me and many fellow SHD members. Closing the book, I took only a second to make a decision: I’d gladly review it.
I began reading the book in my Denver hotel room and must admit that I found it difficult to put down. The more I read, the more I became convinced that this is one of the truly important studies in the history of discovery and exploration by imperial powers. As noted in the introduction, author D. Graham Burnett’s main goal was “to understand the place of maps, explorers, and geographical knowledge in the history of imperialism” (p. 3). Although one particular locale—British Guiana—is the geographic focus of this book, it contains observations that apply to nineteenth-century exploration in other parts of the world as well. On the airplane returning from Denver to Texas, I found myself engrossed in the story of South America exploration that Burnett tells using original documents and recent scholarship.
This is an ambitious book. Burnett attempts to do nothing less than, as he states, “…make contributions in several general areas: most important, to the understanding of geographical knowledge in the imperial context, but also to the history of exploration and cartography as well as to the history of British Guiana and the biography of [British explorer] Robert H. Schomburgk” (p. 256). Focusing on the accomplishments of one explorer was a good idea, for Burnett was able to use Schomburgk as a divining rod into the spirit of the times. In exploring this part of South America in the 1830s, Schomburgk had claimed to be the first to reach Ralegh’s fabled El Dorado. Commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society (and later the British Crown) to explore and map a contested part of South America lying between Brazil and Venezuela, Schomburgk had his work cut out for him. The physical geography of this area is exceedingly complex, for even the configuration of its watersheds is difficult to determine; moreover, the tropical climate and terrain exacted a heavy toll on surveyors. Then, too, the region’s native peoples also proved difficult to comprehend despite the fact that they served as guides and informants. Burnett addresses the differences between the native mindset and that of the European explorers. He also discusses the profound differences in the way these different peoples perceived the same place.
Although addressing many diverse subjects, Masters of All They Surveyed is, above all, about colonial surveying, which has rich antecedents and unintended consequences. For his part, explorer Schomburgk zealously joined that centuries-old search to comprehend the geography of this region. Like many of his contemporaries, however, Schomburgk was only vaguely aware of the meaning of his adventures and misadventures. Burnett carefully constructs (or rather reconstructs) Schomburgk’s journeys, explaining in detail the survey techniques used and routes traversed. In so doing, Burnett does far more than simply describe Schomburgk the explorer. He also interprets the deeper meaning of Schomburgk’s surveying, placing it and related endeavors in not only historical, but also philosophical, context. This book is, to my knowledge, the first to successfully apply the thriving literature on the history of cartography to the exploration of a particular region. As Burnett narrates and interprets, he calls upon the writings of cartographic historians, including Brian Harley, Mathew Edney, and Denis Wood, to help him describe the process and its consequences. He also calls on scholars of language’s deeper meanings, for example, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, to help him interpret exploration. By engaging so many scholars, Burnett helps the reader understand the sometimes-hidden meanings of the surveyors’ actions, maps, and illustrations. Whereas such deep post-modern interpretation can be self-serving and ultimately opaque, Burnett succeeds masterfully in using it to expose some of the ironies and enigmas of colonial exploration. For example, he shows that conducting boundary surveys is ultimately “an ambivalent process of progressive erasures”—which is to say that certain geographic features and the prior experiences of others must be removed or erased as well as added as territorial trophies are claimed (p. 256).
Masters of All They Surveyed is ideologically refreshing, for Burnett is at once engaged and dispassionate. This book would not have succeeded if the author had an anti-colonial or anti-imperialist political agenda. However, because Burnett is interested in the deeper meanings of colonial surveying, rather than casting blame, his work emerges as carefully balanced and beautifully nuanced. It contains so many wonderful observations and revelations that they can barely be introduced here. Some highlights include its careful, integrated presentation and interpretation of both historic maps and scientific natural history illustrations; a thorough discussion of nineteenth-century field survey techniques; a compassionate but critical biography of Schomburgk and his contemporaries; a discussion of the methods by which Victorian-era surveyors built upon and even manipulated the works of earlier explorers (like Ralegh and Humboldt); and discussions of the deeper meaning of icons and symbols—as illustrated in the importance of the gigantic Victoria regia flower which was found in this remote part of South America, and which came to symbolize tropical fertility and colonial ambition. Burnett hoped that this book would be interdisciplinary, and it truly is.
Masters of All They Surveyed does many important things, but in the end helps rescue explorers from the doldrums that they slipped into following their fall from grace in the anti-heroic 1960s. It also courageously challenges the simplistic agendas of modern anti-colonialists. This reviewer’s final reaction? I am so impressed by this book that I not only recommend it to all SHD members; I’ve also assigned it as required reading for my students in my “Envisioning Empire” seminar—one of the courses in our university’s transatlantic history doctoral program. What better way to introduce students to the complexities and meanings of images of exploration, including maps and natural history drawings? Masters of All They Surveyed is not only fascinating history, but clearly among the most important books ever written about the process and consequences of European exploration in the New World.
The University of Texas at Arlington