When we think of the history of the British Empire we tend to think big: oceans were crossed; colonies grew from small settlements to territories many times larger than England; entire Continents, each with substantial indigenous populations, were brought under British rule. Maps were an important part of rule in America, but from the point of view of the Board of Trade, the lack of ‘exact Surveys’ meant that a new approach to mapping Britain’s American dominions was needed.
is a Professor of History at the University of Virginia, and in The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence
(Harvard University Press, 2017) he shows how the Crown and the Board of Trade initiated the mapping of every new corner of Britain’s American dominions – places that were also the ancestral homes of Native Americans and the site of emerging settler republics. The book has an accompanying website, includes a bibliography of 257 maps, which is only a selection of what was produced. Yet virtually every acre of ground shown in these maps was contested by colonists, settlers, indigenous people, land speculators, and servants of the Crown. Britain claimed vast territory which it could not effectively rule.
Charles Prior is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hull.