Room One

Mapping and marking

Charting, mapping and surveying oceans, coasts, land and resources were essential tools of Empire. Part of a wider gathering of information by the West about the world, they defined sea and trade routes, and identified territory to be claimed and colonised. Following earlier Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch navigators, buccaneering Elizabethan mariners and the ‘discovery voyages’ of James Cook and Matthew Flinders accompanied by ‘scientific gentlemen’ laid the foundations of a British Empire focused on maritime trade and the exploitation of regional resources. Trading ‘factories’ and forts built by the East India Company grew into great cities, their surroundings and hinterland surveyed by military engineers. Maps were made for settlers, builders of roads and railways, defence and warfare. 

Using their own skills and technical inventiveness, British cartographers and surveyors also learned from colonial rivals and regional expertise. Their work sometimes involved collaboration, but was often suspect, resented or opposed. By erasing indigenous ownership and imposing new names and borders, Empire maps were always provocative and ultimately redundant. At the height of Empire, maps defined Britain’s global reach, ambition and power in pictorial terms or by appearing in patriotic pictures.

In this short film below, curator and cultural historian Gus Casely-Hayford talks about a collection of Ghanian flags, symbols of local pride which were used in protest.