Critical Imperial and Colonial Geographies

Daniel Clayton. Handbook of Cultural Geography. Editor: Kay Anderson. Sage Publications. 2003.

This chapter considers geographers’ current fascination with the imperial/colonial past and traces the impact of postcolonialism on their interpretive sensibilities. Over the last 10 years there has been an explosion of interest in the links between geography and empire. Geographers have become interested in the imperial genealogy of their discipline, the spatiality of colonialism and empire, and how we might revisit imperial and colonial geographies from postcolonial perspectives.

Some have sought to evaluate the ways in which geography has worked as an imperial discipline and discourse, and have used their findings to pluralize and politicize understanding of what David Livingstone (1992) has called ‘the geographical tradition’. Critical attention has been drawn to the imperial roles played by diverse producers and arbiters of geographical knowledge (explorers, naturalists, cartographers, surveyors, photographers, geographical societies, professional geographers and so on), and to geography’s Eurocentric moorings (see Driver, 1995). Others have posed more general questions about the geographies of colonialism and empire. There are fast-growing literatures on how imperialism was shaped by spatial formations of knowledge and power, how empire was invested with geographical meaning through diverse cultural media (e.g. travel narratives, museums and school curricula) and how imperialism was tied to the fabrication of insidious locational imaginaries such as the orient, ‘darkest Africa’ and the tropics (see Driver and Yeoh, 2000; Duncan and Gregory, 1999; Gregory, 2000b). Still others have dealt more explicitly with colonial geographies and the ongoing extension of colonial power around the world. There is a range of work on the production and representation of colonial space, on how colonial spaces were built around the axes of class, race, gender and religion, and on how different natural environments and indigenous peoples (or natures and cultures) impacted on colonial projects and encounters (see Butzer, 1992; Kenny, 1999). Some of this literature also expresses a strong postcolonial concern with how geographers might support current anti-colonial struggles and processes of decolonization (see Howitt, 2001).

Geographical research on imperial/colonial issues has become very popular in Anglo-American geography, but is less prominent in non-English-speaking countries (though see Bruneau and Dory, 1994; Claval, 1998; Lejeune, 1993; Siliberto, 1998). And while geographers do not necessarily assume that all empires have been or are western, their work on geography and empire deals almost exclusively with the history and consequences of modern western colonization. There is also a heavy emphasis on the nineteenth century, and the British empire and its successor states.

The term ‘critical imperial and colonial geographies’ is meant to capture geographers’ diverse interests. It covers their attempts to: (1)  show that the discipline of geography, and a broader set of geographical discourses and practices, played a critical—or vital—role in empire; (2) criticize these vital geographies and move the discipline beyond their binds and conventions; (3) treat the links between geography and empire as symptomatic of the relations of power that inhere in the production of geographical knowledges; and (4) give geography a niche in wider postcolonial debates about colonialism and western dominance.

The chapter is divided into three sections and a number of subsections that sketch (what I see as) the key themes in this burgeoning area of geographical inquiry, and point to some of the ways in which geographers’ critical endeavours can be called postcolonial. The first section places the geographical literature in an encompassing intellectual setting and sketches geographers’ mixed reaction to the advent of postcolonialism in the western academy. The second section outlines the diverse ways in which we can construe the links between geography and empire; and the third section raises some questions about geographers’ critical aims.

Geography and Postcolonialism

Geographers have a long-standing critical interest in imperialism and colonialism, but the post-1980s literature considered here is characterized by a number of new trends. Much of it has emerged in critical dialogue with postcolonialism, which has become a trendy (if troublesome) buzzword for a range of critical practices that grapple with what it means to work ‘after,’ ‘beyond’ and ‘in the knowledge of colonialism (see Gregory, 2000a). Much of it displays an anti-essentialist concern with the social construction of knowledge and identity, and the machinations of knowledge and power. And much of it treats geography as an eclectic, shifting and contested body of concepts, knowledges and practices rather than as an autonomous discursive field or tightly defined discipline. The bulk of the chapter surveys these changing ideas about geography. But we cannot fully understand how and why geographers are turning to the imperial/colonial past unless we first place their work in a wider postcolonial intellectual context. It is important to so situate geographers’ work for numerous reasons, but let me make two sets of observations that are pertinent to the discussion that follows.

The Power of Postcolonialism

First, it has become commonplace to observe that the postcolonial world has placed new demands upon western theory and scholarship. There are demands to listen to the other, to appreciate claims to difference, to incorporate minor histories into mainstream history, and to come to terms with the cultural politics of academic knowledge. Western academics have become more attuned to the Eurocentric assumptions embedded in their disciplinary visions, more sensitive to issues of otherness and cultural diversity, and more alert to the idea that the universals enshrined in European (and especially post-Enlightenment) thought are at once indispensable and inadequate tools of critique. It ‘is now unacceptable to write geography in such a way that the West is always at the centre of its imperial Geography,’ Trevor Barnes and Derek Gregory (1997: 14) declare in a recent geography textbook, and scholars from other disciplines are spouting similar messages. ‘For scholars and teachers of my generation who were educated in what was an essentially Eurocentric mode,’ the influential Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said has written, ‘the landscape and topography of literary study have … been altered dramatically and irreversibly … [S]cholars of the new generation are much more attuned to the non-European, genderized, decolonized, and decentred energies and currents of our time’ (2001: 65).

Among other things, this new—postcolonial -generation has pressed home the idea that the configuration of Europe as the self-contained fount of modernity and sovereign subject/centre of world history is a powerful fiction that obscures the reciprocal constitution of Europe and its others. Postcolonial critics return to the past to reveal that identities, cultures, nations and histories have long been hybrid and intertwined, and never self-sufficient or mutually exclusive, with a select group of cultures being innately superior over others. In this sense, postcolonialism works as a critical perspective on the west which shows that ‘colonisation was never simply external to the societies of the imperial metropolis … [but] was always deeply inscribed within them’ (Hall, 1996: 246). Europe ‘was constructed from outsidein as much as inside out’ through processes of ‘transculturation,’ Mary Louise Pratt remarks, beginning with the metropole’s ‘obsessive need to re-present its peripheries and other continually to itself (1992: 4-7).

But postcolonialism does not simply amount to a ‘writing back’ to the west, or to a politics of recognition, that debunks Eurocentric knowledge and the denial of cultural and cognitive equality that lay at the heart of the west’s spirit of domination. Postcolonial criticism is also driven by the recognition that the freedom to take control of the means of self-representation that independence presented to colonized peoples did not create some instantaneous freedom from the burdens of colonial history. Leela Gandhi describes postcoloniality as ‘a condition troubled by the consequences of a self-willed historical amnesia’—by a desire to forget the past and the west—and suggests that ‘the theoretical value of postcolonialism inheres, in part, in its ability to elaborate forgotten memories of this condition’ (1998: 3-17). Crucially, ‘postcoloniality must be made to concede its own part or complicity in the terrors—and errors—of its own past.’ We should not turn a blind eye to the seductions of modernity and colonial power. We need to recover the lines of mutual desire between self and other that crossed the colonial world as well as those of coercion and mutual antagonism, and we need to evaluate the ongoing influence of European habits and categories of thought. In this sense, Gandhi suggests, postcolonialism can be seen as an ‘ameliorative’ and ‘therapeutic’ project that necessarily returns to the colonial past in order to help postcolonial subjects deal with ‘the gaps and fissures in their condition.’ It grapples with the spectre of belatedness and incompleteness that haunts decolonization and anti-colonial struggles: the spectre of only arriving on the scene of autonomy after the west, and of struggling to be modern yet different. Postcolonial energies are focused on the extent to which colonialism had a binary (dichotomous, exclusionary and systematic) or ambivalent (differentiated, fretful and contradictory) cast. The critical elucidation of colonialism as a conceptual totality with some transhistorical traits and grossly unequal effects is tempered by work that emphasizes colonialism’s diversity, hybridity and susceptibility to deformation (see Loomba, 1998).

Lastly in this subsection, postcolonialism is centrally concerned with the connections between culture and power. Economic and political factors and explanations for colonialism and empire are not ignored so much as integrated into new cultural interpretive frameworks that explore the creation and circulation of meaning, and the binaries of self/other, centre/periphery, modernity/tradition, coloniser/colonized and so on, that shaped (some would say overdetermined) metropolitan-colonial relationships. ‘Colonialism was made possible, and then sustained and strengthened, as much by cultural technologies of rule as it was by the more obvious and brutal modes of conquest,’ Nicholas Dirks (1996: xi) suggests (also see Thomas, 1993). Culture and power are often connected via the concept of discourse, and a short digression into the work of Edward Said is appropriate at this juncture, because it is seen as pivotal to the development of postcolonialism as an academic project that recovers the political significance of culture.

As Robert Young usefully notes, it was Said’s elaboration of ‘the idea of Orientalism as a discourse in a general sense that allowed the creation of a general conceptual paradigm through which the cultural forms of colonial and imperial ideologies could be analysed,’ and colonialism could be seen ‘as an ideological production across different kinds of texts produced historically from a wide range of different institutions, disciplines and geographical areas’ (2001: 343). Said argued that we cannot fully understand how imperialism and colonialism work unless we examine the discursive means by which the west arrogated to itself the power to grant (and deny) cultural respect to others and authorize what counts as truth (and what does not). His path-breaking book Orientalism (1978) shows how western power was exercised through a particular kind of language (discourse—a term that Said borrowed from Foucault) that was replete with cultural attitudes of superiority and dominance. Said exposed the west’s propensity to demean and dominate the other, and emphasized the binary (essentialist, exclusionary and self-consolidating) cast of colonial discourse. He examined how the orient constructed and manipulated in orientalist discourse served as Europe’s ‘surrogate and even underground self—as a ‘distorting mirror’ in which Europe defined itself and celebrated its superiority (1978: 27; Washbrook, 1999: 598).

Orientalism ‘opened the floodgates of post-colonial criticism,’ Gyan Prakash (1995: 201) recounts, by challenging taken-for-granted oppositions between western knowledge and western power, scholarly detachment and worldly motives, and representation and reality. Said’s treatment of colonialism as a discourse that produces, fixes and encodes knowledge in diverse forms and locations inspired a new generation of scholars to re-examine the knowledges and identities authorized by colonialism, and to explore how western power hinged on discursive strategies of cultural projection, incorporation, debasement and erasure. In short, Said drew out the discursive (or epistemic) violence of colonization.

The Pitfalls of Postcolonialism

But second, and as some of this implies, there is no consensus about the appropriate aims and scope of postcolonial studies. Postcolonialism has become an intellectual battleground for competing philosophies, and one that pitches the politics of totality, solidarity and universalism against those of location, belonging and relativism. ‘Eclectic,’ ‘fragmented’ and ‘agonistic’ are the words that perhaps best describe the field of postcolonial studies, and postcolonial work in geography is far from cohesive.

Geographers are embracing and developing postcolonial perspectives with a mixture of excitement and caution. On the one hand, what they often simply term ‘the postcolonial critique’ is bolstering the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in human geography, reaffirming the importance of historical perspectives within the discipline, and bringing many new objects of study into critical play (see Graham and Nash, 2000). Said has a talismanic status in all of this, and not just because of his ideas about discourse, which now have a standard place in geography. His work has been doubly important to geographers because of his insistence that imperialism and colonialism should be conceptualized geographically—as constellations of power that are intrinsically concerned with land, territory, displacement and dispossession (see Gregory, 1995). Much of Said’s work is based on the idea of ‘imaginative geography’—‘the invention and construction of a geographical space called the Orient, for instance, with scant attention paid to the actuality of the geography of its inhabitants’ (Said, 2000: 181; see also Said, 1993). This elastic critical motif now frames myriad geographical studies, and geographers use it to spatialize (if not always carefully historicize) the idea of colonial discourse ‘in a general sense’. But Said is not the only postcolonial thinker with geographical interests. Indeed, he has nurtured a spatial turn in postcolonial studies, and geographers have drawn on the work of scholars such as Paul Carter and Timothy Mitchell who are keenly interested in the spatiality of colonialism and empire (see Gregory, 1994: 15-208).

On the other hand, there are complaints about the type of work that postcolonialism is encouraging within and beyond geography. Much post-colonial work, it is suggested, is thin on detail, hung up on questions of discourse and the agency of the colonizer, marred by textualism and wanton generalization, too tightly based on the colonial experience of particular parts of the world (particularly India), and imbued with forms of intellectual tourism that keep us within the imperial trajectory of the west. The most common complaints are that postcolonial critics lose sight of the diversity and materiality of colonialism and empire, and only partially realize their commitment to the postcolonial subject because they fixate on the projection of a western will to power and tend to reduce colonialism to matters of discourse. Geographical writing on colonialism and empire generally retains a much stronger concern with bodily experiences and material practices, the physicality of movement and interaction, and the creation of networks of power than much postcolonial work that emanates (especially) from literary and cultural studies. It is partly for these reasons that geographers sometimes represent literary/cultural postcolonialism as an alien body of ideas that needs to be recontextualized wherever it is taken. And it is important to note that geographers are not simply drawing on postcolonial theory. They have also engaged the new historiography of western science (e.g. the work of Bruno Latour and Stephen Shapin), feminist philosophies, French poststructuralist theory, and scholarship in the fields of imperial history and cultural anthropology.

The critical imperial and colonial geographies that we will now explore in more depth have emerged in the midst of these developments and debates. Postcolonialism can be described as a powerful interdisciplinary mood in the social sciences and humanities that is refocusing attention on the imperial/colonial past, and critically revising understanding of the place of the west in the world. Yet different disciplines have been implicated in empire in different ways and do not have identical postcolonial concerns.

Geography, Colonialism, and Empire

Geographical research on colonialism and empire takes diverse forms, but it is possible to identify two main orientations in the literature. We can distinguish between research that concentrates on what Felix Driver (1992) has dubbed ‘geography’s empire’ and that which explores what Derek Gregory (2001a) calls ‘colonizing geographies’. The former body of work has a more or less exclusively metropolitan-disciplinary focus, whereas the latter is more concerned with the historical-geographical diversity of colonialism and empire.

Geography’s Empire

In the early 1990s, geographers started to question self-contained and in-house narratives of the history of geography, prise open the western biases enshrined in geographical thought, and explore geography’s historical imbroglio with empire. When Driver’s paper ‘Geography’s empire’ appeared in 1992, there was hardly any critical reflection on the discipline’s historical complicity in empire. ‘Some might regard … [this] as a sign of the strong hold that the colonial frame of mind has upon the subject,’ he wrote. ‘It is as if the writings of our predecessors were so saturated with colonial and imperial themes that to problematise their role is to challenge the status of the modern discipline. Yet this is perhaps the very thing that needs to be done if geographers are to exploit present intellectual and political opportunities’ (1992: 26). Driver was referring to the opportunities presented (mainly) by Said’s work, and over the last 10 years there has been an explosion of interest in how imperialism and Eurocentrism both activated and were activated by geographical imaginations and practices.

In a formative collection of essays, Anne Godlewska and Neil Smith noted that while ‘geography has always pursued a wide range of intellectual agendas simultaneously and … not all of these can be traced directly to the concerns of empire,’ it is clear that ‘the very formation and institutionalization of the discipline was intricately bound up with imperialism’ (1994: 1-8). For others, too, geographers ‘were the essential midwives of European imperialism. They provided both the practical information necessary for overseas conquest and colonization and the intellectual justification for expansion through their increasingly elaborate “theoretical” writings on geo-politics and the impact of climatic and environmental factors on the evolution of different races’ (Bell et al., 1995: 6).

Work on geography’s empire challenges the self-confident and assertive narratives of exploration, conquest, settlement and rule—with error giving way to truth, science conquering myth, modernity supplanting tradition, and civilization being imposed on savagery—that pervade the annals of geography and imperial historiography. Geographical approaches to the world that were once viewed as enlightened and disinterested are now seen as powerful constructions that induced and sustained imperial relationships, and stories of triumphal and uncontested western progress are now told as halting (and sometimes haunting) tales of human struggle. Geographers have shown how many of their discipline’s founding and distinctive knowledges and practices—its narratives of exploration and travel, maps and resources inventories, and systems of spatial comparison, classification and planning -worked as tools of material and intellectual dispossession. They have been especially concerned with the images of empty and undeveloped space awaiting the transformative hand of the west that became central to the view that geography is about finding a certain type of order in the world. It is now argued that this order—a Eurocentric and Cartesian order—was made rather than given (or there all along and waiting to be found), and often made in ambivalent ways.

In line with many postcolonial critiques, ‘empire’ is conceived as a distorting mirror within which the discipline of geography came to define and champion itself. Work on geography’s empire works as a critique of the west that is telescoped through a particular set of disciplinary lenses. A great deal of attention has been paid to the spaces of knowledge (e.g. the field and the study) and sites of study in which knowledges were produced, and the physical and institutional effort it took to draw order out of chaos (to travel, collect, map, represent, possess and survive). Geographers have re-examined the activities of individuals, ranging from well-known figures in the history of geography such as Alexander von Humboldt and Halford Mackinder, to lesser figures such as Eric Dutton (a geographer and colonial administrator in Africa) and James Rennell (who surveyed India for the British) who, it is argued, should be included in a critical historiography of geography and empire (see Ryan, 1997; Myers, 1998).

Such case studies feed into wider discussions of geo-imperial discourses, and empirical vignettes are connected to an encompassing body of theory. This range of work reveals how tensions emerged between different modes of knowledge production, how the creation of true and trustworthy (universal and reliable) geographical knowledge depended on the adjudication of boundaries between credible and incredible knowledge, and how geography was constructed from the outside in, through the amassing of data about foreign lands and the creation of geographical categories separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ (see Heffernan, 2001; Withers, 2000). For example, in an avowedly postcolonial reading of the ‘Africanist discourse’ of the London-based Royal Geographical Society (RGS) between 1831 and 1871, Clive Barnett tries to show that

The actual conditions of cross-cultural contact upon which the production of nineteenth-century geographical knowledge depended are retrospectively rewritten [for metropolitan audiences] to present [‘racially unmarked’] European subjects as the singular sources of meaning. … Without the use of local guides and interpreters, the exploits of men represented as untiringly persevering, independent and self-denying seekers of the truth [and nothing but] would have been impossible. But this routine practical dependence on local knowledges and information is not accorded any epistemological value. Local knowledge is refashioned as a hindrance, as a barrier to the arrival of the truth … Indigenous geographical meanings and knowledges are admitted into this discourse on the condition of being stripped of any validity independent of European definitions of scientific knowledge … The knowledge of non-European subjects is represented … as the confusion and noise against which European science takes shape and secures its authority. (1998: 244-5)

This passage trades on the epistemic violence of geography’s empire, and Barnett specifies the importance of science and reason as duplicitous vectors of inscription (also see Anderson, 1998).

There is a strong focus in the literature on ‘official’ geographical ventures that were sanctioned by the state, learned societies and geography’s professional research culture. But geographers such as Teresa Ploszajska (1996) and Avril Maddrell (1998) have drawn our attention to the role that geographical education (school textbooks and field trips) in Britain played in shaping imperial assumptions among the young. And in recent years there has been a spate of work on the forms of travel, leisure and consumption that nurtured imperial attitudes among the middle and lower classes (e.g. Phillips, 1997).

Felix Driver’s Geography Militant (2000) is perhaps the most accomplished account to date of British geography’s nineteenth-century imperial heritage. Driver charts the formation of a Victorian ‘culture of exploration’ that centred on Africa, involved the mobilization of a variety of material and imaginative resources (equipment, guides, patronage, publicity, authority, scholarship, myths and so on), and hinged on the creation of new spaces of knowledge. He stresses the importance of examining both the production and the consumption of geographical knowledges, reading both official and popular texts, and thinking about the site-specific negotiation of meaning and power. The image of ‘darkest Africa’ that was presented to the British public was put together by a gentlemanly network of scholars, politicians and philanthropists who made the RGS an authoritative site for the promotion of exploration and dissemination of geographical knowledge. Yet this imaginative geography of Africa was also moulded in public spaces of knowledge such as the museum, exhibition hall and advertising billboard, and in popular accounts of exploration (such as those of Henry Morton Stanley) that were deemed to be sensational by the geographical authorities.

Driver effectively pluralizes understanding of the geographical tradition, and politicizes work on exploration and empire by showing how many of the discursive tropes that entered into the geographical construction of ‘darkest Africa’ (scientific rhetoric, and a thirst for adventure and the exotic) are being recycled in a variety of contemporary cultural forms. ‘The notion of geographical knowledge as the preserve of a modern university-based profession (the “discipline” of geography) is clearly anachronistic for the nineteenth century,’ he argues, and ‘inappropriate for the twentieth’ (2000: 7, 202, 216). Britain’s growing and changing imperial presence in the world over the course of the nineteenth century became central to geography’s public image, and Britain’s imperial past is still at large in our geographical imaginations.

Work on geography’s empire debunks what Gillian Rose (1995) has dubbed the ‘specular spatiality’ of the geographical tradition. We are encouraged to challenge the way that geography has worked as a disciplinary space ‘into which some are gathered and from which others are exiled,’ and which imposes order (historically in the guise of reason and science, and in the name of civilization and progress) on an uncharted and unruly world. Few geographers would dissent from the view that geography has always been a practical science, and many now insist that we look at a greater range of geographical knowledges and practices than the ones that geography’s historiographers have deemed central to the definition and development of the discipline. Geographers are pointing to other voices and ways of knowing that geography’s empire has appropriated or placed out of bounds, and thinking about what a more inclusive history of geography might look like. And ‘geography’ is treated as both a practical (embodied, investigative, instrumental) pursuit and a discursive (conceptual, textual, institutional, pedagogic) enterprise. Critical geographers look for signs of ambivalence, contradiction and the assertion of power in the geographical archive, and are showing that empire was deeply inscribed within the discipline of geography.

Colonizing Geographies

Yet the fashioning of ‘critical imperial and colonial geographies’ cannot simply be whittled down to a revamped disciplinary history. Derek Gregory has urged us to break out of the parameters of a ‘contextual’ historiography, which recovers the historical contingency and mutability of geographical ideas and practices, and devise a ‘spatial analytics’ that ‘discloses the implication of spatiality in the production of power and knowledge’ (1998: 11). He uses the term ‘colonizing geographies’ to signpost the myriad ways in which geography and colonialism work into one another, and the myriad critical positions from which such workings might be approached. I will touch on four such approaches with some examples from the literature: by analytical focus (e.g. the production and representation of space), by politico-intellectual position (e.g. feminism), by substantive theme (e.g. cartography) and by location—though there are other ways of characterizing the literature.

First, geographers’ interest in geography’s empire is tied to broader analytical concerns -with, for example, representation, abstraction, visualization and embodiment—that inevitably reposition how the term ‘geography’ is viewed both historically and epistemologically. In a string of books and articles, Gregory has explored ‘colonizing productions of nature and space’ and what he calls ‘topographicali-zation’ (the spatial modalities through which imperial/colonial encounters, practices and representations worked). For a start, he argues, the modern discipline of geography was not simply ‘a constitutively European science’ propelled by reason, as some have claimed, but also a ‘profoundly Eurocentric science’ (cf. Livingstone and Withers, 1999). Moreover, Eurocentrism is imbued with ‘a system of geo-graphs [or modes of earth-writing] that order its representations’ -geo-graphs that absolutize space, objectify the world, normalize the subject, and abstract nature and culture in imperialist terms (Gregory, 1998: 3-40, 60-7). He has also explored the formative spaces—or ‘topo-logies/graphies’—that are carried within texts and modalities of travel: spaces with no centre (‘rhizomatic space’), complex spaces with a centre (‘labyrinthine space’) and ordered, linear spaces (‘striated space’) that shaped how cultural meanings were made and remade through travel (Gregory, 2000b).

Gregory tries to tease out the conceptual orders that imbued the empirical work undertaken by geography’s imperial/colonial agents. To borrow Foucault’s terminology, he starts to provide an archaeology of the geographies of imperialism and colonialism that underwrites the genealogies produced by students of geography’s empire. He does so with an eclectic body of theory, and shows how imperial access and colonial control revolved around the creation of material and discursive vantage points (or ‘spaces of constructed visibility’). He has focused on western travellers in Egypt, but has recently become interested—as have many others—in the colonial production of nature (see Gregory, 2001b).

Others have contributed to debates about the spatiality of colonial discourse by focusing on representations of nature and space. Consider David Livingstone’s thesis that geographical texts and contexts are ‘reciprocally constituted in the midst of the messy contingencies of history’ (1991: 414), and Richard Phillips’ argument that the nineteenth-century explorer Richard Burton treated ‘geography’ as a starting point for explorations of sexuality ‘in which all is fluid and boundaries are set up only to be crossed’ (1999: 73). Livingstone discusses how western scientists (including geographers) devised ‘moral geographies’ of racial superiority that revolved around scientific observations and truth claims about the links between climate, virtue and social development. Climate, particularly, ‘became an exploitable hermeneutic resource to make sense of cultural difference and to project moral categories onto global space,’ with the temperate world being exalted over the tropical world (Livingstone, 2000b: 93). Scientists ‘helped [to] produce in the minds of the Victorian public an imagined region—the tropics—which was, at once, a place of parasites and pathology, a space inviting colonial occupation and management, a laboratory for natural selection and racial struggle and a site of moral jeopardy and trial’ (Livingstone, 1999: 109). Phillips, by contrast, shows how, in Burton’s mind, ‘travel, translation, geography and sexology were intimately related,’ and how this explorer produced dynamic, ambivalent and travelling ‘sexual geographies’ that both exposed and subverted the dominant heterosexism of the imperial centre -England. Both Livingstone and Phillips read ‘geography’ as an imperial discourse—as a way of delimiting and encoding knowledge, producing a colonial other, and inciting power and desire—but their projects of historical retrieval and critical revision invest discourse with very different textual and contextual meanings.

Second, there are specialist literatures on particular geo-imperial/colonial knowledge practices. The map has a special place in geographers’ critical deliberations and postcolonial studies. It now seems obvious that cartography played a crucial role in the imperialists’ self-legitimizing construction of space as universal, measurable and divisible. And as Graham Burnett notes, the history of cartography has provided ‘an exemplary arena for exploring how the representational production of empire … [created] a stage for dramatic imperial gestures’ (2000: 6). Scholars have followed the critical lead of the late Brian Harley, who started to explore the connections between maps, knowledge and power in the 1980s, and there is now an enormous literature on the intertwined histories of empire and cartography (see Jacob, 1992). Much of this literature emphasizes the power of maps. Matthew Edney, for example, explores how the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (started in 1817) helped the British ‘to reduce India’s immense diversity to a rational and ultimately controllable structure’ (1997: 14-35). Surveying and mapmaking were central to the creation of ‘a conceptual image that consciously set the Europeans apart from the Indians they ruled … [and] a cartographic image of the [Indian] empire as a single territorial and political entity’. And Burnett (2000: 38-52) has looked at the power of cartographic metalepsis—how explorers, surveyors and mappers both invoked and remapped the authoritative (and often mythic) texts of their predecessors in order to advance territorial claims, bound colonial space, and secure their own reputations. Yet these and other scholars are also concerned with how we might interrupt and subvert the spatial certainty of the map. We might recover moments of ambivalence in the cartographic record, probe the local knowledges that western travellers used and erased, and delve into the fraught physical and cross-cultural circumstances in which cartographic knowledges were made (e.g. Bravo, 1999; Clayton, 2000b). There is also a plethora of work on alternative—aboriginal and post-colonial—mappings that are based on different cultural and epistemological premises than the ‘abstract projective, co-ordinate geometries’ of western cartography (Lewis and Woodward, 1997: 537).

Third ‘colonizing geographies’ are amenable to critical examination from a variety of politico-intellectual positions. Feminism is one such position, and one that is leaving a deep mark on geographers’ engagement with identity and difference. Alison Blunt and Gillian Rose (1994: 14) have stressed the need to question ‘imperial cartography,’ entertain more fluid conceptions of subject formation, and explore ‘paradoxical spaces’ that resist the ‘transparent’ and ‘homogeneous’ space mapped by masculine forms of knowing. They treat ‘imperial cartography’ as a concept metaphor for all of those strategies (including cartography proper, of course) that inscribe gender differences as spatial differences by constructing some spaces as essentially feminine and others as definitively masculine.

Some of this feminist-geographical literature has an acutely disciplinary orientation, but much of it examines the broader gendered spatial boundaries that were authored and authorized by colonialism, and their articulation with constructions of race and class. Sara Mills (1999) and Judith Kenny (1995) have discussed the ways in which British and Indian men and women negotiated the ‘confined spaces’ of colonial India (its hill stations and cantonments), and wonder about the adequacy of confinement (or exclusion and transgression) as ways of organizing understandings of femininity and masculinity in colonial contexts. Alison Blunt (1994; 2000) and Cheryl McEwan (2000) have explored how the subject and viewing positions of white women travellers changed as they moved between ‘home’ and ‘away’ and presented themselves as women, scientists, explorers, writers and agents of empire before ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’ audiences. And James Duncan (2000) has started to unpack the construction of colonial masculinity in natural environments that were radically different than the ones from which colonizers hailed. He shows how, in the coffee plantations of the Kandyan Highlands of Ceylon, moral discourses on tropical climate and nature were connected to a second discourse of ‘moral masculinity’ that was inflected by the narrative conventions of the masculine adventure novel. Planters represented the tropical highlands as a physical and psychical adversary that tested their manliness and moral fibre, and against which their stories of heroic (and sometimes ignominious) struggle, and fear of losing their masculinity, gained textual momentum.

Fourth, geographers are concerned with how we might devise an alternative postcolonial geography that is not just concerned with disciplinary issues but is more widely interested in the nature of colonialism and decolonization in different parts of the world. Work in this vein emphasizes the contextually located nature of colonialism and explores what Jane Jacobs (1996) has called ‘the politics of the “edge”’ (the subversive influence of the margin on centrist practices of spatial demarcation, and the discordant postcolonial politics of countries such as Australia). Much of this literature treats colonialism as an intersubjective (if unequal) relationship between colonizing and colonized groups, and stresses the need to distinguish between Eurocentric and nation-centred imperial visions, and the different logics of power enshrined in settler and dependent colonial formations. Much of it is also concerned with the ways that global forces and local exigencies were articulated in the making of particular historical geographies, and how specific postcolonial predicaments frame the questions that are asked about the colonial past and the postcolonial theories that are used (see Crush, 1994).

Regionally focused studies of colonialism’s geographies eschew any essentialized vision of either western power or native agency, and many of them show that colonial discourses were skewed and subverted by their material positioning in the colonies. Alan Lester (1998) has shown how British discourses on southern Africa were shaped by the competing visions of colonial officials, humanitarians and settlers, and the different kinds of spaces and conflicting geographies they created—missions, stations, farms, government spaces of control, and social spaces of segregation. And one of the main themes of my work on native-western contact in the Pacific north-west at the end of the eighteenth century is that western explorers and traders and the metropolitan politicians and pundits who turned native space into imperial territory engaged native people in markedly different ways (Clayton, 2000a).

Historical work on colonialism’s geographies contains some rich, empirically developed insights into colonial hybridity, ambivalence and anxiety (three key postcolonial tropes). Geographers argue that these dynamics stemmed as much from the messy pragmatics of cultural contact as they did from colonialism’s inherent contradictions (such as the colonizer’s need to ‘civilize’ its others yet keep them in everlasting otherness). This scattered body of geographical work on different colonial regions also fills out the postcolonial idea—expressed forcefully by Prakash (1996)—that imperial projects became somewhat hinged as they left metropolitan space and came into contact with alien peoples and environments. Geographers are showing that imperial expansion kick-started diverse and often unpredictable interactions between ‘Europe,’ the natural environment and indigenous peoples, and argue that the geographer’s traditional interest in the associations between land and life should lie at the heart of geographical studies of colonialism (see Harris, 2002; Sluyter, 2001).

As these remarks imply, work on colonialism’s geographies raises difficult questions about whether it is possible to generalize about colonialism and empire in geographical terms (and whether geographers should want to do so), and about the relative weight we should accord to the power of western representations of people and territory relative to more material and embodied forms of imperial assertion and colonial dispossession that involved native peoples. I have argued that we should think about how particular places and local circuits of contact were articulated with the global imaginings, networks and flows of empire, and develop multiscaled geographies of these local-global connections that account for the interplay between ‘the material’ and ‘the discursive’.

This, in outline, is how questions of colonialism and empire have appeared in geography over the last 10 years. On the one hand, we have an academic centre bent on decentring, and on the other a range of geographical scholarship that is concerned with colonialism’s multifarious geographies. These two orientations are not poles apart. Geographical studies of the imperial/colonial past have multiple critical trajectories, and there is cross-fertilization between the subthemes I have identified. There have also been some impressive attempts—I think, especially, of the work of Jane Jacobs (1996), Jonathan Crush (1994) and Alan Lester (2001)—to bring metropolitan-disciplinary and colonial-‘edge’ agendas into a unitary analytical field and explore the tensions between them. But if my attempt here, largely for the sake of convenience, to draw a distinction between work on geography’s empire and colonizing geographies has any merit, then it is because it is important to think about how geographers position themselves in relation to colonialism and empire. If, as Gregory insists, ‘we are the creatures and creators of situated knowledges’ (1998: 57), then we must think about the production and politics of positionality. Postcolonial theory teaches us to historicize our work with reference to its site(s) of production, think about our geographies of intellectual labour, and remain alert to the implications of our acts of interpretation.

It is this question of positionality that I will now take up a little more directly, beginning with some questions about geographers’ critical aims and moving on to their vexed engagement with other voices.

Geographers’ Postcolonial Predicaments

Decentring the West and Decolonizing Geography

What should we make of the industriousness with which geographers are dredging up onerous representations of foreign peoples and places? Are they contesting images and discourses that are best left in the past, or ones that need to be unpacked and challenged because they influence the present? Is work on geography’s empire meant to constitute some sort of enlightenment for the discipline? Are geographers documenting a deleterious disciplinary past in order to demonstrate that ‘we’ now do things differently? Are they trying to mark the discipline’s contemporaneity by making geographical modes of analysis that come from other periods exist in the same time (in our research and teaching) but remain in different moral, political and epistemological worlds? Geographers have raised these and other crucial questions about their critical endeavours, but only in fits and starts, and their answers to them are far from uniform and in some ways paradoxical.

David Livingstone (1998: 15), for instance, reports that he has been accused of reinforcing racism by re-presenting images of race in his writing. He says that he finds this a puzzling charge, because he sees his work as an attempt to elucidate ‘the intellectual sources of racism,’ but this spat over the politics of postcolonial representation opens up a number of important issues. Jane Jacobs rehearses the widely held concern that ‘despite its postcolonial leanings,’ revisionist work on the imperial/colonial past ‘re-inscribes the authority of the events, networks and people that it seeks to decentre and revise’ (2001: 730). It does so in a number of ways, but Nicholas Thomas argues that work on colonial discourses and representations is especially problematical because it frequently privileges the power of inscription over material practices and portrays western concepts and visions as ‘impervious to active marking or reformulation by the “Other”’ (1993: 3, 105).

This leads us to a related concern: that much postcolonial work within (and beyond) geography that seeks to identify with the subject positions of the colonized remains stuck in a Eurocentric mould. Mary Louise Pratt has criticized recent work on travel writing for its fixation with European experience. The experience of travel, she complains, is ‘examined from within the self-privileging imaginary that framed the travels and travel books in the first place’(2001: 280). European sensibilities remain of intrinsic interest, and while ideas of cultural negotiation are explored in methodological terms, they are rarely pursued in great substantive depth. Scholars working in this area are teaching us a great deal about how Europeans ‘staged’ foreign places for inspection and imperial consumption, how identities were renegotiated as Europeans travelled from here to there and remade distinctions between ‘home’ and ‘away,’ and about the stresses involved. But this literature tells us far less about the non-European peoples and places that supposedly infiltrated and splintered a sovereign European self and imperial subject. We learn a great deal about how Europeans envisioned the other and the faraway, but much less about how the staging of place worked in negotiation with other places and peoples themselves.

This fixation—if it is that—is not misguided in itself. It only becomes a bone of critical contention when scholars working in this way claim that they are also bringing the perspectives and impress of the colonized more clearly into view. Postcolonial critics have responded to—or at least defused—these kinds of charges by claiming that their ‘critical apparatus does not enjoy a panoptic distance from colonial history but exists as an aftermath, as an after—after being worked over by colonialism. Criticism formed as an aftermath acknowledges that it inhabits the structures of Western domination that it seeks to undo’ (Prakash, 1994: 1475). Eurocentric habits and categories of thought are very much part of this aftermath, Prakash argues, and we need to question ‘the comfortable make-believe’ that there exists a critical position outside the historical configurations of colonialism from which a postcolonial future (or decolonized discipline) will emerge. We will not find a true or authentic ‘native’ perspective that is uncontaminated by the experience of colonization, or a timeless or unitary European worldview that can be deconstructed. Prakash (1996) insists that we critique colonialism in media res—from inside a story that has not ended—and Bill Ashcroft notes that ‘the most intransigent problem to face post-colonial states today is (still) the challenge of reconstructing inherited institutions and practices in a way that adheres to the demands of local knowledges, makes use of the benefits of local practices, and maintains an integrity of self-representation’ (2000: 23).

Gregory (1998) also makes this sort of point, suggesting that we can easily fall into the assumption that the geographical knowledges and practices we are placing under the critical spotlight belong to the past. Historical work on the geographies of colonialism and empire, however piously or unwittingly Eurocentric it may be, has been effective in revealing that demeaning and domineering representations of the other are still alive in western cultural and geographical imaginations, and that ‘the fatal attractions of colonial nostalgia [for “timeless scenes” of, and windows on to, “ancient” worlds like Egypt] are inscribed in contemporary forms of travel’ (Gregory, 2001c: 113). Similar claims have been made about the political economy of colonial nostalgia (the imbrications of wealth, stability and empire). And among other (appalling) things, the recent tragic events in America highlight the enduring power of imaginative geographies, imbued with imperial symbolism, that glide over and crash into the complexities of cultural difference.

Such ideas sharpen the political edge of ‘critical’ work on empire that is written from the metropolitan-theoretical heartlands of the discipline, and geographers like Gregory rightly see their work as a critique of the present. But questions remain about geographers’ critical aims. Clive Barnett, for instance, thinks that ‘the value of history in the relativized historiography of geography remains largely unproblematized’ (1995: 414). And he suggests that work on the imperial/colonial past has become popular not because it necessarily has a bearing on geography’s present but because it is ‘a convenient arena in which we get to practise with different sorts of difficult theory’. One wonders, too, about the extent to which geographical work on the imperial/colonial past helps postcolonial subjects to come to terms with ‘the gaps and fissures in their condition’. Studies of geography’s empire surely decentre geographical thought, may satiate a poststructuralist thirst for multiplicity and dispersal, and may even be ameliorative for geography and therapeutic for geographers. But in what ways are they postcolonial?

Significantly, geographers’ attempts to impute a critical distance between ‘then’ and ‘now’ work by a different historicist light than the one that guides postcolonial work in countries such as India. In India especially, Partha Chatterjee argues, where people are daily reminded of their subjection, ‘it is precisely the present from which we feel we must escape,’ and ‘our desire to be independent and creative is transposed on to our past’ (1997: 281). In European post-Enlightenment thought, by contrast, the present is conceived of as the site of one’s escape from the past. ‘This makes the very modality of our [Indian] coping with modernity radically different from the historically evolved modes of Western modernity.’ As he implies, postcolonial work that is rooted in the experience of subjection is likely to be different from that which stems from a sense of guilt, or historic injustice, or what have you. We should not think of the former type of postcolonial work as more truly postcolonial than the latter. Rather, my point is that we cannot talk about imperial/colonial history without thinking about the locations (academic, intellectual, cultural, geographical) from which we historicize our investment in the past and anthropologize our investment in the other.

Other Voices and Native Geographies

Let us now turn to a particular knot of questions within this critical fabric—questions of otherness. There has been a flurry of work by geographers on processes of othering, but little of it delves very deeply into the critic’s relationship with the other (see Staum, 2000). Colonial discourse analysis in geography, like that in other disciplines, often works at a great distance from its objects of discourse—its others. It is difficult to get at ‘the native’ side of the story from thoroughly lopsided archives that do not render knowledge about ‘them’ on ‘their’ terms. But geographers exacerbate such problems by focusing exclusively on the white/western historical record. Geographical studies that conceptualize colonial encounters as negotiated, situated, intersubjective, contested or anxiety-ridden often work much better in theory than in practice.

For example, in an essay on ‘British women travellers and constructions of racial difference across the nineteenth-century American West,’ Karen Morin (1998) links the travellers’ meetings with and representations of Native Americans to gendered colonial discourses, and tries to ‘decentre’ such discourses by thinking through ‘the social relations inherent in the multiple contact zones [in this case, mainly railroad stations] within which the encounters took place’. Like many other similar studies, the analysis of texts and representations is conceptually sophisticated but the idea that colonial discourses respond to the stresses and strains of the contact zone—Thomas’ point—gets abstracted away because the other is viewed solely through the filters of a white/western record.

The aim here is not to single out Morin’s essay for criticism, but to suggest that it points to a widespread interpretive problem in the geographical literature (and postcolonialism more generally): that otherness is dealt with through the determining pressure of western discourses. The colonial world is deconstructed according to the word of the west. Some geographers confront this problem by recoiling from the analysis of native agency (by not trying to speak for the other) and sticking to the task of showing how dominant knowledges were put together. But such pared-down lines of enquiry can come at a price. They can romanticize the other, or make erroneous assumptions about how natives responded to newcomers. Without any ‘native’ testimony to go on, they can make imperialism and colonialism look too austere (and thus exaggerate the power of the west) or too anxiety-ridden (and thus overinflate the agency of the critic who chooses to see this trait in the colonial record, or chooses to equate knowledge and power). Much work that passes as postcolonial within geography hinges on the trials and tribulations of colonizers in other spaces rather than on the intersubjective contours of the contact zone in question.

Brenda Yeoh (2000) points out that work on the historical geography of colonialism overshadows the difficult but crucial task of uncovering ‘the historical geographies of the colonised world’. As difficult and time-consuming as it may be (not what academics under pressure to publish quickly want to hear), she argues, it is vital that geographers complement their deconstructive work on (and in) ‘the centre’ with research on (and at) the margins of empire and the agencies of the colonized. Yeoh does this in her work on colonial Singapore, and there are pockets of historical-geographical research that deal with native agendas and try to listen to the other. I have used archaeological and ethnographic records as well as historical sources to explore how the native—Nuu-chah-nulth—groups of Vancouver Island incorporated British and American fur traders into their own conflicts, strategies of colonization and systems of the world (Clayton, 2000a). In this contact zone (and I suspect others), native peoples felt anything but possessed or inferior to westerners during the early years of contact. At the same time, the story I tell of native tribal competition, conflict and territorial change hardly squares with images of the ecological Indian living in harmony with nature and his/her neighbours, and in traditional territories from time immemorial, that have played an important role in white-liberal sympathy for native causes (a certain romanticism) and the defence of native land claims in the law courts (a certain strategic essentialism).

My experience raises more general concerns. Critical human geographers may find other voices and start to redress the biases and erasures of colonialist historiography, but how far can they go with them, especially if they hold the view that all voices, identities and narratives are constructions (fictions) of sorts? Do you apply one set of deconstructionist techniques to the white record, and some other set to the native record? And if you apply the same set to both records, are you not likely to diminish your ability to decolonize history? There are no simple answers to such questions of theoretical probity. Critical geographers run the risk of subordinating other voices to the secular codes and conventions of western academic discourse (to rational criteria over the use of evidence that underpin the social sciences and humanities). Barnett notes that many attempts to restore hitherto excluded voices to our accounts still conform to a western model of representation and criticism that ‘constructs] texts as having “voices” hidden within them which await rearticulation through the medium of the critic’ (1997: 145). This model ‘inscribe[s] colonial textuality within a quite conventional economy of sense which ascribes to voice and speech the values of expressivity, self-presence, and consciousness, and understands the absence of such signs as “silence”, as an intolerable absence of voice, and therefore as a mark of disempowerment’. And postcolonial debates about historical discourse have taught us that academic history runs a fine line between rewriting history from ‘other’ perspectives and longing for lost objects—for a radically heterogeneous world and/or coeval colonial ethnography (see Chakrabarty, 2000).

Finally, as much of this discussion shows, ‘critical imperial and colonial geographies’ are intellectual constructs that are implicated in the construction of the objects that they apprehend. Work that finds its critical feet by ‘displacing,’ ‘interrupting’ and ‘subverting’ demeaning and domineering knowledges is based on retrospective understandings of the relations between knowledge, power and geography. Such work works, in part, by the gravity of the imperial/colonial geographies it creates and conjures with—by its ability to jog us out of complacency, and expose and criticize previously unseen and taken-for- granted ideas (see Jacobs, 2000). Power and dominance are rendered as the partly real and partly imagined templates on which geographers stencil their critical commitment to postcolonialism. One of the basic problems with postcolonial attempts to augment understandings of difference (as diversity, multiplicity, otherness) is that they can also homogenize understandings of sameness—or translate a history of the other into the history of the same. Geographers write of colonizing geographies, normalizing discourses, insidious imaginaries in order to take them apart, and to some degree depend on such standardized images of what colonialism was all about to make their critiques work. They depend on powerful words that enable them to make powerful critical gestures, and we need to think about what is lost and gained as they pin colonialism up as a totality (e.g. as a system of epistemic violence) or inherently contradictory and compromised project of power.

In an essay on Said’s ideas about the role of the intellectual, Bruce Robbins (1998) notes that models of an inclusionary or democratic oppositional criticism that challenges power in its many guises depend on processes of ‘intellectual rarefaction’. Critical intellectual authority with regard to matters of exclusion and marginality, and dominance and hegemony, stems from ‘the presumed rarity or scarcity of those willing to confront non-intellectual authority’. It is the restrictiveness of this group that gives it its ethico-political legitimacy, Robbins argues, and ‘an ethical scarcity defined by opposition will be indistinguishable from a social scarcity that is a potential source of profit and prestige’. The intellectual who faithfully inverts the authority of power is dependent on and prized by that power. In other words, critical human geographers, like postcolonial intellectuals, have a certain investment in cultivating questions of difference and power, and cultivating their own scarcity, if you will, as well as challenging the legacies of colonialism.


There can be no simple summary to a chapter like this, which ranges over a wide critical terrain. But I will end with three points—two of them derived from the literature and a final point of my own. First, Barnes and Gregory note that work on the geographies of colonialism and empire has a central stake in ‘the worlding of human geography’ (1997: 14-23). This range of work is challenging the view that geography is a field of study that is capable of producing an impartial and independent body of knowledge. The intertwined histories of geography and empire that are currently being explored underscore the notion that geographers are socialized into a discipline and discourse ‘whose assumptions, concepts and ways of working are always and everywhere earthed in material grids of power’. Geography is not simply a way of finding order in the world; it is also about the creation and command of order.

Second, Livingstone suggests that work on ‘geography’s historical geographies’ is ‘relativising our definition of geography,’ ‘pluralising our conception of geography,’ and prompting us to ‘particularise our own practice of geography’ (2000a: 7). We acknowledge that ‘what geography is cannot be uncovered in isolation from the conditions of its making’ in different times and places, and we ‘now admit, even celebrate, the impossibility of laying aside our own particularity in cognitive and practical projects’. We are caught up in ‘the retaliation of the situated,’ and postcolonialism is one of its key manifestations. Indeed, there are few signs that the range of work reviewed here will become denigrated by a sort of geographical prose of counter-insurgency that restores order and objectivity to geographers’ research and writing. Explicitly historical-geographical work on postcolonial matters will no doubt continue to grow and change, in part as the wider field of postcolonial studies changes, but it is not likely to be displaced from debates about the historicity of human geography or its cultural politics.

Yet third, there are clearly problems with this literature. In my view, and as Hall (1996: 249) notes about postcolonialism more generally, geographers’ descent into discourse and focus on geography’s empire can easily become an alibi for deconstructive work that falls into the trap of assuming that the theoretical critique of essentialism necessarily entails its political displacement, and in a sense bypasses the postcolonial world beyond Europe altogether. The critique of colonialism can become a seductive but sanitized western intellectual pastime that may serve the professional needs of oppositional academics—who, as David Scott (1999) has observed, are suffering from the loss of familiar and stable political objects—but that barely connects with the practical predicaments of formerly colonized peoples and places. This is not to say that work on ‘real-world’ postcolonial problems is better than work that deconstructs empire from its metropolitan-disciplinary pavilions. But I do want to end by calling for more dialogue between geographers working within the different orientations identified above, and geographers working in different parts of the world.