“In the battle for digital dominance, victory depends on being the first to map every last place on the globe. It’s as hard as it sounds.” Strike “digital” from that couplet and it could well describe the turf wars of the age of imperialism. As written, though, it’s the teaser for a fascinating article on Google’s race to photograph every inch of the world, Street View the globe, and conquer the “location-awareness” phase of “the Internet land grab.” In his attention to the areas of the world thus far untouched by Street View—“Africa and much of Asia are big holes right now”—author Adam Fisher put us in mind of historian Dane Kennedy’s work on the nineteenth century expeditions to complete Britain’s demystification of lands long known to their inhabitants. The passages below, excerpted from Kennedy’s The Last Blank Spaces, help to highlight the epistemic paradox of feverishly mapping the already known.
The Last Blank Spaces is as much about the limits of empire as it is about empire’s reach. It is about the need to distinguish between the ways exploration served an imperial society’s panoply of purposes—political, economic, ideological, and more—and the ways it did not. It is about the gulf that arose between what expeditions were meant to achieve and what they actually accomplished. It is about the tension between explorers’ public personas as agents of knowledge and power and their privately acknowledged confusion and vulnerability in the field. It is about the collision between British and indigenous values, interests, and ways of knowing the world, but it is also about their occasional convergences and signs of mutual appreciation. Above all, it is about the ways explorers’ efforts to advance the West’s universalist system of knowledge came face-to-face with their need to understand and accommodate local knowledges, which is to say it is about what the collision between epistemology and experience meant for exploration and for the societies it brought into contact with one another.
One of the great paradoxes of exploration as it came to be understood and practiced by the British and other Europeans from the late eighteenth century onward is that it was possible to explore and “discover” places that were already known—known not simply by the indigenous peoples of those places but also by Europeans themselves. Perhaps the most striking example of this paradox comes from Alexander von Humboldt’s immensely influential travels through Latin America from 1799 to 1804, which he detailed in his thirty-volume Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent. While his meticulously documented journey came to be recognized as a model of scientific exploration, it traversed territory that the Spanish had for the most part occupied and colonized for several centuries. Humboldt was emblematic of how it became possible in the nineteenth century to explore territory that was not truly terra incognita to the explorers or their sponsors. Their aim was to discover the known anew.
The construction of cartographic knowledge is usually believed to derive from the empirical information gathered incrementally by explorers and other travelers specially trained to carry out geographical observations. Yet their efforts presupposed metageographical categories such as oceans and continents, which provided the epistemological premises that underwrote their understandings of the spaces they passed through. Those premises erased the presence of place from these categories of space, allowing explorers the opportunity to make them knowable in new terms that drew on the abstract, universalizing scientific methods refined and reified in the eighteenth-century seaborne expeditions of James Cook and his counterparts. The exploration of Africa and Australia would occur in the context of these maritime models. They would permit explorers and their sponsors to conceive of continents, like oceans, as vast and seemingly empty spaces that could be truly known only after they had been made unknown. This is the story of how the universalist knowledge that gave the exploration of Africa and Australia its sanctioned aims and meanings came into collision with the local knowledge that placed its own stamp on what explorers did in the field.