The Surveying of India by the British

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Survey of India

Hamid Hussain

 “We travel not for trafficking alone.

By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.

For lust of knowing what should not be known,

We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.” 


                                                                 James Elroy Flecker

 Eighteenth century India and its neighboring regions were an exotic place for outsiders and not much was known about the geography and people of this large swath of land. An odd traveler or explorer published the details of his perilous journey among strange and alien land and people for the home audience.  Arrival of East India Company (EIC) for trade and later territorial expansion brought modern scientific methods of exploration and mapping that filled up the empty spaces on maps. 

 During military operations, officers collected localized information about terrain, availability of supplies to support troops and animals and information about local population.  However, this information was localized and limited to military operation at hand.  Knowledge about land and people ruled by EIC rapidly expanded.  Over the years, a small group of extraordinary British and native explorers contributed to sciences of geography and anthropology. This was an area where political, administrative, military and spying arts freely intermingled.

 In eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, India’s frontiers were changing with territorial expansion of EIC.  In these decades, frontier moved from Oudh, Gangetic plains, Sindh and Punjab to Northwestern and Northeastern frontiers. In the context of defense of India, area of British influence also expanded to Tibet, Chinese and Russian Turkistan and Afghanistan.  The Royal Geographic Society (RGS) became the patron of the advancement of the field of geography on scientific grounds and published works of explorers of India and its neighborhood.

 In 1800, three separate surveys were started in India: Revenue, Topographical and Trigonometrical (later named Great Trigonometrical Survey – GTS).  In 1878, all three were amalgamated into a single Survey of India.  James Rannell (1742-1830), William Lambton (1756-1823), George Everest (1790-1866), Thomas George Montgomerie (1830-1878), Henry Trotter, William Johnson, James Walker, Colonel Frederick Bailey (1882-1967), Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, Godwin-Austin, Captain Francis Younghusband and others were exceptional individuals.  They were driven by a sense of adventure, exploration and duty.  They were highly committed individuals willing to suffer extreme hardships in strange and unknown lands. They instilled same spirit among their native assistants. Surveying in frontier areas was a dangerous task as locals correctly concluded that surveying was the steppingstone towards loss of their freedom.  There was an Afghan saying that “First comes one Englishman for shikar (hunting), then come two to draw a map, and then comes an army to take your land.  So, it is best to kill the first Englishman”. Continue reading The Surveying of India by the British

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