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Mapping the Great Game

Mapping the Great Game

Riaz Dean
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
This book tells the story of how the areas where India, Nepal, China, Tibet, Afghanistan, Russia and Persia border one another were mapped. On the surface the subject matter appears quite dry, but place that activity in the context of ‘The Great Game’, when Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and China were all jostling for influence and position, with their politicians and armies wanting to expand territory for trade and wealth, and the dry tasks become a backdrop for secret missions, spies, surveying equipment hidden in prayer wheels, and all sorts of exciting and adventurous events.

At the time the explorations started, geographers were still trying to work out the sources of India’s great rivers, the Ganges, Jumna and Brahmaputra. The difficulty of tracing these rivers, on foot or horseback, through territory populated by bandits, brigands or tribes who did not welcome visitors, at heights many thousands of feet above sea level, in temperatures regularly well below zero, may seem unnecessary to those of us used to Global Positioning by Satellite, but to geographers in those days, filling the great empty spaces on maps was a challenge worthy of the effort for its own sake. And of course politicians looking to defend empires, trade and wealth were always on hand to fund the expeditions, however sparingly.

The book touches on the political situations which led to the first and second Afghan wars, which seem remarkably similar to those that led to the one that took so many lives in the twentieth century. It also gives some details of the political manoeuvring between power blocs, and the changing of sides which seems to have been fairly constant throughout the nineteenth century as the Ottoman empire faded.

I learned a lot about George Everest, after whom Mount Everest was named, and General Konstantin Kaufman, a Russian explorer who had a mountain named after him, sadly renamed Lenin Peak after the Russian Revolution. I learned even more about the Pundits and other Indian native explorers, trained as geographers by the East India Company,. Their surveying methods and the stories of their expeditions to explore throughout India (the Great Trigonometrical Survey) and beyond. The technical details of getting a consistent measuring chain and triangulation points could have been very dry, but the author presents them in a way that interests and entertains. Each major expedition has a chapter, and brings vividly to life the way the surveyors lived, the incredible work they did, the risk to their lives and how it was a matter of fate or ‘friends in high places’ as to how much credit each received for his or his team’s efforts.

As expected for Victorian times, the work headed by the Indian Native explorers rarely got them the credit they deserved. Some of this has been rectified since. Much of the wealth of the UK has its roots in the wealth of India and its people, and but it would be wonderful to see a modern documentary showing the work these men did, and perhaps seeing one or more of them honoured on our currency.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Geography, in ninetheenth century history, or who just wants a greater understanding of modern political alliances and conflicts.

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