`Mapping is a sensitive subject'

Print edition : September 26, 2003


Interview with John Keay.

John Keay, 62, the finest writer of non-fictional history of India of the colonial times, has authored several history and travel works. His recent work, The Great Arc, describes the stupendous scientific expedition undertaken across the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century under the British Raj. Although it took about 50 years to complete, the Great Arc led to the discovery of the world's highest peak, a new calculation of the curvature of the earth's surface, the mapping of the subcontinent and the development of its roads, railways and telegraph lines.

Keay, who was in Chennai to take part in the William Lambton Commemoration, spoke on the Great Trigonometrical Survey and its heroes, as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of the beginning of the Great Arc.

Excerpts from an interview he gave T.S. Subramanian:

You have written several books on India and other parts of Asia. What attracted you to India?

I have no family connections with India. I first came to India in the 1960s, when several people came to India for good reasons, as members of the Peace Corps to help in the development or they came to discover spirituality. I did not come for any of these reasons. I came for a holiday. I came to Kashmir. I enjoyed it very much. I came back the following year and then I stayed in Kashmir. I started writing. Initially, I wrote political journalism, following the events in Kashmir in the late 1960s. I worked for The Economist as a political correspondent here and elsewhere. I wrote my first book called Into India in 1973. Once you have written on a subject, people would like you to come back and identify yourself with that subject. One or two books I wrote were quite successful and I was encouraged to write more.

I do read historians. So historical subjects provide matter. I also enjoyed very much doing research, travelling and looking at things that have not been noticed. This is particularly so in the case of the Great Arc. I first read about the Great Arc in a book published in the 1980s. Then I did a television film on the Great Arc.

The pillar on the terrace of the church atop St. Thomas Mount, Chennai, the point where William Lambton started his Great Arc expedition on April 10, 1802.-M. MOORTHY

In the course of trying to discover the route of the Great Arc, my wife and I eventually found the grave of William Lambton at Hinganghat near Nagpur, more or less in the centre of India. In other words, Lambton had reached half of the Great Arc when he died. His grave is a sad, neglected site. I very much hope that the Survey of India or the local council will do something about the site. They can construct a memorial there.

When you think of the massive state funding for the mapping of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or the conquest of space, the Great Arc or the Great Trigonometrical Survey are of the same order. They ran the same scale in their day. Endless things are written about the DNA, the conquest of space, and so on but very little is written about the Great Arc. So it was a fascinating subject to me. You always like to think that you will stumble on something that has been ignored. It is very much the case with the Great Arc story. I do not know why. Mapping is such a sensitive subject.

Do you think people in India do not have a sense of history?

I think they have a sense of history. I think if your country has been occupied, colonised and if what happened during the period of colonisation is invariably awarded to the colonising power, ... you are not going to be enthusiastic about it. The Great Arc has always been presented as a British achievement. Lambton and Everest, associated with it, were British. One has to remember, as someone said this evening, most of the mathematical work - which is really the most important aspect of the expedition, was done by...

By Bengalis?

Not just Bengalis. Precision engineering, necessary for the instruments (used in the Great Arc), is very critical. A lot of these instruments were made in India. The Great Arc's senior instrument designer and engineer was in fact from Arcot in Tamil Nadu. He was called Syed Hussain Mohsin, I think. He was a most brilliant instrument manufacturer. People like Lambton and George Everest were heavily indebted to him, and indeed said so.

Of course, on the field, the Indian contribution was absolutely vital. So it was very much a combined activity.

What prompted Lambton to undertake the survey?

Lambton was really a scientist rather than a map-maker. He was particularly interested in geodesy, which is the science of measurement of the shape of the earth. He followed the work of various scientists, particularly French scientists, who were trying to figure out the exact shape of the world. He was interested in the scientific exercise of trying to measure the curvature of the earth. But when you combine this with the trigonometrical survey, it will provide the location on which all future maps will be based. So with this dual purpose, the Great Arc - partly meant for scientific purposes and partly for mapping - began.

Why did he chose St. Thomas Mount to begin the survey?

First of all, to conduct any trigonometrical survey, you have to start from a height. That has to be a hill. Secondly, the political circumstances dictated its starting from Madras because the British had overrun Karnataka, Mysore. So probably, the original purpose of Lambton's survey was just to survey trigonometrically Mysore, not Karnataka.

This Great Trigonometrical Survey benchmark, one of the few that remain, is located at the base of the old lighthouse on the campus of the Madras High Court.-S. THANTHONI

It was the fourth Anglo-Mysore war. Seringapatnam was overrun. It was in response to the acquisition of this territory that the British decided that they must have a map of this (region), and that is why they started Lambton on this survey. The other thing is, he had to start from Madras because there was an observatory in Madras. It had been there for some years, doing some astronomical calculations, relating to stars. So the position of Madras in terms of longitude and latitude was known much more precisely than anywhere else in India. It was a kind of benchmark from which all other measurements would be taken, which is the Madras observatory. I do not know whether it (Madras observatory) still exists.

Your book India Discovered is about men, mostly British officials who made many fascinating discoveries in India. What made you take up that subject?

I was asked to write a book on the British in India. I did not want to write a political work or a book on military experiences. I was happy to write a book on the British Raj but I wanted it to be about the scholarship and science under the Raj rather than about politics or wars. My publishers agreed. So I embarked upon that book, which covered a lot of ground and a lot of interesting people.

It was fascinating to find that the Great Trigonometrical Survey extended right up to Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, into Laos, and indeed across the Mekong, even into Vietnam. So we think of the Great Art as a map of India. Actually, it is a mapping of the whole of South Asia and South-East Asia. In the other direction, the Arc extended right up to Afghanistan, to the Iranian border.

The Great Arc was just a south-north measurement. The GTS measurement went on until about 1880 within India itself. After 1880, it extended east and west to Burma, Afghanistan and so on. It extended into Burma, Thailand and Laos in the last 20 years of the 19th century. So roughly, by the end of the century, say about 1900, the whole framework was complete.

Do you think the British had a specific regional interest in carrying out the mapping of South Asia?

Maps are essential to any conquering power. The original interest in the maps was in order to know where to be able to march your army with safety, or knowing from where the enemy might advance. It is absolutely vital. That is why mapping is always such a sensitive subject.

Your book When Men and Mountains Meets deals with a fascinating subject. How did you come to write it?

That was the second book I wrote. It had a sequel. I knew Kashmir and north Pakistan well because I have been there. I became fascinated by the story of how these incredibly difficult mountainous areas were originally explored and mapped. That was how I came across the story of the Survey of India and the Great Arc. But that did not feature largely because I was not concerned with the rest of India. I was concerned with this small corner. Some of the surveyors, who held for many years world altitude records in Kashmir, also feature in these two books. It was Michael Johnson, an Anglo-Indian surveyor, who climbed to about 22,000 feet in about 1860. That record remained until 1890 or the beginning of the 20th century. It was very demanding. They would wait for months for the clouds to clear for one sighting, for one angle. There were blizzards and so on.

In the 1990s, I concentrated on books more and wrote two or three really major kind of histories. One was the history of the English East India Company. I have always been fascinated by the East India Company. and also by the fact that the relationship between the British and Indians and indeed other people in the east seemed to be much better during the period of East India Company rule until the 17th and 18th centuries than in the 19th century.

Then I wrote a big history of India itself. India: A History was published about the same time as The Great Arc, about two years ago.

I have written two parts of a trilogy, not only on India but on the 20th century history of Asia. The first one is called Last Post: The End of Empire in the Far East. It is all about the Far East - China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Indo-China and Vietnam. Then I have written the history of the Middle East in the 20th century, which has just come out. It is called Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of the Conflict in the Middle East. I want to finish the trilogy with a book on South Asia in the 20th century, not just on India but on Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Is it true that George Everest had never seen the peak that is named after him?

He never saw the peak. It was named after him because it was his completion of the measurement of the Great Arc that made it possible to measure the altitudes of the Himalayan peaks. It was in the course of the measurement of all the peaks visible at that time that the mountain was discovered. So it was named in his honour.

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