A Colonial Cartographic Economy: the Contested Value of Mapping in Northern Rhodesia, 1915-1955

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

309 Downloads (Pure)


This thesis addresses the production and use of cartography in Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia), under colonial rule between 1915 and 1955. The predominant narrative has previously been one of ‘absence’: that mapping in British colonial Africa was side-lined due to a lack of available resources. However, this narrative evidences a strategy that has been critiqued, the use of technical failure as an explanation to mask positive political choices. It also treats cartography teleologically, with full, modern ‘state’ mapping as an inevitable endpoint. This endpoint was not achieved in Northern Rhodesia (arguably never has been), and yet colonial rule was maintained.

What then, the thesis asks, was the relationship between mapping and colonisation? Whilst colonial cartography in Northern Rhodesia failed to meet ‘universal’ cartographic ideals, hybrid, ad hoc forms of mapping emerged. These forms were determined by thoroughly local social, material and political conditions. I propose that investment in cartography was weighed against the potential value of a map; its symbolic value, utility, and financial cost. I use ethnographic archival analysis to reveal these local discussions of resources and values across multiple sites. Those discussions are then brought together within the framework of a ‘cartographic economy’.

In addition to developing this theoretical approach, the thesis makes three further contributions. Firstly, it supplements the scant available description of the practices of colonial survey in the early twentieth century. Secondly, it differentiates the influence of an expanded range of actors and processes on Northern Rhodesian cartography going well beyond ‘survey experts’ to include; private enterprise, indigeneous authorities, scientists, rural adminstrators, and African labour. Thirdly, it innovates the historiography of cartography by contrasting the use of maps with alternative non-documentary governance practices, such as peripatetic administration, and the embedding of colonial knowledge within local populations.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Keighren, Innes M., Supervisor
  • Pinkerton, Alasdair, Supervisor
  • Boon, Tim, Supervisor, External person
  • Morris, Peter, Supervisor, External person
Award date1 May 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


  • Colonial Science
  • Zambia
  • History of Cartography
  • Cartographic Economy
  • Northern Rhodesia

Cite this