Long Live Analog
This mapstory is an homage to what is certainly among the greatest, if not the greatest work of historical mapping ever. A Historical Atlas of South Asia by Joseph E. Schwartzberg and colleagues is a finely crafted work of art for the ages, as well as a study in cartography. Each plate is deeply layered, showing many changes over several years on a single map. One can spend hours just on a couple pages. While I have traced the contours of some of the plates, no digitization can be considered a reproduction or replacement of the atlas. It is unfortunate that it is so rare, copies go for hundreds of dollars – luckily it’s online, but if you can find it at a library, it’s better to experience in person.


One plate from the Atlas.
Click to open and see the incredible detail.

I chose to focus on places that are entirely within the Indian Subcontinent from 1700, along with the extents of the Mughals and of British India. Though Dr. Schwartzberg and his colleagues did all the work over 15 years or so, it did take me a very long time just to digitize it. Much of the time was spent doing it inefficiently, which had to be learned the hard way. As I spent more and more time, I questioned several times whether it was worth finishing; in the end I realized that it would be important for figuring out how to map a place in detail, since we will need to do this for MapStory Local, and for the whole world. I’ve documented the process on the MapStory wiki. This mapstory shows over 1300 changes, with over 150 annotations.

See on MapStory for labels and annotations.

This mapstory will be enable people to build upon the work of Schwartzberg where it can, as is the intention with any work in academia. The work needs to be expanded and refined – the borders are not precise, and in the case of the atlas they were not always meant to be. This is probably because of the changing nature of territory – in the era of nation-states, surface area is the basis of governance, and marked with complete surveying precision. In the case of India, territories consisted of collections of individual places, and sometimes taxes were even shared between two or more states for a single village. Mapping a place might require going through a historic treaty that lists places that were handed over from one state to the other. While Schwartzberg and colleagues spent over 15 years making the atlas, going into that much precision would have perhaps required a lot more effort. And that’s where MapStory Local will come in. The community will need to georeference many more old maps and go through documents of all kinds, draw the boundaries more precisely, marking every individual place down to every detail for which there is a record of.

Telling the Story
Frankly, I think the explanations of colonization are generally shallow. The common textbook narrative is that states are the powers that be and always have been wherever they have existed, and states fight battles with other states and annex territory. This assumption is false, and it is dangerous, as we then think that power lies with those who it does not. That narrative is a remnant of the most recent centuries of conquest by states, who have been the ones to write history. And that is a danger of this mapstory, which shows territories by state, when there is a lot more under the surface. While I went over these maps in detail, they do not really say a lot about history. A map is only a starting point, whether or not I was the one to create or digitize it. The annotations do a great deal more, and I and others will add more annotations that are more deeply relavent over time. But to really understand what is happening in the resulting mapstory, I have had to dig a bit deeper, which I will share with you here.

A Corporate Feudalist State
The story starts with Auranzeb, the emperor who brought the Mughals to their zenith, stretching across nearly the entire subcontinent and beyond, and whose death resulted in its collapse in 1707. Local jurisdictions of the Mughal Empire became states in their own right and new powers arose, and battled one another for control, the most significant of which were the Marathas, which spread from the west, while the British later spread from the east. It seems to have been a historical fluke that the British expanded during a time when such an enormous empire had collapsed – had there been political stability, the world would probably be a different place today.

But again, we are dealing with what is happening on the surface, with territory. First off, India was not colonized by British government per se, it was actually colonized by a single corporation, the British East India Company (EIC). Created in 1600, The EIC was the first of the East India Companies, created by several Western European countries as state-backed monopolies. Imagine all the trade with Asia for each country being done by a single corporation. That’s what we’re talking about. The idea was that rather than get into the business of trade directly, states could charter corporations that could raise money privately, and then share in the profits. The East India Companies were actually the first modern corporations; only two years after the EIC, the Dutch East India Company formed, issuing stock openly for the first time and created the first stock exchange. The profits were enormous, and their success spawned more corporations for Western trade, like the Massachussets Bay Company, which created the colony of Massachussetts. The EIC went on to create many of the boundaries of what were to become the current states of South Asia, and the Dutch East India Company created what is now Indonesia.


The Mughal emperor grants taxation rights to Robert Clive, the governor of Bengal under the East India Company.

A century and a half later, when the Seven Years War out in Europe, the countries involved battled each other with their allies across the world, along with their private corporate armies. Winston Churchill called the Seven Years War the true first world war; the American theater (the French and Indian War) was the beginning of the end of colonization in America, while the Indian theater (the Third Carnatic War) was the beginning of colonization across India. It was the first time that the American colonies united, under a common foe, while in India, the EIC emerged as one of many powers contending across the subcontinent. In America, the war was a financial burden for the British, which they tried to regain by imposing taxes on the colonies, which in turn began a revolt that ultimately led the colonies to further unite and gain independence. In India on the other hand, the EIC gained immense riches during the war that they imported, along with the word “loot” itself. Shortly after the end of the war, the EIC annexed Bihar and Bengal, among the wealthiest places in the world.

And this is where it goes deeper than territory, into the breakdown of insitutions and culture. Throughout history, land was held in common, and in the modern era, common ownership was made illegitimate (later to be recreated in some form as coops and condos as late as the 1970s, at least here in the US). Back in England, since around the time the EIC was created, the Inclosure Acts were forcing the majority of England’s population who lived off the land and did not have money, for private wool production, which could be sold for cash. This caused massive poverty on a scale never seen before in England, and was repeated in India on another scale altogether. The EIC abolished all common ownership of land and turned tax collecting “zamindars” into landlords that received a cut, creating a corporate feudalism. When a periodic drought happened in 1769, the EIC did not relieve the tax burden and sold food at inflated prices in cities, resulting in a full-blown famine that killed 10 million people, a third of Bengal’s population. While taxes were traditionally paid in kind, the EIC required it be paid in a cash, which required people to trade with the EIC, selling land or cotton, which further consolidated land and took production away from food. Meanwhile, the EIC systematically destroyed Bengali textile production, the largest in the world, and deindustrialized Bengal in general.


How enclosures happened in England. A precursor to what happened everywhere else in the world.

One of dozens of famines created by the British, amounting to over 60 million deaths. I chose an image less jarring than others online.

Back in America, the British imposed the Tea Act, requiring colonists to buy tea from the EIC, resulting in the famous Boston Tea Party. They imposed a tax to recover the cost of the tea, no doubt influenced by the powerful EIC back in London. This led to further revolt, and eventually the Americans fought and won their independence.

From Bengal, the East India Company expanded across the rest of the subcontinent and much of Asia. As the subcontinent was in chaos, with powers jockeying for position, the EIC played each side, aiding one group in exchange for being allies, receiving protection, or being annexed outright. Meanwhile, the EIC grew poppies and processed opium in vast assembly lines in India that flooded China, creating millions of junkies, while draining China of bullion. In a repeat of what happened in Boston Harbor, when the Chinese government dumped a ship full of opium into the sea, the British fought and won the Opium Wars, which included an enormous indemnity to be paid to compensate for the losses. Not long afterward, in 1857, India revolted against British rule, and was narrowly defeated. While people in India call it the Indian War for Independence, the British call it the “Sepoy Mutiny,” belittling it and making it British-centric. Shortly thereafter, the rule of the EIC was replaced directly by the British government, which continued to abuse India until shortly after World War II. The last famine in India killed 3 million people in Bengal in 1943 when the British siphoned food to feed its soldiers, to which Winston Churchill remarked, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”



Above – the Boston Tea Party
Below – throwing opium into the sea

While this story does go deeper, questions for me remain. Why is it that in the American colonists revolted when a few taxes were imposed, while in Bengal, much heavier taxes did not incite the same reaction? Why would farmers pay taxes that they couldn’t? This story goes much deeper, but to be honest, it remains a complete mystery to me how India was colonized – one day I may know, but right now when I find answers, they only lead to more questions.

Reorganizing the Subcontinent
Independence was what Jawharlal Nehru called a Greek tragedy – freedom was gained, while the subcontinent ripped itself apart into India and Pakistan during Partition, where millions were killed on both sides and there was a massive exodus across the borders. On top of this, British India consisted of 562 princely states whose monarchs all needed to vote whether they wanted to join India or Pakistan. One state, Hyderabad, voted for independence, and was invaded by India, while Jammu & Kashmir voted to go with India, despite having a majority Muslim population, leading to war and division between the two states.

After Partition, both India and Pakistan took control of the jurisdictions as they were demarcated by the British, and especially in India, they were then dissolved. Monarchies were all abolished, and states were drawn along linguistic lines. This required an epic task of brokering and arm-twisting. The process happened fast, and in some ways hastily. One of India’s founding fathers, B.R. Ambedkar, wrote a lesser known paper protesting the States’ Reorganization Commission’s proposal. He agreed largely that India should be divided along linguistic lines, but proposed further divisions in the larger states, which were too large and had further cultural divisions within them. Over the years, there have been political conflicts over larger states, and they have been divided in recent years, in some cases exactly as Ambedkar had proposed. Yet states remain very large – Uttar Pradesh still has over 200 million people, despite being divided.


Map 1 of Ambedkar’s “Thoughts on Linguistic States“. Notice “Hyderabad” and “Andhra”, which correspond exactly to how Telangana was recently carved. The rest of his maps have foreshadowed what happened with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; it may foreshadow what’s left to come.

What’s Next
Where will the work done here lead? I will eventually look into the primary references to maps, and begin the process of compiling them to be georeferenced in MapStory, and mapped going backwards. And we need to continue to systematically map the world on this scale. While this can be done with crowdsourcing, it may require some people who are really dedicated to weaving it all together in a cohesive way. There could also be commissioned individual projects – perhaps a district-level mapstory of the Indian Subcontinent is in order, like the commissioning of the Newberry Library’s work of all the historic county boundaries of the United States. And of course there is settlement-level data, which mapstorytellers will need to contruct. As for other topics mentioned here, I am very interested in looking into the history of land enclosures in England and in India. I would not be surprised if there were not detailed records of these somewhere, since they related to tax collection. Imagine seeing the privatization of land across England or Bengal – what a mapstory that would be. Also, I’d like to make a static map of “How India Should Have Been Divided According to Ambedkar”. Wouldn’t be too difficult, and I think that would be a hit online.


A map of Land Enclosures in England. Makes me think there may be data out there. Would make an amazing mapstory, especially combined with migrations.

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