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The Great ARC

The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named
Keay John


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The Great Arc : The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named

The Great ARC  

In this nicely detailed chronicle, British historian Keay (India: A History) portrays the arduous half-century Great Arc project as a pathbreaking scientific undertaking and as an adventure that transcended politics. He introduces George Everest, a cantankerous British colonel who, appointed surveyor-general of India, never saw the famous mountain named after him. Everest's life's work, and obsession, was the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, a benchmark series of measurements running from India's southern tip up to the Himalayas. Begun in 1800 (Everest came on board in 1818), the Great Arc was a basic tool of British imperial domination, paving the way for commerce, conquest, the building of roads, canals, railways and settlement. Razing whole villages, appropriating sacred hills, exhausting local supplies and facilitating tax assessments, the Great Trigonometrical Survey (which spawned the Great Arc) and its sister project, the Survey of India, epitomized the mutual incomprehension and distrust that characterized British-Indian relations. While Keay gives a nod to the impact that British mapmaking had on the Indian people, his narrative, as quaintly colorful as a 19th-century watercolor, focuses on the logistics of the Great Arc (an army of men, instruments, elephants and horses hauling a half-ton theodolite and braving tiger-infested jungles), on the science of surveying and on the monumental ego of Everest, an irascible martinet whose arrogance ultimately tarnished his achievements. Maps, photos and illustrations throughout.


Recensione in altra lingua (English):

Seemingly there's no rest for Keay, who since his magisterial India: A History has dashed off this captivating story about the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. If only writing were that easy: this book has clearly percolated in the author's mind for some time, and he brings to it his steeping in the subcontinent's past, his attuned descriptions of its landscapes and climate, and, above all, an elegant style that brings to life the personalities of the surveyors. The survey was the brainchild of William Lambton, an idiosyncratic British army officer to whom no memorial exists save his crumbling tombstone in central India, which Keay had difficulty even finding. Keay dispels as much of Lambton's obscurity as the man's taciturnity about himself allows; but, when the subject was theodolites and trigonometry, Lambton was positively effusive. Clearly taken by Lambton, Keay recounts how he, through a fortuitous connection with Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), persuaded colonial officials to sanction his survey in 1800, officials who probably were clueless that Lambton intended to map all of India as a means of determining the exact shape of the earth--or that the survey would consume the better part of the century. The scientific cavalcade's tone altered markedly with the succession, after Lambton's death in 1823, by the more personally revealing but infinitely more irascible George Everest. Keay makes clear Everest was competent but disliked, lending a note of ironic oddity that his name, rather than Lambton's or some local name, became attached to the highest peak in the Himalaya. In Keay's hands, this once-obscure story makes for marvelous, cover-to-cover reading.