Empire and useful knowledge: mapping and charting the British American world, 1660-1720
Between 1660 and 1720 the British American empire expanded to incorporate new settlements, new trade routes, and it occupied a growing place in the British export economy. This expansion created challenges in transoceanic navigation and understanding of local geography, particularly as ambitions to trade in new markets in Spanish America gained traction. Mariners, merchants, scientists and policymakers required useful knowledge to enable their voyages and imperial activities. To meet this growing demand, print artisans in London produced an increasing amount of printed geographical information in the form of maps, charts and geographical texts. Draftsmen, engravers and printers applied their skill and labour to produce 179 maps and charts of the British Americas, and these artisans in turn benefitted from the income supplied by consumers. The increasing valorisation of empiricism and eyewitness knowledge resulting from the ‘scientific revolution’ also informed the inclusion of useful and practical information on maps and charts, and publishers asserted their credentials in claims to accuracy and novelty. Crown-sponsored voyages, buccaneers and chartered companies supplied eyewitness information from the Spanish Pacific and Caribbean, although the quality of information varied depending on the voyage itineraries and priorities. The growth of this market for maps and charts of the Americas highlights how the economic and territorial exploitation inherent to British empire was partly enabled by artisans living thousands of miles from colonial spaces. It further demonstrates the pivotal role of empire in Britain’s long-term economic growth, and highlights that useful knowledge was central not peripheral to early modern socio-economic development.