An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750-1850

An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750-1850

An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750-1850

An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750-1850


Planetary spaces such as the poles, the oceans, the atmosphere, and subterranean regions captured the British imperial imagination. Intangible, inhospitable, or inaccessible, these blank spaces--what Siobhan Carroll calls "atopias"--existed beyond the boundaries of known and inhabited places. The eighteenth century conceived of these geographic outliers as the natural limits of imperial expansion, but scientific and naval advances in the nineteenth century created new possibilities to know and control them. This development preoccupied British authors, who were accustomed to seeing atopic regions as otherworldly marvels in fantastical tales. Spaces that an empire could not colonize were spaces that literature might claim, as literary representations of atopias came to reflect their authors' attitudes toward the growth of the British Empire as well as the part they saw literature playing in that expansion.

Siobhan Carroll interrogates the role these blank spaces played in the construction of British identity during an era of unsettling global circulations. Examining the poetry of Samuel T. Coleridge and George Gordon Byron and the prose of Sophia Lee, Mary Shelley, and Charles Dickens, as well as newspaper accounts and voyage narratives, she traces the ways Romantic and Victorian writers reconceptualized atopias as threatening or, at times, vulnerable. These textual explorations of the earth's highest reaches and secret depths shed light on persistent facets of the British global and environmental imagination that linger in the twenty-first century.


In 1749, Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville erased the world. Born into a century full of elaborate illustrations of distant places, the French cartographer (1697–1782) became famous less for the beauty of his maps than for what they excluded: centuries of accumulated stories, maps, and travelers’ tales concerning distant places on the globe. As Alfred Hiatt observes, d’Anville’s cartographical predecessors had followed the tradition of including mountain ranges, rivers, and tribes that were rumored to exist in spaces that had yet to be explored by Europeans, producing detailed maps of a world that was already known and merely awaited rediscovery: a world such as the one depicted in Giacomo Gastaldi’s (1500–1566) famed 1564 map of Africa (see Figure 1), full of the locations described in medieval travelers’ tales and the work of classical geographers.

D’Anville’s 1749 map of Africa, however, marked a decided shift away from the world of the ancients (see Figure 2). a determined participant in what Christine Marie Petto has described as the French drive to “‘perfect’ the work of … geography and hydrography … in the service of the state,” d’Anville included on his map only what had been empirically verified, thus creating a continent dominated by a novel and, to the imperial eye, an attractive set of blank spaces.

D’Anville defended his use of blank space by referring to French Enlightenment historiography, which, as Voltaire would argue, proposed to eliminate “all the fables with which fanaticism, the romantic spirit and credulity have at all times peopled the theatre of the world.” Just as a “faithful historian” finding “a vacancy or interruption in any series of events” should not “supply it by his own imagination, even though he might do it with probability,” d’Anville argued, so a cartographer should leave a “blank … in a map [to] denote a want of intelligence.” in defending his use of blank space, d’Anville . . .

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