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Europe and the British Geographical Imagination, 1760-1830


Paul Stock


Oxford: University Press, 2019

Hardcover. xi+330 p. ISBN 978-0198807117. £70


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



Analysing the content of almost 350 ‘geographical’ books published between 1760 and 1830, this remarkably detailed work examines what literate British readers came to understand by the term ‘Europe’. It also sheds important light on what was conveyed by the concept of ‘geography’ during that period. In both respects, long-held ideas are shown to have carried through to our own time. Source materials embrace reference works, gazetteers, textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopaedias, including those originally published elsewhere and later translated and republished in Britain and Ireland. Many are only to be found in high-quality rare-book libraries. Works of this kind became more common during the seven decades in question as the general demand for books grew and their production duly expanded. ‘Geographical’ books became increasingly popular, providing knowledge of the world not only to specialists, scholars and travellers but also to industrialists, traders and members of the literate classes. Such texts covered a very wide range of topics from astronomy to agriculture as well as the characteristics of individual states. However, the over-arching notion of ‘geography’ was understood in relatively precise terms as ‘the description of the Earth’, occupying a median position on a spatial scale extending from cosmography (study of the heavens) to chorography that focused on distinct regions, areas and places. With just a few exceptions, as sources ‘these books have been largely ignored or dismissed by historians’, partly because of ‘their pseudonymous or opaque authorships, plagiaristic contents, and complex publication histories’ [17]. Nonetheless, they offer a valuable route toward appreciating the ‘geographical imagination’ regarding Europe and the world at large in this time of dramatic political and economic change when a veritable ‘travel culture’ also appeared.

Having introduced the topic in the first two chapters, historian Paul Stock devotes the remainder of his book to examining a variety of approaches to the idea of Europe. He demonstrates that geography books published between 1760 and 1830 are ‘almost always explicitly Christian texts, and they frequently praise the splendour of God and His creation’ [79]. The Christian faith is presented as defining Europe’s specificity and supposed superiority compared with other parts of the globe. The continent’s elevated status was also a reflection of its ‘natural environment’ that is seen as a divine gift for careful husbandry by mankind. It was believed that the continent’s ‘fertile soil, mild temperature and plentiful resources [stimulate] the growth of arts and sciences’ [101]. As well as displaying a collective notion of being European, geographical sources also recognise differences among the continent’s inhabitants:

Some see Europeans as . . . collectively superior to the peoples of other continents on aesthetic and intellectual grounds. But others identify a range of European races co-habiting and competing with each other. The latter theory often uses language to identify distinct groups [123].  

Geographical works of this period invariably pay much attention to the political states of Europe, exploring debates about whether they should be ‘organic communities with multi-faceted jurisdictions, or governmental jurisdictions with increasingly centralized administrations’ [152]. Most specify monarchy as the definitive form of government and see European states as sharing ‘a propensity for liberty, broadly defined as respect for legal structures and for property rights’ [152]. Europe’s borders and the boundaries of component states are explained in part by ‘natural’ features, such as mountains and rivers, but also by the outcome of human decisions, activities and conflicts. Individual states, with distinctive centres and peripheries, are judged to be spatially cohesive to varying degree. For example, the influence of France in artistic culture and military adventurism seemingly confirms it as one of Europe’s core polities, but ‘many books disparage its fragility and supposedly tyrannous aspirations as contrary to the norms of the European state system’ [209]. By contrast and not surprisingly, Britain is widely ‘celebrated as the epitome of Europe, and valued for its distinctiveness from the rest of the continent’ [209].

In many geographical texts, discussion of Europe is not constrained to the territorial extent of the continent and attention is directed to the commercial activity and imperial ambitions of component states and the competition between them that resulted. Navigation, discovery and military superiority are shown to cause new expressions of European space to come into being overseas. Most texts celebrate the imperial prowess and success of European states but some ‘are sharply critical of imperial endeavours, especially those associated with the slave trade and other forms of egregious exploitation’ [233]. Nonetheless, commercial empires are widely extolled as offering a vital mechanism whereby Europeans might supposedly ‘improve’ the rest of mankind. An inter-relationship between the march of history and the outworking of human progress is central to the argument of many geographical texts, however some envisage the qualities of being European as being set and constant while others acknowledge the impact of many tumultuous political and economic changes during the decades from 1760 to 1830. Thus, taking the corpus of evidence as a whole, ‘the problem of whether the continent continues to progress, or whether it has already achieved perfection remains unresolved’ [255].  Indeed, some texts suggest that Europe’s supposed unique status and flawlessness are subjective impressions rather than expressions of objective proof. Paul Stock concludes that, between 1760 and 1830, literate British people understood ‘Europe’ to encompass two perspectives. One envisaged the continent as ‘an assortment of (sometimes contradictory) ideas which co-exist and compete in an unstable mélange’ [256]. The other defined Europe by reference to ‘specific arguments and purported characteristics which remain broadly consistent throughout the period’ [256].

This impressive work of deep and meticulous critical scholarship illuminates the history of geography at a time well before it was established as a distinct subject in institutions of higher education in the British Isles. I suspect that it will receive a warmer reception among historians of knowledge and science than among professional geographers, who have greater concern for understanding the present world and shaping its future than investigating the past of their own branch of learning. But of course, many of the ideas that were prominent in geographical work in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have a certain resonance today. The relationship between ‘natural’ and human forces in damaging our climatic and terrestrial environments comes to mind, as do many aspects of geopolitics and territorial power, including the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. In addition, the supposed superiority of Europe must be recognised as but a passing phase when compared with the growing strength and global influence of East Asia. As always, there is much of great value to be gained by studying the lessons of the past.



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