James Rennell’s survey of Bengal and Bihar, considered one of the greatest technical achievements of cartography of the 18th Century and a powerful symbol of the foundation of the ‘Company Raj’ in India.
James Rennell’s magisterial wall map of Bengal and Bihar is considered to be one of the finest technical achievements of cartography made during the 18th Century. Rennell’s work is the earliest accurate general map of Bengal and Bihar, predicated on his surveys conducted through scientific methods.
The region is shown divided into subhas, or districts, as established by the Mughals, each distinguished in full original wash colours. Virtually every village is labeled and the vast network of roads running throughout the region is carefully delineated. Innumerable rivers, swamps and mountain ranges are depicted, while areas such as the Himalayas and beyond are deliberately left vague, true to the prevailing ethic of empiricism.
The upper right quadrant of the map features the dedication by the publisher Andrew Dury (fl. 1742-1778) to the Directors the East India Company, James Rennell’s employer and the new masters of Bengal and Bihar.
Ever since Robert Clive’s victory at the battle of Plassey (1757), the EIC had acquired ever-greater control of Bengal, the first Indian region to fall under British sovereignty. While Rennell’s surveys were still underway, their greater intended purpose was revealed. Warren Hastings, who served as Governor-General of Bengal from 1773 to 1786, intended for Rennell’s maps to form the basis of a ‘Doomsday Book’ for Bengal, harkening back to William the Conqueror’s invidious revenue survey of England during the late 11th Century. While the military applications of Rennell’s surveys were obvious, Hastings intended for the maps to be used to register property and collect taxes, as well as to oversee social reforms upon the populous. In this sense, Rennell’s mastery of the terrain on the map anticipated the EIC’s mastery over Bengal and Bihar and the establishment of the ‘Company Raj’ that came to rule most of India.