Imperial Borderlands

Maps and Territory-Building in the Northern Indochinese Peninsula (1885-1914)


This book presents a connected history of South-East Asian borderlands, drawing on late nineteenth-century British and French geographical policies and practice. It focuses on the ‘scramble’ in Asia, when, in 1885, the British Raj incorporated Upper Burma and the French created a Protectorate in Annam-Tonkin, the Northern part of present-day Vietnam. Fought over by the imperial states and neighbouring nations, the frontier zones were fashioned and represented not only by the two European powers, but also by the Chinese Empire, the Kingdom of Siam, and the local populations. The counterpoint between the discourses produced and the cartographical practices on the ground, in the longue durée, reveals the interacting processes of territory-building in all their unpredictability.
This book is the updated version of the author’s Aux confins des empires. Cartes et constructions territoriales dans le nord de la péninsule indochinoise (1885–1914) (Paris: Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2018). It is translated by Saskia Brown, an experienced academic translator from French in the humanities and social sciences.

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Marie de Rugy is a Lecturer in Modern History at Sciences Po Strasbourg. She has published one monograph and several articles on cartography and empire in South-East Asia.
Reviews of the French edition

“In this beautifully produced book, which contains a separate section with fine reproductions of the main maps, Marie de Rugy has exposed the complexity of colonial cartography, with all its technical and human challenges, in a particularly critical way, thereby demonstrating the relevance of a comparative approach. Her research takes a fresh look at questions about centrality and periphery in cartographic matters.”
East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no.50, 2019, 184-186.

“This enterprise was anything but easy (…) Marie de Rugy’s book is not only an excellent monograph on cartography in Asia at the end of the 19th century. It is also an inspiring reflection on the nature of the conquest and the transformation of imperial margins by European empires.”
L’Histoire, no.458, April 2019.

“This book delves into several colonial regimes and (…) offers a nuanced analysis of the interactions between colonisers and colonised peoples. Here lies its success.”
Liens socios

“By presenting a comparative approach, adopting a large questioning and delving into a huge variety of sources, the author offers a reference work.”
La letttre de l’Afrase, no.96

“Overall, it is a very original book, especially chapter 6 where the author analyses indigenous maps and immerse readers in the heart of the map production process”
Revue d'histoire du XIXe siècle, no.58, 2019, 290-292.

“Another asset of this research is the constant attention given to the interaction between colonial cartographers and the local inhabitants in the gathering of general and specific information about the annexed territories, the collection of topographical data, and the eventual production of new maps. (…) she successfully avoids the pitfall of binary thinking in which European and native views of space are diametrically opposed.”
East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no.50, 2019, 184-186.

“Marie de Rugy’s book distinguishes itself by its analysis of the way Europeans related to colonised peoples and knowledge.”
IRSEM - Institute for Strategic Research (Newsletter Oct 2018)

“A strong point is the methodological choice to “cross-examine” imperial systems (“croiser les différents systèmes impériaux”), that is, to systematically and critically conduct a comparative study of the British and French colonial worlds, with a focus on a wide range of dynamics, in particular the circulation of knowledge and practices.”
East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no.50, 2019, 184-186.

“Intensive and critical research has produced a particularly solid study, which moreover offers a great deal of inspiration for similar research about other colonial settings.”
East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no.50, 2019, 184-186.

“Aux confins des empires gives a new perspective to borderland studies in Southeast Asia.”
IRSEM - Institute for Strategic Research (Newsletter Oct 2018)

“The book allows readers to get to the very root of the current hierarchy between margins and centres in Burma, Laos and Vietnam.”
IRSEM - Institute for Strategic Research (Newsletter Oct 2018)
List of Figures
Acronyms and Transcription Conventions

 1 A History of Maps and Territories
 2 Confines, Margins, Frontiers: Space as an Object
 3 Connecting Empires

1 Connected Histories of Exploration
 1 A Well-Stocked Colonial Library with a Long History
 2 Geographies of Exploration and Travel Narratives before 1885
 3 Colonial Knowledge and Empire-Building after 1885

2 Colonial Geographical Departments and Large-Scale Map-Making Programmes
 1 The Creation of Colonial Geographical Departments
 2 Systematic Mapping of the Whole Territory: A Qualitative Advance?
 3 Meeting the Challenge of Limited Staff, Budgets and Material

3 Geographical Institutions: Collaboration, Competition, and Confrontation
 1 Rivalry and Cooperation between Map-Makers
 2 The Circulation and Uses of Maps

4 Triangulation “from the Mountains to the Sea
 1 Tough Working Conditions and a Dangerous Terrain
 2 Topographers and Geodetic Surveyors in Action: Adapting Standard Practice
 3 Human Settlements and Dwellings: A Map-Maker’s Headache

5 Consulting the Local Population
 1 The Role of Intelligence: Local Information Sources during the Conquest
 2 Place Names, the Impossible Task

6 Using Asian Maps: Borrowings and Reworkings
 1 Checking Historical Borders

7 Colonial Roads and Territorial Reconfigurations
 1 Travelling across the Territory
 2 The Margins Reconfigured by Roads

8 Locating, Demarcating, and Crossing the Border
 1 Theoretical Variations
 2 Boundary Marking in Practice
 3 Border Controls and Infringements

9 Logics of Rule and Territorial Anomalies
 1 The Specific Status of the Frontier Provinces
 2 Unstable Territorial Divisions


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