Cartography in the iconography of British imperialism portrayed the visual culture of the British Empire. The Empire came to cover huge swathes of territory and from the nineteenth century onwards, Commonwealth countries were coloured pink on maps. Pink was a printer’s compromise for letters overprinted to be clearly read, as the colour that was traditionally associated with the British Empire is red.
Commonwealth historian Linda Colley, commenting on an Imperial Federation map depicting the extent of the British Empire in 1886, noted that the globe is depicted using the Mercator projection, centered on the Greenwich meridian. The effect of the image, she argued, is to conceal the territorial fragility of British imperialism by underlining its global reach. Thus, the viewer neglects the small territory of islands that the world-dominating United Kingdom consists of. Subsequently, the vast stretches of pink are presented as connected and homogeneous, though several parts of the empire were dealt separately and were held with different levels of power.
Maps, being part of the British ‘mental furniture’ clearly depict one thing: the imperial fantasy perceiving Britannia rightfully ruling its subjects from the top of the world. This subsequently led to jingoism, disguised behind the excuse of civilizing missionizing. The British tried to pursue the cleansing of the savage colonial residences, producing ‘racial progress’, but achieved a division and gap with ‘otherness’ by vast exploitation.
For many Britons who were not members of the upper and higher middle classes, there was, however, a surprising ignorance about the Imperial world. Geography was hardly taught at all in state schools attended by working class children during Victoria’s reign. The idea of every classroom having a huge map covered in pink in every classroom is erroneous. The Empire was an elite concern and the upper classes, in practice, did not want to broaden the lower orders’ horizons in anyway that might have prejudiced their privileged position in society. So while a map painted pink was an expression of British power in the world, access to those maps and wider education about the Empire was about power and control between the classes within Britain itself.