James Vetch’s work can be seen to embody the heterogeneity of geography in the first half of the 19th century before its progressive institutionalisation as an academic discipline : the first chair in geography was not created at a British university until 1833, following the founding of the Geographical Society of London in 1830.
A military engineer by training, Vetch was commissioned into the Royal Engineers and served with distinction in the Peninsular War, rising to the rank of Captain, before transferring to the Ordnance Survey to map parts of Scotland. He took leave from the Army on half pay to manage a mining venture in Mexico in the mid-1820s and the early 1830s, before returning to the United Kingdom to be employed successively as a railway engineer, drainage commissioner, and conservator of harbours for the Admiralty. The diversity of Vetch’s writings reflects the range his professional and personal interests, as geologist, surveyor, antiquarian, geographer, hydrographer and civil engineer and his active membership of scholarly societies reveals his engagement in public intellectual debates: he was elected to the Royal Geological Society in 1818, to the Royal Society in 1830 and he became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society on its foundation in 1831 (as the London Geographical Society). He was made an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1839.
James Vetch never authored a monograph as such. His writings are as diverse in their shape and form as in their subject-matter, ranging from the political petition and expeditionary journal, to learned treatises, commissioned reports, or papers read to the scholarly societies and articles contributed to their reviews. They are complemented by a number of maps – Vetch was an accomplished cartographer – and he left a body of correspondence. The publications have remained uncollected since his death in 1869.
The citation recommending his election to The Royal Society in 1830 presents “James Vetch, Captain, late of the Royal Engineers of Leicester Square in the County of Middlesex” as a gentleman scholar and polymath: “a Gentleman well acquainted with mathematics and various branches of Natural Science” (…) (EC/1830/26, GB 117, The Royal Society), and his maps and contributions to the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London are in the mathematical and descriptive traditions of the time (Mayhew 188). This is made explicit in the first of two articles which Vetch contributed to the Royal Geographical Society on his return from Mexico, ‘On the Monuments and Relics of the Ancient Inhabitants of New Spain’, read as a paper on November 28 1836 and published in the Society’s journal 1837 (Vol 7. 1-11) :
“Notwithstanding all that has been written on the subject of the monuments of New Spain, little progress has been made in coming to any satisfactory conclusion in regard to them. The field of investigation is a wide one and still open, and it is but now for the first time, from the number of scientific inquirers, and the liberty afforded them, that we may expect to acquire sufficient data on which to found our researches. The plan of investigation to be followed would be, first to fix geographically the sites of all such monuments and secondly to have them carefully examined in detail, dimensions taken, and drawings made of them, and occasionally excavations.” (Vetch 1837 : 4)
Vetch’s brief in this paper is to examine the Mesoamerican pyramids and artefacts of New Spain/Mexico as material evidence of “the claims of the original Americans to an attainment of the arts and civilized life (2)”, specifically the Toltec empire’s anteriority and superiority to the Aztec empire. While the author acknowledges his indebtedness to the Humboldtian geography of Mesoamerica in a footnote, he reiterates the idea that field of Mexican geography is “open” to further research, because Humboldt’s subject “was too vast not to leave room for omissions in some parts, and equivocations in others”, notably in the interpretation of the pre-Columbian past (8). That interpretation, based on the traveller’s experience of the country’s monuments and the collection of Toltec stone figures which he collected during his eight year residence in Mexico lead him to surmise that the origins of Toltec civilization may lie in the Old World, among the pyramids of Egypt, rather than in the Americas (9). In the period before “events recorded in history begin to thicken”, in the late 12th century, Vetch speculates on the causes of the collapse of the Toltec empire : sceptical that environmental factors alone, epidemic or famine, could have accounted for the near extinction of an entire civilization, he attributes its fall to a complex of factors, culminating in barbarian incursions from the north (10).
Vetch’s method in this instance is inductive: the traces of human geography in ancient monuments and artefacts and their spatial distribution are cited as evidence in formulating a theory of civilisational collapse. The author’s conjectures are less geographical than geo-historical, the relative density of the historical record leaving scope for speculation about the Mesoamerican past. In its focus on antiquity Vetch’s approach is analagous to a genre of speculative geography current in mid-19th century Britain: Bible geographies, such as Phillips’ Approximations of Prophecy ; or, speculative geography of the Holy Land (Phillips 1855) which purports to reconstruct the geography of Palestine in the age of the Prophets from the evidence of the Scriptures, although Vetch is more Humboldtian than Ritterian in outlook and in no way spiritualist. However, when in a second article for the Society’s journal Vetch turns his attention from Mexico, which he had surveyed extensively and begun to map, to Australia, a country of which he had no first-hand experience, the author is confronted with a lack of material evidence compounded by an absence of geographical knowledge of the continental interior in the decade before the major expeditions of inland exploration would begin to reveal the continent’s interior – an absence which the author terms ‘the great hiatus’ (165). It is here that speculation comes to the fore as a methodological alternative.
Vetch anticipates the problem in the epigraph to his Mexican article :
“Had none of these [monuments and relics] been prerved to our days, the study of the history and condition of the ancient inhabitants of New Spain would have deserved as little interest and attention as the history and condition of the ancient inhabitants of New Holland or Van Diemen’s Land” (1).
In “Considerations on the Political Geography and Geographical Nomenclature of Australia“, the second of his articles to be published by the Royal Geographical Society in the space of two years, James Vetch is necessarily in the posture of the Kantian geographer who, unable to avail himself of fieldwork, is extrapolating from a synthesis of the limited sources available fifty years after the first British settlement. In contrast to the Mexican case, the author takes as his premise that the pre-settlement human geography of the continent is of cursory interest only since :
“Australia (as far as it is known) presents man the most scantily disseminated, in the lowest state of civilization and knowledge, and the most abject in the means of bodily confort or enjoyment, the most deficient of all history or traditions, and with the fewest monuments of past times ; circumstances directly contrary to all à priori deductions from the geographical position and physical condition of the country (…) “ (1838 : 167).
While Vetch briefly entertains the prospect that future exploration will resolve the engima of Australia’s seclusion from Asia by finding “in the interior traces and proofs of the ancient dominion of civilised nations“ (168), in the passage from the Mesoamerican New World to the Oceanian the indigenous presence is otherwise elided, so that Australia’s pre-colonial history is displaced and overscored by its geography, “which enjoy[s] a most favoured climate, both for the rapid increase of the human race and the development of its best powers (…)“ (167). In place of the civilizations of the past, in Australia the geographer’s gaze is thus directed to the civilization of the future through systematic colonisation and territorial division.
In a country unknown to the writer, where inductive method is not available for want of reliable data and deductive reasoning appears to be contradicted by the evidence, Vetch adopts an avowedly speculative methodology. His conjectures about the geography of inland Australia are fourfold: that the environment is hospitable and the climate uniformly clement ; that the topography is accessible, the land fertile and suitable for systematic settlement ; that the indigenous population is sparse, docile and its numbers stagnant ; and that in such conditions the demographic potential of settlement is equal to that of North America. We have examined elsewhere the demographic, topograhical and anthropological aspects of Vetch’s vision of Australia in terms of its antecedents in Radical political geography (Graves 2008), as a tabula rasa for utopian projects (Graves & Rechniewski 2010), and as a model for systematic colonization (Graves & Rechniewski 2012), For the purposes of the present study we shall focus on Vetch’s conjectures on climate.
In postulating “the genial climate and thinly-peopled tracts of Australia“ (165) Vetch reproduces Humboldt’s idea of an “isothermal zodiac“ (Cresswell 40) encircling the earth along the 40th parallel north, as the vector of development of the world’s great empires, from China in the East to the United States in the West. With this variation : that he inverts “the band of temperate climate“ (Schulton 112) and transposes it to the 40th parallel south. The idea is graphically conveyed in the accompanying map of “Australia according to the Proposed Divisions“ which traces 40° of latitude along the south coast of Australia and through the Bass Strait between the mainland and Van Diemen’s Land, and threads onto it the incongruous shape of the Iberian Peninsula, anchored off the south coast in the Great Australian Bight, “given in the Equatorial distance, to serve as a measure of magnitude“ (170). The implication is clear : if the climate of Australia in general is “most favoured“ (167), that of southern Australia is especially propitious, located in the equivalent of the Mediterranean latitudes. It is a message that will not have been lost on Vetch’s readers four years after the passage of the South Australia Act (1834), and just two since the South Australia company began the settlement of the colony on Wakefieldian principles. However subliminal, it is also a message which find a precedent in Vetch’s work : in his mappemonde entitled “A Projection of the Globe on the Cylinder of a Meridian“ (c. 1825) Vetch draws the reflection of the shape of Great Britain over a line through the equator, locating it in the inverted latitude off the South Island of New Zealand. The author’s accompanying Memoir reveals that the original of the mappemonde bore two isothermal zones missing from the extant copies :
“The two Zones marked red, one in each hemisphere, and contained between latitudes 50° and 55°, corresponding with the latitude of England, are intended to afford the means of comparing the different conditions with regard to temperature, of places lying in the same latitude (…) England with which we are most acquainted, being taken as the standard between the temperature and latitude.“ (144).
That the climate conjecture should have been sustained over more than a dozen years between the publications is indicative of the scope for geographical speculation in the period between Flinder’s circumnavigation of the continent and the era of inland exploration, but the enduring influence of Vetch’s Australian geography can be retraced over a still longer period from the reception and diffusion of his 1838 map internationally. In France, Hubert Brue’s Carte de l’Australie (1838), features Vetch’s proposed political divisions as a miniature inset occulting the blank space of central Australia : “Details de la Colonie de la nouvelle Galles Meridionale – Australie avec les divisions proposees par Mr. le Capit. Vetch Ingenieur au corps royal d’Angleterre.“ (National Library of Australia, MAP T 261). In Italy, Maggi and Balbi’s Carta generale dell’ Oceania ossia quinta parte del mondo (1849) includes Vetch’s map as a stylised corner inset complete with editorial annotations and gloss (National Library of Australia, MAP T 885), as does Fratelli Doyen’s recoloured version (1836-51) (National Library of Australia, MAP T 261). Francesco Marmocchi’s L’ Australia con la divisione delle sue coste proposta dal Capit.o Vetch dates from as late as 1858, although curiously it is truncated and cites only the nomenclature without showing the divisions (Inernet Culturale, Cataloghi e Collezioni Digitali Delle Biblioteche Italiane).
Perhaps most signficant of all is the internal line of diffusion within the Royal Geographical Society. In 1845, the Journal published an article by George Gray, then Governor of South Australia entitled “On the Languages of Australia“. In it Gray identifies and describes five distinct language groups or “dialects“ in the region which he traces onto an outline map of the Australian continent. That base map is unmistakably a reproduction of Vetch’s 1838 original, minus the territorial divisions. The Iberian Peninsula is still anchored in the Great Australian Bight astride the 40th parallel south, its captions and scale unaltered. The idea of the isothermic zone persists into the next decade, albeit subliminally, in one of the pioneerng ethnolinguistic studies in Australian history.
In a letter dated 1st Feburary 1838 to Captain Washington, the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, preparatory to the publication of his Australian article, James Vetch takes pains to justify the speculative method of his article:
“In admitting the Paper in question into the Journal of the Society I feel duly honoured by the indulgence shewn to a communication so mainly speculative. I cannot however but be of opinion that speculative views (if used with discretion) in respect to Regions so little known must lead to exertion in procuring accurate knowledge of them and I can see no impropriety in mixing such occasionally with our dry Geographical details when the aim and intention of such is either to promote discovery or to benefit the race.“
The terms echo those employed by John Barrow in his inaugural address of 24 May 1831 to the Geographical Society of London in validating Speculative Geography as an epistemological tool of discovery, while at the same time demonstrating an awareness of its receding horizon.
Letter to the Secretary of the Geographical Society, September 11 1837 (Capt. Washington)
Phillips, J. S. (1855). Approximations of Prophecy; or, speculative geography of the Holy Land, founded upon literal interpretations of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, compared with those of the other Prophets; and combined with political and religious views, to suit the date of A.D. June, 1854.
Moore, George Fletcher. Evidences of an Inland Sea, Collected from the Natives of the Swan River Settlement. British Library, Historical Prints Editions, 2011.
Schulten, Susan. Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Hubert Brue’s Carte de l’Australie (1838)
(National Library of Australia, MAP T 261 : http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-t261)
Maggi and Balbi’s Carta generale dell’ Oceania ossia quinta parte del mondo (1849)
(National Library of Australia, MAP T 885: http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-t885)
Fratelli Doyen’s Carta generale dell’ Oceania ossia quinta parte del mondo (1836-51)
(National Library of Australia, MAP T 261 : http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-rm2494)
Francesco Marmocchi’s L’ Australia con la divisione delle sue coste proposta dal Capit.o Vetch
(Inernet Culturale, Cataloghi e Collezioni Digitali Delle Biblioteche Italiane : http://iccu01e.caspur.it/ms/internetCulturale.php?id=mag_GEO0017682&teca=GeoWeb+-+Marciana)