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Fleetwood, Lachlan ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5600-847X (January 2023): Empire, Exploration and ‘Failure’: The Euphrates Expedition and the Route to India that Never Was. In: The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 51, No. 2: pp. 211-243 [PDF, 949kB]

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In the early nineteenth century, Suez was not the only possibility for a shortcut between Britain and its rapidly expanding Indian empire. Serious consideration was also given to a route via Mesopotamia. In 1835, the lavishly funded Euphrates Expedition set out to determine the suitability of the river for steam navigation, assess the political complications, and complete maps and natural historical surveys. The Expedition began with an extraordinarily laborious overland transport through Syria, hauling two dismantled steamships across the desert, a process resisted by both Ottoman and Egyptian authorities. Things did not become much easier upon reaching the river, and a series of calamities ensued, most significantly the complete loss of one of the steamers in a hurricane. In this article, I use the Euphrates Expedition to consider various notions of ‘failure’ and breakdown in the histories of empire, science and exploration. In terms of everyday expeditionary practice, the Expedition might be seen as a series of cascading failures, from cross-cultural negotiation to technological limits, and it was in another sense an imperial ‘failure’ as ‘the route to India that never was.’ At the same time, this article interrogates a tension in the historiography around what it means to tell the story of imperial exploration and surveying as one of limits, confusion, vulnerability and dependency – or ultimately ‘failure’ – given the often pervasive legacies and consequences of these activities for the places and peoples surveyed.

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