The new cartographers: Maps and the colonial archive

As much as the map re-presents a geographical territory, landscape, or space, it is infused with time and temporality […] There are the past(s)—of the mapmaker, of the mapped territory that lies inert on the map—the present(s)—of the map user, of the mapped terrain’s changes in reality—and the future(s) of all of those events.

——Rasheedah Phillipsessay

The new cartographers—Indigenous, grassroots, academic, etc.—are building new cartographic worldviews, methods and projects to talk back to the colonial cartographies that helped to structure the worldviews, laws and governance systems of settler-colonial societies like Australia. The ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788–1930’ project is mapping frontier violence and the massacre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia. Similarly in the USA, the ‘Land Acquisition and Dispossession: Mapping the Homestead Act, 1863–1912’ project is mapping colonial land theft across the US West, showing how colonial settlers and government dispossessed First Nations peoples of their land. Dr Imogen Wegman (2020) is using geographic information systems (GIS)—including a suite of digital technologies known as GIS—to find traces of pre-colonial landscapes and Aboriginal land use in the Australian archive. What these historically revisionist projects share is a commitment to rethinking what maps, map-making and the colonial archive can tell us.

In May 2021, I visited the Unsettled exhibition at the Australian Museum. The main hall of the museum was alive with Aboriginal culture; Black song, dance and politics filled an otherwise white colonial space. While my wife attended the curators’ talk, my two boys danced in the main hall. As Professor Larissa Behrendt reminds us (McBride and Smith 2021:7), this museum space was once, and perhaps still is in large part, a cultural centre of white Australia. Yet in this moment the museum had been taken over and transformed into a Black space. I visited the formal Unsettled exhibition twice that weekend, returning again and again to the Sydney Wars Map 1788–1817 in the middle of the exhibition space.

The Sydney Wars Map is an unpleasant, confronting map. Based on archival research by Dr Stephen Gapps (2018), the map provides a visualisation of the violent clashes between Aboriginal warriors and European invaders during the first tranche of colonial settlement in the Sydney basin. It puts the massacre of Aboriginal peoples in spatiotemporal terms and reminds us that Aboriginal peoples resisted this intrusion on their land.

I was familiar with this map from Gapps’s The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the Early Colony, 1788–1817. I was at the launch event for the book at the State Library of NSW in 2018. Yet, seeing the Sydney Wars Map in an exhibition space curated by Aboriginal curatorial staff shifted the map’s meaning and significance. As a non-Aboriginal person, I had to reflect on my own complicity in the colonial project in this public venue.

The Sydney Wars Map held my gaze because its inclusion was purposeful; it had a cartographic politics. Maps are good at telling stories while holding onto dark secrets. Maps can be loud, but they can also whisper. The meaning and use of a map can change over time, as the cultural landscape it’s read within shifts. Sometimes the stories maps tell are more important than the maps themselves.

Surveying, map-making and claiming land as property were crucial to colonial land theft, and the colonial state’s attempts to justify the violence required to take land from Aboriginal peoples. Cartography was, and still is, a colonial technology par excellence. Cartography remains a tool of violence. Yet here, as a part of the formal Unsettled exhibition, the Sydney Wars Map was not keeping any secrets about the violence of Sydney’s colonial invasion and settlement. The Sydney Wars Map was hellbent on telling the truth.

Gapps released his much-anticipated follow-up to The Sydney Wars, Gudyarra: The First Wiradyuri War of Resistance The Bathurst War, 1822–1824, in 2021. I raced out to a grab a copy. The two works share a cartographic aesthetic and cultural sensibility that is radical in the settler colony. The maps in these books divest from many of the key markers of colonial cartography; chief among which are the colonial survey lines and parish boundaries that are still used to mark out our cities today. As Alison Page and Paul Memmott (2021) remind us

‘the British colonists blanketed Indigenous lands with their values, placed layers of concrete, steel and glass over the earth … It can be seen in the grid layouts of townships all across Australia, the streetscapes and human-made parks, with buildings turning their backs to the rivers, and roads filling in streams’.

Following the lead of Aboriginal knowledge holders, Gapps’s cartography provides a visual representation of the landscape that highlights a loose topography of river systems and ridge lines. In place of colonial markers, such as parish boundaries, Gapps uses Aboriginal language as a key geolocational device. You know where you are on these maps by referring to the cultural and physical markers of Country rather than the markers of the cartographic colonial state.

At the launch of Gudyarra in early 2022, Gapps spoke on the importance of public storytelling in conversation with Dr Mariko Smith, one of the curators of the Unsettled exhibition. In the Q&A, I asked about the cartography politics of the maps and why Gapps had decided to reject the cartographic aesthetics and cultural markers of the colonial state in his approach. In response, Gapps emphasised the intentionality of this decision, revealing he had purposely avoided reprinting any colonial material in his books. Gapps talked about walking with Aboriginal knowledge holders on Wiradyuri (Wiradjuri) Country to better understand the first Wiradyuri war of resistance and the Country it occurred on, noting, ‘It’s important that historians have a relationship with the land, a relationship with Country.’ Months later, I asked Gapps again about these politics of mapping and his commitment to centring Country in cartography. I found out Gapps had worked with and commissioned Wiradyuri artist Aunty Nyree Reynolds to create the maps in Gudyarra in an attempt to centre Country and Aboriginal knowledge in these maps.

At the end of Gudyarra, Gapps (2021:209) cites missionary Lancelot Threlkeld to remind us of the darkness of the colonial archive: ‘In some ways we might consider historical records and archives as other “dark places of the earth”, “full of the inhabitants of cruelty”.’ When searching for maps in the archive, it is important to listen for the untold stories these maps are capable of telling, not least because these maps were part of the violent colonial process that attempted to render Aboriginal peoples and their land management practices invisible in the landscape.

Cartographic capital

Collecting institutions have in the past been complicit in the process of colonisation. Through the appropriation of artefacts and the holding of human remains, a sense of superiority and entitlement has been fostered—a right to take and to own, a right to study and draw conclusions … in this way, museums have often amplified the perspectives of the dominant, colonial culture.

—Professor Larissa Behrendt

Gapps’s research and the anticolonial work of the Unsettled exhibition fascinated me, as I was no stranger to the settler colony’s practices of withholding and exclusion in the archive. The cartographic state is not always willing to give up the secrets in its maps freely. In March 2021, I set out to collect the land grant data for every land grant issued between 1792 and 1820 in Sydney for our Private Property Frontier Map. Professor Andrew Leach and I had a small research grant to get us started, and we asked Dr Pratichi Chatterjee to help us for a few weeks. This work involved sourcing the land grant boundaries, the land grant acreage and the grantee’s name from the parish maps, and then using this data to find the grant issue date in the land grant registers.

I started visiting the NSW State Archives (now part of the Museums of History NSW) fairly regularly and got to know the archivists, who soon introduced me to Dr Terry Kass, author of a guide to Crown land records held in the state archives, which I immediately purchased in the hope of solving my latest archive puzzle. I was using the parish map data to search for specific land grants in the digitised Old System Indexes and Registers on the NSW Land Registry Services portal, affectionately known as the HLRV. There appeared to be a gap in the digital HLRV archive for 42 early land grants with consecutive serial numbers.

When the decision to privatise NSW’s land records was announced in 2017, I went on the record to say this was a bad idea; I was about to find out why. The state’s old land records—the records we’re using in our research—are held at the NSW State Archives. After visiting the archives week after week, I knew the archivists there were competent with navigating these materials. I asked then to pull the original land records from the archive so I could check the serial numbers for the 42 grants I suspected were missing from the HLRV archive.

Speaking with the archivists in the NSW State Archives reading room and at NSW Land Registry Services gave me a clearer view of the effects of privatising the archive. The archivists informed me they couldn’t recall these land records because they were now effectively under the management and control of NSW Land Registry Services, a private, for-profit company with a commercial interest in these records. The archivists directed me to NSW Land Registry Services support staff, who I contacted with my question about the missing grants.

NSW Land Registry Services support staff responded by email, informing me they would need to contact the NSW State Archives, which holds and is responsible for managing these records on behalf of NSW Land Registry Services, which they did. Prior to the privatisation of NSW’s land registry, I could have requested the ledger containing these 42 land records from the NSW State Archives in the reading room at no cost. But to access these land records in this post-privatisation environment, as I was informed by NSW Land Registry Services, I would need to pay for the records.

I shelled out the cash for the records to NSW Land Registry Services, which then contacted the NSW State Archives, who sent an archivist familiar with the records into the archive to retrieve and copy the ledger pages. The archivist then sent a copy of the records back to NSW Land Registry Services, who sent them on to me by email as I sat in the reading room of NSW State Archives, less than 200 metres from the land ledger in question.

The irony of privatising NSW’s land registry is the management and preservation of the old land records, and the skills and knowledge to navigate them still resides with the staff at the NSW State Archives. What should have been a quick process of recalling a land grant register to check some serial numbers in the reading room turned into a circular and costly process involving a private corporation and the commodification of land records. But why should these land records be in the public domain and freely available to recall in the reading room at the NSW State Archives?

This exhausting process demonstrated that the NSW government is managing its the state’s archives at cross purposes. It recognised the significance of their collection of colonial Crown and parish maps and land records when it created the Parish Map Preservation Project, digitising over thirty-five thousand editions of parish, town, municipal, county and pastoral maps in the collection. Yet these same Crown and parish maps are being drawn into processes of commodification and access restriction.

Importantly, these maps are critical for understanding Aboriginal pasts and futures. As the NSW State Archives note, ‘Native Title investigations highlighted the need to preserve and provide convenient access to early edition parish maps’. Indeed, it was in the NSW State Archives where I first met Professor Grace Karskens, author of The Colony and People of the River, when she was searching the Crown plans for Aboriginal place names recorded by colonial surveyors as a part of the Central Coast Indigenous Placenames Project. This is critical archival work, and these maps and plans need to be accessible and not beholden to commercial interests.

Volumetric Land Histories

[I]digenous critical theory might, then, provide a diagnostic way of reading and interpreting the colonial logics that underpin cultural, intellectual, and political discourses. But it takes that settler, native, and arrivant each acknowledge their own positions within empire and then conceptualise space and history to make visible what imperialism and its resultant settler colonialism and diasporas have sought to obscure.    

—Professor Jodi Byrd

The layering of archival data in GIS—such as land records and conflict stories alongside First Nations oral histories and archival practice—can produce powerful storytelling and truth-telling devices. To borrow from Dr Franck Billé’s (2020:5) idea of voluminous states, a voluminous cartography approach to the study of territoriality ‘is imperative to understand how the Westphalian logic of bordering has evolved since the seventeenth century to frame contemporary territorial incursions’, especially when we’re using critical GIS and working with a collection of materials that are quantitative and qualitative, tangible and intangible, and from the archive and our everyday lives.

The everyday framing of mapping is important. I started mapping the spread of colonial private property by accident. I’m a descendant of John Grono (1763/4–1847), a British Royal Navy boatswain who sailed to the New South Wales colony in 1799 and claimed land along the Dyarubbin (Hawkesbury River). John Grono was a part of the violent British invasion of Australia and it’s important to reckon with these everyday histories.

I learnt from Black scholars of colonialism that it’s at least partly non-Indigenous scholars’ responsibility to speak the truth about colonisation to non-Indigenous people in the present. As a white urban scholar, I felt it was important to research, understand and tell the truth about my family’s role in colonial land theft. I have since written about this as a form of familial due diligence in ‘Nautico-imperialism and Settler-colonialism: Water and Land in the New South Wales Colony’ (Rogers 2022). As Sujit Sivasundaram (2020:23) notes, ‘it is important not to romanticise the encounters’ between the early European navigators and settlers and Indigenous peoples of the Pacific region ‘because of the consequences that followed in their wake’.

In 2017, I took as my starting point one of John Grono’s land grants and headed to the NSW State Archives. It’s a fairly common practice to trace the land and housing histories of a family member in Australia. An archivist in the reading room at NSW State Archives can teach you how to do it. You start with a single plot of land (or house) of a family member and then you attempt to trace the land use changes of this plot of land over time. The NSW State Archives has free instructional resources on how to research, what I would call, the vertical land history of your house. Vertical land histories start with a single plot of land at a specific moment in time and then—gaps in the historical record notwithstanding—you trace the land use changes of this plot of land over time. Vertical land histories need a start and end point, and you can think about these temporal markers as two bookend events on a timeline.

The early land grants along Dyarubbin, and eventually John Grono’s shipbuilding yards and farm occupied Dharug land stolen from Aboriginal people. I took this as my starting point—the moment of land theft as evidenced by the legal granting of land and then occupation by John Grono—however incomplete. And, like many before me, I started to trace the movement of land ownership from one family member to the next from this point forward.

My vertical land history research gave me a good handle on the land records of the NSW State Archives. As Kass writes in Unlocking Land: A Guide to Crown Land Records Held at State Archives NSW, the colonial Surveyor-General and the Lands Department were tasked with producing comprehensive administrative records of the state’s land claiming, including maps and plans. NSW State Archives still has much of this material, and ‘the bulk of these records has hardly been touched by researchers, which is a pity since they contain a wealth of data’.

I began to focus on the early maps and plans of the cartographic colonial state and started to drift away from undertaking a vertical land history of the Grono family. By looking at the early parish maps of Sydney, my cartographic perspective started to stray from the vertical toward the horizontal. These early parish maps have a specific cartographic logic; they outline the first land grant boundaries across a given territory. I knew from my vertical land history work that additional archive work could reveal the grantees’ names and the date each land parcel was granted.

I started talking with Andrew Leach about this archival work. Leach was also thinking about property ownership as a point of origin in the history of all ‘improvements’ to the landscape and fabric of Australia, coming at the issue from an architectural perspective through the work of historian Manfredo Tafuri.

In our later discussions with Associate Professor Amelia Thorpe, she reminded us of the importance of the Mabo decisions to these questions around cartography and improvement. Justice Brennan noted in Mabo v Queensland (No 2) in 1992, ‘Aborigines were dispossessed of their land parcel by parcel, to make way for expanding colonial settlement’. Leach and I wondered if it would be possible to map the parcel-by-parcel land dispossession of Aboriginal peoples in Australia over a large geography and long timeline.

Starting with the early parish maps of Sydney, we explored the potential to construct a horizontal history of land grants, which could run across the entire Sydney basin from the first land grant forward. Understanding the pace and pattern of the creation of private property ownership of land through the land grant system in Sydney would simultaneously, we thought, help us to understand the pace and pattern of colonial attempts to claim Aboriginal Country as private property.

Contemporary Australian society is run through with questions about the still-colonising state; the ongoing violence of land alienation; and the social, political and environmental uses and impacts of private property more broadly. The housing affordability crisis is merely the most recent example in a long list of effects of privatising the ownership of Aboriginal land.

Recognising these contemporary implications, Leach and I saw the need to reconstruct a clear account of how the practice of property privatisation came to be, and to link the vertical and horizontal land histories of private property in Sydney; to not only address the gap in our knowledge around how and where private property was first established at a horizontal metropolitan scale, but to also trace each plot of land vertically through time, beginning in the colonial era and continuing to the present.

We drew on a wealth of expertise to help us scope out what it would take to bring our Private Property Frontier Map of Sydney to life, including Dr Laurence Troy to help us use critical GIS to visualise the land data, Associate Professor Amelia Thorpe to build her urban planning and property law knowledge into the map, and Dr Jasper Ludwig to work on conceptualising the private property frontier through the cartographic process. Collectively, we sought to reflect on the nature of private property as something that can be represented in a deed or certificate, and as something that can be represented geographically using critical GIS.

We have written about what it would take to create a private property frontier map in ‘Mapping the Frontiers of Private Property in New South Wales, Australia’. This map would provide a volumetric cartographic representation of the application of private property to Sydney, starting from the first land grant in 1792 and running through time and across space down to the present. But what is the applied use of a map like this? What stories can it tell? We’re hoping to join an impressive network of new cartographers in this collective project of cartographical historical revision. The new cartographers are a part of the critical rethinking of what cartography is and can be.

The New Cartographers

White cartography […] represented an attempt to write the British/European subject as a rational, interior self of the mind who exercised dominion over irrational and sensual beings such as Black and Indigenous others existing at the margins of humanity […] British settlers’ failure to subdue Black fugitivity and Indigenous resistance created a crisis of representation …

—Tiffany Lethabo King

The new cartographers are committed to producing more voluminous cartographies; linking vertical and horizontal spatiotemporal methods with new imaginaries and speculative futures; combining the cultural and material features of Country and landscape; thinking about time, space and power with new technologies such as GIS; and dealing with colonial land theft, environmental degradation and ongoing violence as a problem of cartographic method and representation. They are post-Cartesian—that is, they have moved well beyond the scientific, quantitative illusions that underwrite the rationalism of colonial cartography, illusions that delegitimate embodied anti-colonial knowledge through the mapping process.

Professor Bjørn Sletto, Dr Magdalena Novoa and Dr Raksha Vasudevan (2023:148) write about the links between colonial trauma and cartographic states, suggesting history can’t be rewritten without Indigenous and marginalised peoples rethinking what map making was, is and can be: ‘the multiple and persistent traumas of coloniality …  are invisibilized in Cartesian cartographic processes.’ In doing so, they argue, ‘these mappings unveil how Cartesian cartography does the traumatic work of coloniality.’

The history of settler colonialism is intricately enmeshed with navigational and mapping technologies, and surveying and map-making practice. To take just one example, James Cook developed skills as an explorer, navigator and colonial surveyor of land and sea in New France well before his famous ‘first voyage of discovery’ with Joseph Banks. As Cook’s ship lay at anchor in Louisbourg Harbour, Samuel Holland, Royal Engineer and first Surveyor-General of British North America, taught Cook how to conduct a land survey with a plane table.

Mapping, surveying and navigational instruments were especially prized possessions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In a hard to read passage, Professor Kate Fullagar (2020:231) notes, later on one of his voyages in the Pacific, when Cook discovered a Ra‘iatean man in Polynesia ‘had stolen a sextant from his ship—one of the most valuable navigational instruments he owned’, he ‘had the man’s head shaved completely, including eyebrows, and then sawed off both his ears. Cook sent the thief back to shore, ruined and bloodied’. The brutality of Cook’s response demonstrates the importance he placed on cartographic instruments within the imperial maritime network he was operating within.

Depth sounding the rivers and oceans, surveying foreign lands and observing the planets in the solar system were important cartographic tools of colonial exploration, exploitation and violence, and implicated Enlightenment science in the colonial project. The legacies of the state’s relationships to colonial cartography and its mapping technologies remain. The new cartographers are asking if maps, even old maps, can be reclaimed from the colonial project.

In Sydney, a team of us are working with Gapps to overlay the frontier conflict data from his Sydney Wars book with our data on the colonial private property frontier, with the long-term goal of visualising the links between colonial land theft, the creation of private property, and the colonial violence employed to take Aboriginal Country by force. We know the creation of private land required violence and in some cases the massacre of Aboriginal peoples, but we are yet to see a coherent visualisation of the direct links between private property and violence across a large metropolitan scale and over a long timeline.

Mapping will be central to Gapps’s next book on frontier warfare circa 1838 to 1842. Gapps thinks the frontier idea can be historically misleading. It has led to misunderstanding about the coordinated counteroffensives that were fought by united, fully mobilised Aboriginal clans and nations. The frontier logic reduces these coordinated counteroffensives to skirmishes beyond the formal limits of location, which Gapps thinks they were not.

Similarly, we observed in ‘Mapping the Frontiers of Private Property’ that the pattern of private property ownership does not comprise a frontier in the conventional Frederick Jackson Turner sense, which is to say a boundary that moves relentlessly forward across a terrain, ‘modernising’ and ‘civilising’ all it passes. The colonial state and settlers applied property to the landscape via a complex patchwork of legal and embodied interventions.

In other work, Dharug knowledge holders Leanne Watson, Erin Wilkins and Jasmine Seymour collaborated with Professor Grace Karskens on research exploring Aboriginal history, culture, stories and place names in a project called Dyarubbin: The Real Secret River. In February 1829, Reverend John McGarvie wrote a list of 178 Aboriginal names for things and places along Dyarubbin. The team used McGarvie’s list of Aboriginal names to inform their research. After the research was complete, they worked with NSW Spatial Services and the Geographic Names Board of NSW to locate these and other place names, and check the geography of these places, on a GIS map in a project titled Dyarubbin: Mapping Aboriginal History, Culture and stories of the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales.

These partnerships with the new government cartographers are important because the state comes to know itself through its own cartographic practice. Maps are not apolitical nor are they neutral devices; they are political, storytelling devices. We can use big data, science and digital mapping technologies to assist our cartography, but this does not necessarily make our maps scientific, rational and objective. On the contrary, the new cartographers strive to produce maps that are political, maps that expose injustice, and maps that tell a more complicated truth about the maps we make and worlds we live in.


Thanks to Evelyn Araluen for the invitation to write this piece. This essay draws on ideas developed through many conversations and writing projects with too many people to mention. I’m working with Professor Andrew Leach, Dr Laurence Troy, Associate Professor Amelia Thorpe, and Dr Jasper Ludwig on the Frontiers of Private Property Map. Dr Stephen Gapps, Dr Naama Blatman and all The Place, Race and Critical Theory Reading Group have been a good sounding board for these ideas too. I thank everyone for their generosity and wit. All errors in fact or interpretation remain, of course, my own.

Works referenced

Behrendt, L 2021, in Unsettled, L McBride & M Smith (eds), Australian Museum, Sydney.

Billé, F 2020, Voluminous: An Introduction’, in F Billé (ed.), Voluminous States: Sovereignty, Materiality, and the Territorial Imagination, pp. 1–35, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Byrd, J 2011, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia 1788 to 1930, The Centre for 21st Century Humanities,

Fullagar, K 2020, The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Gapps, S 2018, The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the Early Colony, 1788–1817, New South Books, Sydney.

Gapps, S 2021, Gudyarra: The First Wiradyuri War of Resistance—The Bathurst War, 1822–1824, New South Books, Sydney.

Karskens, G 2010, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Karskens, G 2020, People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Kass, T 2019, ‘Unlocking Land: A Guide to Crown Land Records held at State Archives NSW’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 106, no. 1, pp. 111–113.

King, TL  2019, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Land Acquisition and Dispossession, Mapping the Homestead Act, 1863–1912,

Page, A & Memmott, T 2021, Design: Building on Country, Thames & Hudson, Port Melbourne.

Phillips, R ‘Placing Time, Timing Space’, The Funambulist, 5 July 2018.

Rogers, D 2022, ‘Nautico-imperialism and Settler-colonialism: Water and Land in the New South Wales Colony’,  Australian Geographer, vol. 53, no. 1, pp. 85–104.

Rogers, D, Leach, A, Ludewig, J, Thorpe, A & Troy, L 2023, ‘Mapping the Frontiers of Private Property in New South Wales, Australia’, Geographical Research, pp 1–13.

Sydney Wars Map,



Sletto, B, Novoa, M & Vasudevan, R 2023, History Can’t Be Written without Us in the Center: Colonial Trauma, the Cartographic Body, and Decolonizing Methodologies in Urban Planning, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 41, no, pp. 148–169.

Sivasundaram, S 2020, Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire, University of Chicago Press.

Wegman, I 2020, ‘A Truly Sublime Appearance: Using GIS to Find the Traces of Pre-colonial Landscapes and Land Use’, History Australia, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 59–86.


Dallas Rogers

Dallas Rogers is an Associate Professor and Head of Urbanism in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. Dallas works on the colonial and contemporary politics of land, housing, property and urban development.

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