Cartographies of Violence

An Exploration Route Map of Southeast Asia

In the autumn of 1908 Dr Robert Brunhuber, a journalist and academic from Cologne, and his companion Karl Schmitz, set out from Rangoon. Their aim was to explore the remote upper reaches of the Salween River. Their ill-fated attempt resulted in remarkable cartographic texts, which reveal how European travellers’ input was elevated by cartographic design for a European audience, even if it meant neglecting prior established knowledge.

Portraits of Robert Brunhuber and Karl Schmitz

Robert Brunhuber and Karl Schmitz, as they were portraited in Brunhuber’s traveller’s account (1912).

Brunhuber and Schmitz made it without mishap as far as Tengyueh, a Chinese frontier town in what is now southwest Yunnan. After Tengyueh, however, their relationship with their porters began to seriously break down. The German explorers were determined to continue with their entourage of fourteen mules and four riding ponies and ignored frequent warnings that the path was only passable on foot. They began to find it harder and harder to hire porters from the villages they passed, while also continuously alienating their remaining entourage.

Yet the explorers were afraid to lose face by giving up. At one point, fifteen minutes from their planned campsite, they reached a six-meter vertical cliff on the path, which the mules were unable to ascend. In his journal, Brunhuber wrote: “I already believed that the ‘retreat’ had to be blown and that this advance would fail shamefully here at the Salween. You could already see from the sardonically grinning faces of the coolies that they were inwardly delighted with our failure, which they had predicted […]” (Brunhuber 1912: 80–81). Then Schmitz, his companion, came up with the idea of attaching straps around the animals and pulling them up one by one. In two hours the coolies had pulled the eighteen mules and riding ponies up the cliff.

Brunhuber and Schmitz finally decided to listen to the advice that the path was only passable on foot. They sent their Chinese interpreter ahead with the mules on a different path and continued on with just their Indian cook, two Chinese muleteers and twelve local porters. Brunhuber’s travel journals and photographs were also sent ahead with the mules. After a few more days hiking, around the beginning of January 1909, they reached a village where the local porters threw down their packs by the river and refused to go further. They then went up to the village, leaving the two Germans and their Indian cook alone by the river. It was not until the next morning when they returned in the company of villagers. After going through the baggage looking for silver, they stabbed both Europeans to death. The Indian cook was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows.

The cook survived this incident thanks to the women of the village who nursed him back to health. Afterwards, he spent several months working in the fields with them, and one of them even offered to marry him, but he declined, explaining that he had a wife and child in Rangoon. When news of the two Germans’ murders eventually reached the nearby frontier town of Tengyueh in May 1909, the Chinese provincial governor at Tengyueh, the daotai, sent an expedition to find and punish the perpetrators. The cook was saved, and the expedition arrested nine villagers from Omati, killed several others, and then burnt down the nearby village of Upper Naba.

Communicating Sacrifice and Violence by Cartographic Design

Black and white sketch map

Archibald Rose’s sketch map, published with his article on the Germans’ expedition (Rose 1909).

The British Consul at Tengyueh, Archibald Rose, wrote a report of the incident based mainly on the testimony of the Indian cook and the report of the Chinese punitive expedition. Rose published his report as an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society in 1909, together with a sketch map of the travellers’ last days (Rose 1909). Brunhuber’s diaries were recovered from the baggage that had been sent ahead with the mules, and in 1912, these diaries, a copy of Rose’s sketch map, and the report of General Chiang’s punitive expedition were published in a book entitled An Hinterindiens Riesenströmen (Brunhuber 1912). That same year, Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen published a map and article describing the travellers’ last days, based on these reports and Rose’s sketch map.

coloured map

Map of the incident published by Justus Perthes Gotha in 1912: The achievements of the German explorers are decidedly elevated for the viewer.
Carl Schmidt/Paul Langhans, Der letzte Teil des Reisewegs der Anfang Januar 1909 am mittleren Salween in Britisch-Burma ermordeten Dr. Robert Brunhuber und Karl Schmitz. Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPA 4° 00100 (058,01) (CC BY-SA 4.0).

At first glance, this map looks like a typical map of martyrs which has a long tradition in European mapping, especially in European maps of Africa. As a martyr’s map, it constructs the story of German colonial-era explorers as brave heroes, travelling through unknown and dangerous lands (Kuhn/Struck 2019). The cross marking the spot where they died invokes sacrifice, martyrdom, perhaps the end of civilisation. Ideas of courageous self-sacrifice infused the wider rhetoric surrounding the Germans’ murder at the time.

In the foreword to Brunhuber’s posthumously-published memoirs, the Swedish explorer (and Brunhuber’s personal hero) Sven Hedin describes Brunhuber as a ‘young and able researcher who has now enriched the number of scientific martyrs with his name’ (Brunhuber 1912: 7). Brunhuber described their journey in self-sacrificial terms, inviting the reader to share ”in the hopes and disappointments of a person who would like to sacrifice the best of his ability to be a small stone contributing to the mighty structure of human knowledge” (Brunhuber 1912:20). The article eventually published in Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen highlights the prophetic nature of Brunhuber’s own words referring to some valuable specimens being lost in a ravine: “These high mountains in Southeast Asia will still claim other victims” (Brunhuber 1912: 88; Hammer 1912: 80). The map is therefore part of a wider discourse through which idioms of heroic sacrifice were communicated to a German audience in the metropole.

Here, the concept of archetypal ‘cartography of violence’ might be useful; Justin Livingstone used the phrase to analyse Henry Morton Stanley’s fictional writing on Africa (Livingstone 2017). Livingstone describes Stanley’s fiction as a narrative map, which created an imagined cartography of eastern Africa as a space of violence requiring outside intervention. Stanley’s fiction portrayed Africa as a site of constant bloodshed, arguably providing a justification for imperialism.

The Perthes map could be interpreted as a literal cartography of violence in the same vein, graphically portraying in map form what Stanley’s fiction depicted in words. Through the icon of the cross, the red-underlined annotation announcing the Germans’ murder, and the word ‘Lutzu’ arcing over the cross on the map, the crime’s location, date and alleged perpetrators are suggested to the reader. Unlike Stanley’s My Kalulu, which, unusually for its day, does not feature white protagonists, this map focuses exclusively on the journey of the two German explorers. However, the unfinished mountain shading and route achieve the same effect as Stanley’s My Kalulu, drawing attention to the absence of white Europeans in a violent land. Livingstone argues that “My Kalulu in fact works to disclose the need for the very forces that are conspicuously absent from its pages” (Livingstone 2017: 356).

I would argue that the map of the murdered Germans, by using incomplete shading to highlight the untimely end of their journey in the middle of a vast mostly-blank space, aims to achieve a similar rhetorical effect. Two other contemporary maps of the German explorers’ last days, one by the consul Archibald Rose and a copy in An Hinterindiens Riesenströmen, both featured a line marking the subsequent journey of the explorers’ Indian cook, showing how he escaped captivity and hence was able to report what had happened to the Chinese and British authorities in Tengyueh. This map opts to omit the story of the Indian cook’s rescue, instead using shading and the broken-off route line to exclusively highlight the Europeans’ violent demise.

The Erasure of Indigenous Knowledge

More than just constructing the region through cartography as a place of violence and savagery, this map also demonstrates the mapmakers’ desire both to glorify western European scientific achievement and to conceal their dependence on indigenous knowledge. The Perthes map contains an inset taking up nearly half the map, which zooms in on six days of the travellers’ journey. Part of the inset contains a blank space with a line marking the travellers’ route and the words “Dr Brunhuber’s Tagebuch vom 12 Dez. 1908 verlorengegangen”. This inset reveals a second aim of the mapmakers, beyond just demonstrating European sacrifice and Oriental savagery. That second aim was the purposeful erasure of indigenous knowledge and the foregrounding and glorification of western European science. With the inset and its dramatic blank space, the mapmakers were announcing the fact that they had relied on only one source, the traveller’s notebook. The blank space thus strengthens the truth claims of the map in the eyes of a western audience. Other parts of this map, such as the depictions of distant valleys and mountain ranges, are determined based on information from other maps, but in this particular inset the mapmakers – in their efforts to highlight Brunhuber’s scientific contribution – have eliminated the locals and their land from the map entirely, leaving only a line showing the path followed by the Europeans.

In other parts of this map, however, information from locals is used, but hidden. The part of the map showing where the men were killed is based on information the mapmakers gleaned from Archibald Rose’s sketch map of the travellers’ last days, which Rose published in 1909. Rose’s sketch map was based on local sources, as he explained in his 1909 article: “My information of the Lutzu country and its wild tribesmen has been gathered from the young Indian [the cook], from a Liso tribesman, who spent his youth among them and who speaks their language, from the Lao-wo Sawbwa [chief], and from Colonel Chiang [who led the punitive expedition]” (Rose 1909: 613). Rose appeals to the authority not of Western science in legitimising his claims, but to the fact that the Liso tribesman spent time in the region, living among the people, and that he was able to speak the language. The Perthes mapmakers were happy to use sketch maps such as this as the basis of their map of the men’s last days, but their reliance on this information was hidden, while the inset proudly advertises the achievements of Western science.


The decision to highlight their reliance on the travellers’ diary – rather than presenting the sum of cartographic knowledge about the region – highlights the Perthes mapmakers’ aim to promote the two explorers as scientific heroes. Livingstone describes the importance of Victorian explorers’ literary publications for promoting their scientific contributions, thereby certifying their claims to be true ‘explorers’. Perthes mapmakers participated in a similar validating enterprise on behalf of the deceased travellers, posthumously celebrating them as scientific martyrs in a savage land, even while erasing the indigenous origin of other information in the map.

The map was also part of a wider narrative constructing the inhabitants of the region as irredeemably savage and violent. Rose, in his 1909 article on the Brunhuber-Schmitz expedition, described the Lutzu/Anung in similar terms: “At night the men sit round the fires, smearing their faces with lard and ashes, drinking deeply of their rice-spirit, and for ever plotting robbery and murder,” (Rose 1909: 612). Petermann’s Mitteilungen explained that the Lutzu/Anung were ethnographically “practically unknown”, but were “described by the few people who have encountered them as extraordinarily wild, cruel and feisty” (Hammer 1912: 80). By using incomplete relief shading to highlight the interrupted journey of the two Europeans, and ethnonyms inscribed across blank space to indicate the alleged perpetrators, the map cartographically depicts the triumph and tragedy of Western science in unknown and savage lands.


Brunhuber, Robert, An Hinterindiens Riesenströmen. Mit einem Vorwort von Sven Hedin, zwei Portraits, 30 Abbildungen und einer Karte, Berlin 1912.

Hammer, Martin, Die Ergebnisse der Reise der ermordeten Dr. Brunhuber und Schmitz zum oberen Salween. In: Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen, Vol. 36 (1912), pp. 19–22, 79–81.

Kuhn, Kristina/Struck, Wolfgang, Aus der Welt gefallen. Die Geographie der Verschollenen, Paderborn 2019.

Livingstone, Justin D., A Romance of Slavery: Exploration, Encounters and Cartographies of Violence in H. M. Stanley’s My Kalulu. In: Studies in Travel Writing, Vol. 21 (2017), No. 4, pp. 349–368.

Rose, Archibald, The Reaches of the Upper Salween. In: The Geographical Journal, including the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol. 34 (1909), No. 6, pp. 608–613.

Cite this blog post
Frances O'Morchoe (2021, December 31). Cartographies of Violence. Mapping Africa and Asia. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

Frances O'Morchoe

I am a historian of Southeast Asia, in particular colonial and post-colonial Burma and its borders. I am interested in histories of natural resources, missionaries and colonial rule at frontiers. I am currently a stipendiary research fellow at the University of Erfurt, working on maps of transcultural encounters of German speakers in Southeast Asia. I was formerly a lecturer at Parami University in Myanmar from 2019 to 2021. I completed my DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2019.

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