‘red on the map’ | ‘to paint the map red’: meanings and origin

The British-English phrases:
red, or pink, on the map, and its variants, referred to the colonies and dominions of the British Empire;
to paint the map red, or pink, and its variants, meant to expand the territory of the British Empire.

(Note: The British-English phrase to paint the map red is unrelated to the American-English phrase to paint the town red.)

The phrases red, or pink, on the map, and to paint the map red, or pink, and variants, alluded to the colour that was used to represent British colonies and dominions on maps. J. Coles, Map Curator at the Royal Geographical Society, mentioned that colour in  the following review, published in Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography (London: Edward Stanford) of May 1891:

Bartholomew, J. G., F.R.G.S.—The School Hand Atlas. A series of fifty-four maps, illustrating physical, political, commercial, and classical geography. By J. G. Bartholomew, F.R.G.S. London, T. Nelson & Sons. Price 2s. 6d.
This atlas contains in all fifty-four sheets of well-executed maps. The first five are occupied by astronomical diagrams and physical maps. Sheets 6 and 7 contain a commercial map of the world, on which the extent of the British Empire is shown in red. As regards Africa, the shade of pink which extends across the Soudan requires some explanation, as it might otherwise lead the student to believe that all the area so coloured was under British influence, beside which, the colouring is inconsistent with that of the general map of Africa given on sheet 34.

The earliest occurrences of the phrases red, or pink, on the map, and to paint the map red, or pink, and variants, that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Express (London, England) of Thursday 22nd April 1858:
—Context: The Indian Rebellion of 1857 led to the Government of India Act 1858, passed on Monday 2nd August 1858, which put an end to the rule of the East India Company on India, and transferred the task of administering India to the British Government:

The question of the future government of India has degenerated so much into a question of party […] that a large number of our countrymen, we are afraid, have forgotten that the question really to be solved is […] whether it will affect beneficially or injuriously the great mass of the people of India. […] It matters greatly whether this day ten years India is a dependency of England or Russia. […] How little, for some time past, has been said or written about the feelings of the people of India? But our Indian fellow-subjects are not merely to be viewed in the concrete as so much area of red on the map of India. […] It is a source of unbounded gratitude that, up to the present time, the hearts of the people at large have not been turned against us. If the multitudes had risen against us, we must have been swept into the sea. But that which the imputed mal-administration of the East India Company has not effected, the conduct, in this present conjuncture, of the most vehement accusers of the Company is going far to effect. With sorrow and with shame, we declare our belief that the very class which, some little time ago, was denouncing the indifference of the governing authorities to the welfare of the people, is now exerting itself to alienate from the people the hearts of their English masters. The independent English of the large Residential towns have done, and are doing their best, to diffuse among their countrymen a suspicion and a hatred of the natives of India, which, if not speedily checked, will result in a war of races which must of necessity be followed by our expulsion from the country.

2-: From the transcript of an address on public affairs that Thomas George Baring (1826-1904), M.P. for Penryn and Falmouth, delivered to the electors of Falmouth, published in The Western Daily Mercury (Plymouth, Devon, England) of Saturday 31st December 1864:

He could not avoid noticing one principal feature in the administration of India. There was no doubt, before the mutiny took place, that the Government were too anxious to see the red line on the map which distinguished the position of the governed from the independent states of India, extended day by day. There could, he thought, be no doubt that had England been less ready to annex certain territories, we should have avoided the feelings of distrust which undoubtedly existed in the minds of many of the highest and most influential natives of India.

3-: From England, Russia and Afghanistan, published in the Carlisle Express and Examiner (Carlisle, Cumberland, England) of Saturday 12th February 1881:

If we retain Candahar, […] it is necessary to remember that the drain upon our resources will be continuous; that the climate is extremely unhealthy for Europeans; that increased taxation is not to be thought of; that our occupation will be a constant cause of enmity and ill-will, effectually checking the growth of more friends, relations with Afghanistan, and leading to numerous expeditions to “punish” the predatory tribes in the neighbourhood; and that the only compensation to these drawbacks to the scheme advocated by a posse of interested Anglo-Indian officials and military specialists, will be the gratification of putting a finger upon a red spot in the map of Afghanistan and saying “The British rag extends thus far.”

4-: From From Atlantic to Pacific. No. 1.—Newfoundland, published in The Morning Post (London, England) of Friday 14th September 1888:

Newfoundland was ceded by France to England under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, fishing rights being reserved to the French on parts of the coast, […] later in the century […] the limits of the French shore were re-adjusted, the arrangements being confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. […] The map of the French shore was readjusted by the arrangement, but the Newfoundlanders deplore that our present able Ambassador to Spain, who conducted the negotiations with great tact, had not associated with him a naval expert who would have been a match for the French negotiators who knew every inch of the coast, as without minute personal inspection of it it is impossible to appraise the slight value of the concessions made to us by France in agreeing not to raise objections against the formation of establishments connected with industry other than that of fishery on portions of the French shore. These portions, say the Newfoundlanders, though they look very important, “tinted in red on the map,” chiefly consist of stretches of sheer cliff, where not only no port could ever be formed, but where it would be difficult for a small boat to land.

5-: From The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England) of Wednesday 29th May 1889:


We publish elsewhere some account of one of the greatest schemes which have ever startled the somewhat sluggish imagination of John Bull. In the heart of Africa, along the high central plateau, where alone Europeans can live and thrive, there remains, after all the cuttings and carvings of recent years, a vast stretch of unappropriated country. Part of this territory is already coloured red on the maps. From the northern frontier of the Bechuanaland protectorate to the Zambesi, all the land has been declared to be within the sphere of British influence. But within this territory we have no authority, no agent, no garrison, and no responsibility. All that we have done has been to put up a signboard to other nations—“Hands off.” […] If the map can be painted red on the cheap, the work should be done not by chartered adventurers, but by the British Government.

6-: From The Nile Empire, published in The Morning Post (London, England) Friday 4th July 1890:

As the three great lakes which form the head waters of the Nile to the east and west have been discovered by our countrymen, and given names that are dear to this nation, it is according to the fitness of things that the Nile should be a British river. And so it is now, thanks to the diplomacy of Lord Salisbury. Our right to introduce British civilisation into the regions drained by the mighty river is undisputed. We hold it at its source and we hold it in Egypt, and the redemption of the intermediate regions from the darkness which has lately settled down upon them is only a question of time. […]
It is well for the public to have a clearer apprehension than the maps as yet give of the limits of this new empire which has been secured to us in Africa. Now that it is ours, we are hardly the nation to paint it pink on our maps and leave it there. A great work is before us, a work of civilisation and security for the people of those vast regions and of commercial enterprise for ourselves, and we must lose no time in making the most of our advantages.

7-: From Lord Salisbury and the Jingoes, published in the Cambridge Independent Press and University Herald (Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England) of Saturday 5th July 1890:

[The Jingoes] firmly believe that Englishmen were intended by Providence to be the rulers of mankind. In their view it is an impertinence, as well as an absurdity, that any other Power should pretend to have Colonies, and they are naturally impatient as long as they see some grabbable bit of earth which is not already painted red on the maps, and they lose all control over themselves if by any chance any portion of it gets painted blue, or any colour other than red.

8-: From the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 2nd January 1891:

The world talks of its “ruling races” and the members of these masterful peoples take pride in being numbered among the dominant ones of the earth. It is a proud thing to be of an Imperial race, to be dowered with the heritage of centuries, won by valour on land and sea. But the “record” of the world’s rulers is not always a nice one. No nation is so sinless as to be entitled to cast the first stone. Our dealings with the natives of the great countries which are now marked with British red upon the map have not always been what we should have liked them to have been. Even in our later days we have been concerned in greater infamies than conquering a people.

9-: From The St James’s Gazette (London, England) of Tuesday 21st April 1891:

It may be hoped that the Lisbon Government will promptly disavow the acts of their local agents, and offer immediate apology and reparation for the outrage that has been committed. If not, of course the Imperial Government will have to exact satisfaction for itself. If the Lisbon authorities cannot control their servants in Africa, we must do it for them. But it looks very much as if the Portuguese Government were in a foolishly defiant mood. Instead of trying to come to a definite arrangement with us, they are probably relying on the great Boer trek into Mashonaland, which we now learn has been preparing for four years, and is to consist of 5,000 armed men. It will be a formidable expedition; but the Portuguese and the Dutch are greatly mistaken if they suppose that it will be permitted to “eat up” a country which has once been painted red on the maps, and included within the limits of the British Empire. Still the situation is altogether serious, and it seems not unlikely to end in fighting.

10-: From The St James’s Gazette (London, England) of Saturday 11th July 1891:

In “Zambesia,” by Mr. E. P. Mathers, the editor of “South Africa,” just published by Messrs. King, Sell, and Railton, there is a vast mass of information concerning the lands south of the Equator and north of the Cape Colony which have recently been “painted red” on the maps of the world. Mr. Mathers, as might be expected, is very sanguine as to the prospects of the new Land of Ophir in British hands.

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