Citizens Atlas 3

When I was growing up my favourite book was a big, calf-bound atlas – Bartholemew’s 1898 Citizen’s Atlas of the World.  I pored over it for hours, admiring the beauty of its coloured plates that, through a trick of its binding, displayed each map across a two-page spread with no interruption and fascinated by the map that, even at that late date showed areas of the globe as being ‘unexplored: any existing maps being merely hypothetical’.

Turning the pages of the atlas: a childhood memory …’unexplored’ and ‘unmapped’ areas – at least for Europeans …

Citizens Atlas 2

In Europe: old empires and flashpoints …

Citizens Atlas 1

Beneath that map, under the heading ‘The exploration and mapping of the world’, were these words, redolent of the era in which they were written:

Taking a general view of the surveys of the world it will be seen … that, excepting the European states and their possessions, comparatively little has been done, and that of the whole land-surface of the globe only about one-seventh has been exactly surveyed, while the remaining six-sevenths, with a a population of about nine hundred million, is only very imperfectly mapped.  It also appears that outside of Europe, few states have attained to that stage of education or commercial importance when the possession of an exact survey is a necessity, or, where such has actually been commenced, it is still far from completion, while there further exists large regions, as in Africa, without any civilised form of government, which are only very imperfectly known, if not altogether unexplored.

But, as Jerry Brotton observes in A History of the World in Twelve Maps which I read recently, map-making is not an exclusively Western activity:

Current research is revealing just how far pre-modern, non-Western cultures are part of the story, from the Babylonian world map to Indian, Chinese and Muslim contributions. … There is also no hidden agenda of evolution or progress in the historical mapping of the world.

Brotton’s book, which I pounced on given the fascination for maps which that old world atlas had engendered, tells the stories of twelve maps, but it is not a general history of cartography. Each map, selected from different cultures or moments in world history, either reflects, or helped create, a new vision of the world that aimed not only to explain to its audience that this was what the world looked like, but to convince its members of explanations as to why it existed, and show them their own place within it. Brotton’s chosen maps are mainly world maps, and his purpose is to show how each map reflects big cultural or political ideas of their times, or, as Brotton puts it, ‘ingenious arguments, creative propositions, highly selective guides to the worlds they have created’.

Far away

Maps, writes Brotton, allow us to dream and fantasize about places we shall never see. I appreciate that observation: it’s the feeling I recall from childhood, turning the pages of that atlas, and maps still exercise their spell over me.  Brotton illustrates his point by citing ‘perhaps the best metaphorical description of maps’, graffiti in two-foot letters on a wall next to the railway line approaching Paddington Station in London: ‘Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere.’ For Brotton, maps are like metaphors, ‘carrying something across from one place to another’:

Maps are always images of elsewhere, imaginatively transporting their viewers to faraway, unknown places, recreating distance in the palm of your hand. Consulting a world map ensures that faraway is always close at hand

If maps are metaphors, Jerry Brotton’s book sets out to demonstrate that they are also about ‘power, plunder and possession’, three words that formed the title of a BBC 4 series he presented a few years back.  Mapmakers always make choices about what to include and what to omit, and their decisions are linked intimately to prevailing systems of power and authority.  They are not objective documents, and, as Brotton argues, mapmaking is not following an inexorable progress towards scientific accuracy and objectivity, but is rather a ‘cartography without progress’, which provides different cultures with particular visions of the world at specific points in time’.

Brotton’s book selects twelve world maps from cultures and moments in world history, and examines the creative processes though which their makers tried to resolve the problems they faced from perception and abstraction to scale, perspective, orientation and projection. Brotton sets out to demonstrate that each mapmaker’s response to these problems was specifically rooted in the mapmaker’s particular culture, and that what drove them was as much personal, religious, political and financial as geographical, technical and mathematical.

Each map has been chosen because it reflects a specific moment in global history, and because it either shaped people’s attitudes to the world in which they lived, or crystallized a particular world view.  These twelve maps were created at particularly crucial moments, and their makers took bold decisions about how and what to represent. In the process they created new visions of the world that aimed not only to explain to their audiences that this was what the world looked like, but to convince them of why it existed.

We begin in AD 150, in Alexandria where, in the remains of the great library, the astronomer Ptolemy wrote his Geography, the work that summarized a thousand years of Greek thinking on the size, shape and scope of the inhabited world.  For Brotton, Ptolemy’s work is important because it was the first book that showed the potential of transmitting geographical data digitally.  Rather than utilising graphic or analogue elements to describe geographical information, Geography used numbers and shapes grounded in astronomical observation and the abstract principles of geometry – coordinates, latitude and longitude – to ‘throw a net across the known world’:

One of his greatest triumphs was to make all subsequent generations ‘see’ a series of geometrical lines criss-crossing the globe – the poles, the equator and the tropics – as if they were real, rather than man-made projections upon the earth’s surface.

Ptolemy World Map

15th-century manuscript copy of the Ptolemy world map, reconstituted from Ptolemy’s Geography, indicating the countries of Sinae (China) at the extreme east, beyond the island of Taprobane (Sri Lanka) and the Aurea Chersonesus (Malay Peninsula).

As Brotton observes in his introduction, map-making goes back even further than Ptolemy.  In 1881, at Sippar in Iraq, archaeologists found a fragment of a clay tablet from 2,500 years ago that is now displayed in the British Museum with the label, ‘The Babylonian map of the World’.  It is, Brotton tells us, the first known map of the world – the earliest surviving object that represents the whole world in plan from a bird’s eye view, looking down on the earth from above.

Babylonian World Map 750 BC

The map is composed of two concentric rings, within which are a series of apparently random circles, oblongs and curves, all of which are centred on a hole apparently made by an early pair of compasses.  Distributed around the outer circle are eight triangles. It began to make sense as a map when the cuneiform text was translated. The outer circle is labelled ‘salt sea’ and represents an ocean encircling the inhabited world.  Within the inner ring a prominent curved oblong represents the Euphrates river flowing from a semicircle in the north labelled ‘mountain’ and ending in the south in a rectangle labelled ‘swamp’.  The rectangle bisecting the Euphrates is labelled ‘Babylon’.

From Ptolemy, Brotton takes us forward to Sicily in AD 1154 in the reign of Roger II, Norman king whose rule represents ‘one of the great moments of medieval convivencia … the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Muslims and Jews under one rule’.  Here, the Arabic geographer al-Sharif al-Idrisi produced for the king a book entitled, ‘Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the World’.  Now known as The Book of Roger, this is, in Brotton’s estimation, ‘one of the great works of medieval geography, and one of the finest descriptions of the inhabited world compiled since Ptolemy’s Geography.’

Copy of al-Idrisi's world map

Brotton offers fascinating insights on this milestone of map-making in the Islamic world.  For al-Idrisi the world was – as it had been for Ptolemy – round, ‘stable in space like the yolk in an egg’.  He wasn’t trained in astronomy so the details of his map were compiled from the reports of merchants, travellers and foreign visitors, as well as his own observations during extensive travels through Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. In addition to his world map (above), a distinctive feature of his work is a series of regional maps, each depicting an area in one of seven longitudinal climates, running east to west and orientated with south at the top.  Each climate was divided into ten sections, which if put together would make a grid of the world made up of seventy rectangular areas.  If assembled they would have formed a map too large to be of any use, even in a ceremonial situation.  Reading this reminded me of the short story by Borges, On Rigour in Science:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography reached such Perfection that the map of one Province alone took up the whole of a City, and the map of the empire, the whole of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps did not satisfy and the Colleges of Cartographers set up a Map of the Empire which had the size of the Empire itself and coincided with it point by point. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, Succeeding Generations understood that this Widespread Map was Useless and not without Impiety they abandoned it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and of the Winters. In the deserts of the West some mangled Ruins of the Map lasted on, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole Country there are no other relics of the Disciplines of Geography.

The Hereford 'Mappa Mundi'

By the 13th century, al-Idrisi’s approach to mapping the world had been buried.  In The Book of Roger al-Idrisi had been reluctant to endorse any one religion’s cosmogony, but now courts and rulers demanded that maps provide unequivocal support for theological beliefs – whether Christian or Muslim.  Brotton’s third map epitomises this triumph of religious belief over geographical description: the Hereford mappamundi from around 1300 (above).

The mappamundi (a term that  for 600 years defined any written or drawn account of the Christian earth) appears to the modern viewer, as Brotton puts it, alien, both as an object and as a map.  Shaped like the gable end of a house and made from one enormous animal skin, this looks like no map familiar to us today.  The grids of measurement found in Ptolemy and al-Idrisi are gone, and looking at the distribution of land masses and geographical just leaves the modern viewer confused.  East is at the top of the map and even labelled landforms, such as ‘Anglia’ (squashed in the bottom left-hand corner, where Hereford is marked) are unrecognisable.

This is a map that celebrates religious faith … It is also a genre of map unique in the history of cartography that eagerly anticipates and welcomes its own annihilation.  It looks forward to the moment of Christian Judgement when the terrestrial world as we know it will come to an end, all our travelling and peregrinations will cease, and salvation will be at hand.  The Hereford mappamundi hopes and prays for the end of space and time – an eternal present in which there will be no need for either geographers or maps.

The further from the centre of the map you look are of all kinds of horrors: monsters and ‘savage people who eat human flesh and drink blood, the accursed sons of Cain’.  This is not a map as we understand it; rather, it is an image of the world defined by theology, not geography.  At the dead centre of the map is the place that is central to the Christian faith: Jerusalem.  The map makers, have rejected Greek and Islamic mathematics and relied instead on God’s word in Ezekial: ‘This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her’.

Kangnido Map

The Kangnido World Map (above) was created in Korea at the beginning of the 15th century.  It is exquisitely painted on silk in vivid colours. It was commissioned by the Choson dynasty of northern Korea, and is just as difficult for the modern viewer to interpret as the Herford mappamundi.  The shapes and sizes of land masses are distorted, especially further west towards Europe.  There is no apparent consistency of scale, and the map’s most striking feature is the size and centrality of China.

This is not surprising.  The map was made by Kim Sahyong and Yi Mu who were part of the Choson dynasty’s cadre of Neo-Confucian advisers.  Both men had been involved in land surveys on Korea’s northern frontier in 1402, and both had travelled to China on diplomatic business. In a complex chapter, Brotton also explains how the map reflects both Korean and Chinese approaches to mapping territory (including an age-old belief in geomancy – best known through the Chinese term feng shui), thus underscoring his argument that although ‘the idea of the world may be common to all societies, different societies have very distinct ideas of the world and how it should be represented’.

Waldseemuller world map 1507

Martin Waldseemuller’s world map of 1507: click on the image to enlarge

Jerry Brotton begins the chapter on the Universalis Cosmographia, a twelve-panel wall map of the world drawn by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller and originally published in April 1507, with a story that reads like a thriller – the tale  of its discovery, validation and rapid purchase by the US Library of Congress. Why did the Library choose to pay $10 million for the most expensive map in the world?  Simple answer: the map, they argued, contained the first known use of the name ‘America’ – an invention by Waldseemüller – to designate the new continent discovered by Columbus in 1492.  On this basis, the Library argued, ‘the map was a document of the highest importance to the history of the American people.’

But in his gripping chapter on the Waldseemüller map, Brotton recommends caution: the map (which mysteriously disappeared for centuries) may not have been the first to use the term ‘America’. He offers an account of map-making in the Age of Discovery, pinpointing the intellectual and technological changes that had taken place in the 200 years that separate the Hereford mappamundi from Waldseemüller’s map.  In 1290, the Herford map is called an ‘estorie’ or history; by 1507 the Waldseemüller map is described as a cosmographia or cosmography.  Scientific lines of longitude and latitude and the development of navigational methods that draw on compass bearings have replaced theology.  Moreover, the Waldseemüller map was produced using an invention that was new to Europe: movable type.  The original hand drawn map was now transferred to the printing press through the skills of the woodblock cutter, the printer and the compositor.

Printing, Brotton,argues, introduced a whole new dimension to map-making, not only transforming how a map looked (allowing for the depiction of geographical relief, shading, symbols and lettering), but also ‘altering the purpose of a map which became tied to money and a new, humanist scholarship that saw maps as a device for understanding the expansion of the world beyond Europe’s borders’.

Diego Ribero world map,1529

Brotton’s next map – Diogo Ribeiro’s world map of 1529 – reveals how, in the 16th century, map-making became the servant of European rulers, as their explorers discovered new territories and their merchant ships began to open up new trading routes. Diogo Ribeiro was a Portuguese cartographer and explorer who worked most of his life in Spain. There, he worked on official state maps from 1518-1532 and took part in the development of the maps used in the first circumnavigation of the earth.

Map of America, Ribero (1529)

In 1524, Ribeiro participated in the Spanish delegation at the Conference of Badajoz, where Spain and Portugal discussed whether the Philippines were on the Spanish or Portuguese side of the Treaty of Tordesillas by which the two leading European powers had divided up the globe in 1494. he had been commissioned to prepare a map that would provide a conclusive answer. The one he produced is regarded as the first scientific world map based on empiric latitude observations. The map shows, for the first time, the real extension of the Pacific Ocean, and the North American coast as a continuous one. Crucially, it confirmed the allocation of the spice islands of the Moluccas to the Spanish Crown.

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533

Brotton adds a surprising footnote to this story: traces of Ribeiro’s map can be seen today in the National Gallery in one of the Renaissance’s most iconic images. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, painted in 1533, the year of the Portuguese cosmographer’s death, depicts two French diplomats at Henry VIII’s court on the eve of the English king’s momentous decision to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn and sever England’s religious ties with the papacy in Rome for ever. Let Brotton continue:

The objects placed on the table in the centre of the composition provide a series of moralized allusions to some of the religious and political issues preoccupying the elite of Renaissance Europe. On the bottom shelf is a merchant’s arithmetic manual, a broken lute and a Lutheran hymn book, symbols of the commercial and religious discord of the time. In the corner sits a terrestrial globe, just one of the many in circulation since Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. Looking more closely, it is possible to see the dividing line agreed at Tordesillas in I494 running down the globe’s western hemisphere. We cannot see where this line falls in the eastern hemisphere, because it is tantalizingly obscured in shadow, but we do know that Holbein used a globe attributed to the German geographer and mathematician Schoner … identical to the globe shown in Holbein’s painting.

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (detail)

It is a testament to the changes occurring in Europe as a consequence of long-distance travel, imperial rivalry, scientific learning and the religious turmoil of the first half of the sixteenth century that Holbein’s painting shares similarities with Ribeiro’s maps in placing globes, scientific instruments and mercantile textbooks before religious authority. Traditionally, the depiction of two prominent figures like de Dinteville and de Selve would show them between an object of religious devotion such as an altarpiece or a statue of the Virgin Mary. In Holbein’s painting, the central authority of religious belief is replaced by the worldly objects jostling for attention on the table. This is a world in transition, caught between the religious certainties of the past and the political, intellectual and commercial excitement of a rapidly changing present. Religion is quite literally sidelined, its remaining presence that of a silver crucifix barely visible behind a curtain in the top left-hand corner. The global interests of this new world of international diplomacy and imperial rivalry lie elsewhere, on the other side of a newly emerging globe, driven more by imperial and commercial imperatives than religious orthodoxy.

For most people living in the early sixteenth-century world the dispute over the Moluccas was meaningless in their everyday lives. Neither did it have much impact on the seaborne activity that continued regardless between Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Chinese merchants who continued their trade across the Indian and Pacific oceans.  But, Brotton concludes:

For the western European empires of first Portugal and Castile, then Holland and England, the act of drawing a line, first on a map, then on a terrestrial globe, and laying claim to places that their putative imperial lords never visited, set a precedent that would be followed through the centuries, and shape so much European colonial policy across the globe over the subsequent 500 years.

Mercator's map 1569

Gerard Mercator’s World Map, 1569 (click on the image to view full size)

The best chapters in Brotton’s book are those which deal with the giants of Renaissance cartography – Waldseemüller, Ribeiro, Mercator and Blaeu. This is perhaps not surprising: not only is this period Brotton’s specialism – he is currently Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University London – but it is also one in which some of the greatest challenges in map-making were overcome and the best known maps produced.  None more so, perhaps, than Gerard Mercator’s World Map of 1569, which continues to define map-making even today.

Mercator was responsible for inventing not only his famed map projection, but also the first collection of maps to use the term ‘atlas’ (though Joan Blau’s lavish and beautiful Atlas Maior of 1662 is regarded as unparalleled).  Mercator produced one of the first modern maps of Europe and took the art of copperplate map engraving to unparalleled heights of sophistication.  His name has become synonymous with his projection which later came to be regarded as the ultimate symbol of Eurocentricism and imperial domination of the globe, placing Europe at its centre and reducing the size of Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Brotton is somewhat critical of that sweeping rejection of Mercator’s projection, and points to how it became central to the new geography of the next two centuries.  Its mathematical principles were adopted for measuring the nation states of Europe and Europe’s expanding colonial possessions: the Ordnance Survey, the British Navy’s Admiralty charts and, surprisingly, NASA’s maps of the solar system are all dependent on it.

On 29 July 1655 the new Amsterdam Town Hall was officially opened, a prestige project that announced to the world that the Dutch Republic was the new centre of political and commercial power in Europe.  For contemporaries, the building’s greatest wonder was the vast People’s Hall with its marble floor into which were inlaid three hemispherical maps of the globe reproduced from Joan Blaeu’s map of 1648, probably the first that is now immediately recognisable as a modern map of the world.

Part of Blaeu's map on the marble floor of the great hall of the Royal Palace, Amsterdam

Part of Blaeu’s map on the marble floor of the great hall of the People’s Hall (now the Royal Palace), Amsterdam

Blaeu’s map incorporated a diagram depicting the solar system according to the heliocentric theory of Copernicus in which the earth revolves around the sun, overturning centuries of first Greek, then Christian, belief in a geocentric universe. Even more significant was the fact that the city that paid for the hall and the marble map was at the heart of a nation prosperous as a result of the commercial success of the Dutch East India Company, part of the apparatus of the Dutch state, but also the leading example of the new mechanism of the joint-stock company that was transforming Europe’s economies – and the role of maps.

By the beginning of the 17th century, Dutch map-makers were competing to provide commercial companies with maps that would assist in developing overseas trade.  On the new Dutch maps, distant territories no longer simply faded away at the margins, nor where they depicted as being inhabited by monstrous people.  Instead:

The world’s borders and margins were clearly defined with regions labelled according to markets and raw materials. Every corner of the world was being mapped and assessed for its commercial possibilities.  A new world was being defined by new ways of making money.

Joan Blaeu's Atlas Maior - Yangtse

Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior – detail of the page depicting the region of the Yangtze river, China

Blaeu’s map on the floor of Amsterdam’s Town Hall was just one of many he made in preparation for his greatest achievement – the Atlas Maior, published in 1662 and described as the finest and greatest atlas ever published.  It was the product, says Brotton, of a Dutch Republic ‘that preferred the accumulation of wealth over the acquisition of territory … In the 17th century as today, financial markets make little acknowledgement of political boundaries and centres when it comes to the accumulation of riches. … [It was] driven by money as much as knowledge’

Blaeu's Atlas Maior

What drove the Cassini family of France was the desire to produce a definitive and accurate map of their nation based on a series of nationwide surveys that operated on strict scientific principles of verification, measurement and quantification.  The principles formulated by the Cassinis, based on the methods of triangulation and geodetic measurements, still define most modern maps, including the Ordnance Survey.  Brotton describes the endeavours of several generations of Cassinis to map their country, backed by the French state, anxious both to define its national boundaries but also to achieve for the first time a definitive inventory of the national territories.

Detail of Cassini map of 1785

Detail of a Cassini map of the Dordogne region, 1785

Brotton’s story of the struggle by the various Cassinis to complete their map is a remarkable one: their engineers were obstructed by locals understandably suspicious that accurate mapping of their lands would lead to higher taxes, while the process of lugging cumbersome equipment around the countryside, writing up observations and translating them into hand-drawn sketch maps, then verifying them was incredibly slow.  After eight of the 18 years that one Cassini had estimated would be needed to complete the survey of the entire nation, only two maps had been published – of Beauvais and Paris.  The huge costs, and then the Revolution, finally scuppered the project.  Yet it had a lasting impact, inspiring the most famous of national surveys, the British Ordnance Survey, and ultimately transforming the practice of map-making over the next 150 years into a verifiable science with a standardized, empirical and objective method that would spread across the world.

Peters projection World Map

Brotton concludes his survey with two maps from our own times – the Peters projection world map, unveiled in 1973, and Google Earth.  Brotton’s account of Arno Peters’ projection interested me because at college I once taught Development Studies and the map became an ideal teaching aid for challenging preconceptions about the ‘less developed nations’.  With its elongated continents that appear to drip like drying paint, the map is a radical departure from the standard Mercator view with its over-sized Greenland a landmass bigger than Africa.

At a press conference to launch the map Peters claimed that Mercator’s map ‘presents a fully false picture particularly regarding the non-white peopled lands, … overvalues the white man and distorts the picture of the world to the advantage of the colonial masters’.  Peters’ map, in contrast, utilised an ‘equal area’ projection that accurately rendered the correct dimensions of countries and continents according to their size and area. Over the next two decades it became one of the most popular and best-selling world maps of all time, adopted by NGOs like Oxfam, given away in a special issue of New Internationalist magazine and used by the Brandt Report on global inequalities in 1980.

However, as Brotton explains, geographers and cartographers reacted with horror and disdain.  Peters was untrained in cartography and didn’t understand basic principles of projection, his map was ‘absurd’, and was simply out to feather his own nest through skilful marketing of the map.  This leads Brotton to first identify the weaknesses in Peters’ map, and  then to broaden his discussion to ask: what is going on when a map is accepted by the public but rejected by cartographers? What is an ‘accurate’ map of the world, and what is the role of maps in society?

Brotton’s discussion of these issues (plus his account of Peters’ own life and career, and their relationship to the political ideologies and divisions of the Cold War) is fascinating.  From it all, Brotton draws this conclusion:

The problem with Peters’ map lay not in his technical limitations in drawing a map, but in persisting with the belief that it was still possible to create a more ‘accurate’ and scientifically objective map of the world.  Having convincingly argued that the history of cartography has always explicitly or implicitly reproduced the prevailing values of its time, Peters still clung to the Enlightenment belief that his own world map could transcend such conditions, and be truly objective.  In being so wrong, both technically and intellectually, Peters and the controversy that surrounded his projection inadvertently illustrated a deeper truth about mapping the world: that any map of the world is always partial and inherently selective, and that as a result it is inevitably prey to political appropriation.

Google Earth desktop

We zoom towards planet earth spinning in the black void of deep space, a beautiful vision of the world:

…. as Plato imagined it nearly two and a half thousand years ago … as a gleaming, perfect sphere, ‘marvellous of its beauty’.  It is the oikoumene that Ptolemy projected on his geometrical grid in the second century AD, the globe that Mercator plotted onto a rectangle nearly 500 years ago, and the earth that NASA captured in the first extraterrestrial photograph of the whole planet. … This is the geographer’s ultimate object of study, an image of the whole earth.

Launched in 2005, Google Earth, along with Google Maps, is now the world’s most popular geospatial application (i.e. combining geographical data and computer software).  In less than a decade, writes Brotton, Google Earth has led to a complete re-evaluation of the status of maps and the future of map-making.  Google seems to offer the potential for more democratic and participatory map-making, with anywhere on the planet potentially open to being seen and mapped by anyone online. The assumption now, as maps become digitized and virtual, is that we really have arrived at map-maker’s nirvana: that all maps will be a precise scientific record of what is on the ground, as seen by a satellite and adjusted to a particular scale. Google Earth seems to leave behind the idea of a map as a human artefact reflecting cultural predispositions.

But Brotton is more sceptical: it seems more likely that the corporate interests of multinational companies will bring a new world of online maps in which access is prescribed by financial imperatives, subject to political censorship and indifferent to personal privacy. He notes that, although Google’s software does allow any user to create customized maps, what economists call ‘Googlenomics’ is all about making money for the corporation from geographical data:

Google is effectively organizing information geographically, as well as alphabetically and numerically.  ,,, Any search allows for immediate comparison with its maps application as a way of situating information in space. If I type ‘Chinese restaurants’ into Google, I will be confronted with a list of seven restaurants in my local town, each with a place page alongside a Google map showing me their location.

What this means, as individuals increasingly use geospatial applications on the move via smartphones, is that information that is close to us is going to be more important than information that is further away – especially for businesses and advertising.  In one sense, this makes Google Maps the culmination of a long cartographic tradition of mapping geography onto commerce – think of Ribeiro and the Moluccas, Mercator’s projection for navigators, or Blaeu and the Dutch East India Company. ‘Mapping and money’, says Brotton.’have always gone hand in hand and have reflected the vested interests of particular rulers, states, businesses or multinational corporations’.

Google Map

The maps examined by Brotton in this rich and fascinating book are the creation of cultures which have perceived physical, terrestrial space in different ways, and these perceptions have informed the maps they have made. Each map has been as comprehensible and as logical to its users as those from other times and places –  from the medieval religiosity of the Hereford mappamundi to Google’s geospatial applications. The story of map-making that Brotton tells is a discontinuous one, marked by breaks and sudden shifts, rather than the steady accumulation of increasingly accurate geographical data.

Brotton’s survey repeatedly emphasises that cartographers cannot help but betray their own culture and its predispositions: the Hereford mappamundi portrayed the easternmost reaches of Asia as the haunt of griffins, cannibals, and ‘the accursed sons of Cain’; meanwhile, in China, scholars took for granted that the far west was ‘the zone of cultureless savagery’. In our time, Arno Peters’ map of the world corrected what he saw as the unforgivably Eurocentric projection of Mercator.

Even Google Earth, amassing mind-boggling amounts of geographical data, reflects the cultural diversity and economic inequalities of the planet: the regions most exhaustively covered by the application tend to be the ones with the highest concentration of computers and credit-cards.

Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1666

Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1666: the map on the wall is of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands, flanked by views of the main towns. It was published by Claes Janszoon Visscher in 1636 and has been painted by Vermeer with a prominent crease that divides the Netherlands between the north and south (west being at the top of the map, as was the custom), symbolising the division between the Dutch Republic to the north and southern provinces under Habsburg rule.

Footnote, 1.11.13

With regard to the distortion inherent in the Mercator projection, and its impact on our perceptions: after the edition of In Our Time on the Berlin Conference and the ‘scramble for Africa’, Melvyn Bragg commented that, from the contributors, he had ‘learned that North America, China and Western Europe – all three! – would fit into Africa. Joanna Lewis said that her favourite film was Anchorman and she managed to see it through twice while flying over the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our under-appreciation of the sheer size of Africa has come about because of the ubiquity of Mercator maps.’


One thought on “Twelve maps that reflect their times: far away is close at hand

  1. You have made me want to read the book, thanks. For some reason I had been unaware of it, but had considered reading Simon Garfield’s On the map.
    My own favourite when a child was Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia, and I loved looking at the maps in that. I travelled annually between 1949 and 1965 by coach and train between Edinburgh and Thessaloniki, and was fascinating by the idea of borders, and how things changed. I also commuted past that extraordinary piece of graffiti outside Paddington.

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