How we see the world
This beautiful book shows how a map is so much more than a mere depiction of the lands on this planet.
A History Of The World In 12 Maps
Author: Jerry Brotton
Publisher: Viking, 544 pages
BY means of exploring 12 extraordinarily influential maps – and touching on dozens that are mentioned in passing – Jerry Brotton, a professor at London University, has delivered a veritable treasure trove of a book.
One of the most arresting maps mentioned here was released in December 1972 by NASA. This was the first time the fully illuminated face of the Earth had been captured photographically. Set against the ocean blue, the outlines of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and other regions could be clearly made out. Here, finally presented to the global village, was a cosmic image of our world, and its exquisitely hued geography.
The word “awesome” is horribly overused today, but the word applies to this picture. However, for centuries, visions of our mapped world have held the power to awe.
As the offspring of both art and science, world maps have both informed us and projected interpretations of the perceived world. Today, more than any time in history, they principally encompass data and spatial relationships. But over the centuries, they have also told us much about wealth, power, empire, discovery and religion. Indeed, historical maps reveal more about their creators than the lands they literally put on the map.
Though limited in number to a mere dozen, Brotton has chosen well. The breath and variation here is impressive, spanning Ptolemy’s Geography, penned in ancient Greek on a papyrus scroll around 150CE, to today’s Google Earth, and including some illuminating Islamic and East Asian works.
The closest map to this part of the world is the Kangnido World map of 1402, drawn up in Korea, which reveals the entire Old World, and with the Korean peninsula depicted as being twice the size of Korea’s then-foe Japan, contrary to the fact being almost the opposite.
Despite their differences, these maps share thought-provoking commonalities, mainly for the way they reveal the priorities of their author-cartographers. Indeed, if there is one message that Brotton’s richly detailed work repeatedly conveys, it is that mapmakers inevitably belie their own centre of gravity. One example of this is that, historically, scholars and cartographers in the “middle Kingdom” of China took for granted that the “Far West” was “the zone of cultureless savagery”.
This centre of gravity is not always geographical. In some cases it’s theological. The Hereford Mappa Mundiworld that emerged from mediaeval England is a map of faith as well as a geographical artifact: the Christian world as viewed from the middle of Edward I’s kingdom, 728 years ago. Based on the topography of the Bible and with Jerusalem at its centre, it’s a map that makes sense to believers but defies most known cartographic principles. England lies on the western periphery of this map, but time and a growing empire would change this view of the world seen through the eyes of British mapmakers.
By the 19th century, world maps often placed Britain centrally. One such map featured in the book shows a view of the globe with Britain and the North Atlantic at the core of the world, to better portray the empire’s burgeoning sea power. Half of South America is left off this map altogether, literally off the imperial map.
Many of the maps of the age of Western Empires, notably those of the Spanish and Portuguese colonisers, did more to highlight dominance, ambition and wishful thinking than to strive for accuracy. An example of this is a map drawn up in 1525 for the king of Spain, purporting to show the spices-rich Moluccas (part of present-day Indonesia) falling into his domain. The point of this map wasn’t to portray the world as it was, it was to portray it as Carlos I wished it to be.
European nations also used cartography during the 18th and 19th centuries to carve up Africa, hence the preponderance of bizarrely straight lines on a political map of the continent.
A later empire builder, Adolf Hitler, used maps to propagandise the need for “Living Space” in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and also project bogus threats against the Fatherland, such as a 1934 Nazi map of Czechoslovakia, from which attack-bomber aircraft are seen radiating.
On the other hand, the greatest contribution any German has made to cartography is arguably Arno Peters and his 1974 World Map Projection, which shows each nation of the world in its actual and proportionate size relative to others. This map was eagerly adopted by various modern aid organisations to demonstrate the truth that the developing world is much larger than the West has always perceived.
From where did this perception came from? Many mind-sets and sources but few more influential than Mercator’s 1569 projection. Gerardus Mercator, who hailed from Flanders, sought a solution to depicting a spherical earth two-dimensionally, and his end-product is considered the most influential world map since the dawn of time.
But his world map has inherent distortions – Europe is twice its true area – while Greenland appears roughly the same size as Africa. This map has long had an appeal to the West, though, even after Peters’ clever refutation.
It’s the human condition; mapmakers work in environments of subjective knowledge. Their craft has for so long been shaped by politics and paymasters, imperialists, storytellers, artistic trends, assumptions and all kinds of temporal influences. And all of these conflict with the almost pure sciences of cartography and geography.
A representation of the earth’s geography that is both accurate and “neutral” is therefore almost impossible to create. Or as the author says: “A map always manages the reality it tries to show”. It is this truism that enables Brotton to trace the contours of history and the ways of the mind’s eye with such relish and passion for the way we see our world – and have seen it – along the time-space continuum.