Charting the human story through how we drew our maps

Jerry Brotton's examination of cartography offers insights into the way countries and individuals have used world maps for symbolic and political ends, writesTom Holland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 2:47pm


On December 7, 1972, one of the three astronauts on board the Apollo 17 spacecraft took a photograph. Released by US space agency Nasa after the mission's safe return from the moon, it showed - for the first time - the fully illuminated face of the earth. Set against the cloud-streaked blue of the oceans, the lineaments of Africa, Arabia and Antarctica were all clearly on display. Here, presented at last to the gaze of humanity, was a literally cosmic image of the geography of our planet.

Two and a half millennia earlier, an unknown scribe in Iraq had drawn on a clay tablet the very earliest surviving attempt to show the world. Iraq itself - which on the Nasa photograph could just be made out at the top of the globe - was placed at the centre of an encircling ring of ocean. Mountains, marshes and the river Euphrates - all were represented.

The focus of the map, though, was the great city of Babylon. Portrayed as a massive rectangle bisected by the Euphrates, its position within the ring of the ocean only incidentally reflected its actual position within Iraq. The concern of the cartographer lay ultimately with what he would no doubt have seen as an altogether more authentic dimension of reality: if Babylon was placed at the centre of the map, then that was because the Babylonians - with the conceit that comes to a swaggering, imperial people - took for granted that their city served the cosmos as its pivot.

Between the Mesopotamian scribe and the American astronaut, then, there stretched an immense ideological as well as technological gulf. Nevertheless, not everything had changed over the course of the millennia. Nasa's photograph might not have been oriented around Washington, DC, but it spoke of a certain level of superpower self-satisfaction, even so. Nor was the photograph devoid of its own metaphysical dimensions.

Plato, in one of his dialogues, described the sphere of the world as something that a soul, ascending in a moment of supreme transcendence, might behold as fashioned "of colours more numerous and beautiful than any we have seen". In the space age the image of the planet in all its fragile beauty, set against the infinite blackness of space, prompted in many an almost religious consciousness of the commonality of human experience. Its influence over the succeeding decades - whether on third-world identity politics or environmentalism - would prove immense.

Rare, in other words, is a representation of the earth's geography so accurate and neutral that it brings with it no baggage at all. What is true of a photograph tends to be even more so of one composed by human hand. "A map," as Jerry Brotton writes in
A History of the World in Twelve Maps, his fascinating and panoramic new history of the cartographer's art, "always manages the reality it tries to show." It is the truth of this observation that enables him to trace, in the way that rivers, mountains and seas have been drawn in various cultures and periods, the contours of human self-awareness as well. Peaks and troughs; disinterest and prejudice; pin-point accuracy and whole realms of experience imagined as the haunt of fearsome monsters: civilisation bears witness to them all.

Contained within his book are studies of a dozen landmark maps. These range in time from the classical to the contemporary, and in origin from Sicily to Korea. Yet for all that, the sweeping self-assurance of his title -
A History of the World in Twelve Maps - should not be taken wholly at face value. If there is one truth Brotton's survey repeatedly emphasises, it is that cartographers cannot help but betray their own centre of gravity.

In the middle ages, the Hereford Mappa Mundi 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". More recently, a year after the Apollo 17 photo, German historian Arno Peters unveiled a new map of the world which corrected what he saw as the unforgivably Eurocentric projection of Gerardus Mercator, and increased the size of Africa and South America at Europe's expense.

"The applications of the Peters projection," as Brotton points out, "throw into stark relief the fact that, ever since Ptolemy, individuals and organisations have appropriated world maps for their own symbolic and political ends, regardless of the cartographer's claims to comprehensiveness and objectivity." Even Google Earth, which incorporates so much geographical information that it seems set to consign paper maps to obsolescence, still has a way to go before it can provide standard high-resolution data of the entire planet. As it is, those regions most exhaustively covered tend to be the ones with the highest concentration of computers and credit cards.

So what of Brotton himself? A clue as to the focus of his mapping is to be found in the title he holds at the University of London: "Professor of Renaissance Studies". No surprise, then, that the meat of his book should consist of a brilliant survey of cartography in the early modern period, when Europeans began to explore entire continents unsuspected by Ptolemy, and maps bore vivid witness to the geopolitical and commercial upheavals that were unleashed in their wake.

Whether it was Martin Waldseemuller drawing what might be the first map to name America, or Diogo Ribeiro recalibrating the location of the Malukus in a sneaky attempt to buttress the imperial interests of Spain, or Joan Blaeu demonstrating that atlases, in the golden age of Amsterdam, could be made to pay financially, the cartographers of the 16th and 17th centuries were fitting standard-bearers for the emerging era of European supremacy.

Yet the narrative is not simply the one illustrative of Western arrogance and greed articulated by Peters. Mercator's projection, for instance, far from serving as a monument to the glories of European civilisation, was in fact an expression of the very opposite: a deep despair at the savagery of its hatreds. His map "was part of a cosmography that aimed to transcend the theological persecution and division of 16th-century Europe".

Nor are the subtlety and empathy that underlie this judgment absent when Brotton, venturing beyond his home territory of the Renaissance, comes to the Middle Ages. His study of the delightfully named
Book of Roger - a compilation of Greek, Latin and Arabic geographical knowledge assembled by a Muslim scholar under the aegis of a Christian king - provides a perspective on the limits of medieval multi-culturalism that is no less hard-headed for Brotton's sense of wonder that it should have existed at all.

Even more striking is his take on the tension between the dimensions of the eternal and the earthly implicit in the Mappa Mundi - which in its original setting pointed towards the second coming, that moment of cosmic transfiguration when the New Jerusalem will descend from heaven, and all geography promptly becomes redundant. This means, as Brotton points out, that it belongs to "a genre of map unique in the history of cartography that eagerly anticipates and welcomes its own annihilation".

It is only in the period that gave us the phrase "terra incognita" that his mapping of cartography in the past becomes just a trifle perfunctory. Brotton's survey of Ptolemy and the reaches of classical geography that he was drawing on lacks the spark and the sense of the unexpected that elsewhere are such features of the book. This - since Ptolemy is the first of Brotton's 12 cartographers to be featured - is doubly unfortunate. Readers who find the first chapter dry are strongly urged to press on, and keep using it as a guide. Brotton's idea of tracing within maps the patterns of human thought and civilisation is a wonderful one.

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