Some thoughts about a map.

“The map appears to us more real than the land.”

-D.H. Lawrence

Africa map.jpg

The map is not the territory

I recently bought a map of Africa, printed around 1907. It’s a lovely piece of design, combining typography, information and measurement, fine line work and subtle colours. There is something charming about it: an Edwardian curiosity. Perhaps this nostalgia is a product of what Edward Said called Orientalism, that the West had created an image of the world which in his view served the colonial agenda. “The West” was seen as superior, while “the East” was viewed as “other”, different and inferior, in need of Western intervention or “rescue”. (Some critics of Said have observed that many Orientalists opposed Imperialism and it’s destructive effects on the cultures it sought to dominate.)

Karamzo Saccoh, Director of the Australian Council on African Affairs, suggests Orientalism drove the Imperialist agenda in Africa:

“Before the 19th century, the African interior was of little or no interest to the European – so long as they were able to pursue their interest through the African middlemen (to obtain slaves). During the partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, which saw the division of the whole continent by the European powers into separate colonies, there was a clear consensus amongst the European powers that African people were culturally and biologically inferior and in need of European enlightenment to remove the continent and its people from ‘darkness’. These racial prejudices by the European leaders, and powerfully condescending views of Africans at the onset of colonialism, were, to a large extent, imported from European writers and scientists.”

This map was made at exactly this point in history when both science and art were advancing a colonial ideology, the effects of which continue to reverberate in the 21st century.

So, what exactly are we looking at when we look at this map?

It’s at once aesthetically pleasing and also a window on a traumatic period of history. I began thinking about mapmaking. I have shared some quotes, then followed them with a few impressions of my own.

“Presented in the language of measurement and computation, maps and the boundaries depicted on them appear authoritative” – Jeremy Black, Maps and Politics.

Note the expression appear authoritative; there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors going on here. Jeremy Black observes (my emphasis in red),

“[t]he choice of what to depict is linked to, and in a dynamic relationship with, issues of scale and purpose, and the latter issue is crucial. A map is designed to show certain points and relationships, and, in doing so, creates space and spaces in the perception of the map-user and thus illustrates themes of power.” … “the [border] lines betoken frontiers and these frontiers are the cause, course and consequence of conflict.”

This is significant: the colonial period was one of conspicuous violence and domination – an illicit wielding of power – and we may observe that “themes of power” are expressed directly on the map itself, as if it is somehow ‘complicit’ in the political narrative. The borders drawn over a hundred years ago, arbitrarily dividing tribes, religious and ethnic groups, had catastrophic effects at the time they were drawn, throughout the 20th century and are still evident in today’s conflicts. If indeed the markings on the map “are the cause, course and consequence of conflict“, then the map is certainly more than a lovely thing to hang on a wall.

“Maps have long been used as tools to dispossess the colonized, establish sovereign control over territories and help make states,” writes Christine Leuenberger in Maps and Politics. “We commonly assume that maps are objective, accurate, and representative of a world ‘out there’. Yet maps always omit as much as they include. They are subject to selection, classification, abstractions, and simplifications. By emphasizing certain sites, yet deemphasizing others, colonizers may implant their geopolitical vision onto the land whilst cartographically eradicated the topography of the colonized.

In The Power of Maps by Denis Wood, the writer observes,

“maps are not impartial reference objects, but rather instruments of communication, persuasion, and power. Like paintings, they express a point of view. By connecting us to a reality that could not exist in the absence of maps – a world of property lines and voting rights, taxation districts and enterprise zones—they embody and project the interests of their creators.”

A map as an instrument of persuasion? Of power? A map with a point of view?

My Africa map, with it’s confident delineation of colonies and protectorates, its place names set in a dignified Old Style Serif font, embodies and asserts the interests of Empire, and may be regarded as as a sort of cartographic advertisement for Imperialist ambition.

“While maps are often looked at as objective and natural depictions of the world … they are in fact social constructions that work politically … Maps are shown to influence the way we view and understand the world, and to create and maintain particular discourses about the world and international relations, with very real implications for those in the territory they depict.” – Piers Fotiadis

Sébastien Caquard, associate professor in the department of Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia University, writes

“Any map is a political, social and cultural construction, we keep on believing almost blindly in the truthfulness of the information mapped. There are several reasons for that. First, the map is an image and we tend to associate images to elements of truth (we believe in what we see). Second the map is a scientific image. It comes loaded with scientific connotations such as geographic coordinates, and levels of accuracy and it is deeply associated to the history of scientific measurement tools. Historically, maps have been used by nation-states primarily to assert their territorial rights and reinforce their power over Indigenous and other communities.”


The British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, at the time of the Berlin Conference of 1884, observed:

“we have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.”


Names on a map

“The Scramble for Africa” (the New Imperialism of the period 1884 to 1914) was characterized by claiming, naming and renaming territories. It has been said that to name something is to own it:

“Naming things is how we make sense of the universe… From a mythic perspective, this quasi-magical power of naming has left its mark through folklore and stories. Abracadabra, the magical word we are exposed to as children, can be translated from the Aramaic to mean ‘I create what I speak’.  Its not just creation that comes from names, but also control.  Knowing the true name of something gives you power over it.” – Culture Decanted.

In Kabbalah (I’m getting a little esoteric here) there is a “linguistic link between the created world in which the (biblical) text exists, and the divine realm, (which) enables the practitioner to exert influence on the realms on high through the use of language.” (Agata Paluch: The power of language in Jewish Kabbalah). Could we view the Conference of Berlin as a ‘speaking-into-existence’ of some sort? If we accept that in some occult way, naming creates and controls, and mapmaking – a process of naming – imposes words and symbols upon the world, then in a sense a sort of deception occurred, a sleight of hand if you will, and a kind of spell was cast over Africa. The map is “… a tool to dispossess the colonized.” I can’t help but picture the Berlin Conference of 1884 as a sort of gathering of rival wizards (very soon to find themselves at war with each other); the cartographer setting down his magus-master’s wishes like a dutiful scribe. Satraps and soldiers would soon be sent out to enforce the lines and names set down on paper.

My imagination gets the better of me.

A digression: Distortion

Not as evident on this map, but worth noting more generally, is that there are significant distortions which go largely unnoticed. The map most of us are familiar with is the Mercator projection (created in 1596). While the land masses have the correct shape, their sizes are distorted greatly (coincidentally giving emphasis to “the wealthy lands of the north”). Africa’s land mass is greater than North America and India combined, and yet most projections, in order to represent the spherical planet on a flat surface, create a false representation of scale. In addition we must note that its merely a convention that a map has north at the top. There is no reason why world maps shouldn’t have at their centre, for instance, the North Pole (as in Cold War-era USSR Polar location maps). And there are numerous alternatives which attempt to correct the distortions of the Mercator projection.(see s

Jerry Brotton, historian of cartography and the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps, says,

“No world map is, or can be, a definitive, transparent depiction of its subject that offers a disembodied eye onto the world. Each one is a continual negotiation between its makers and users, as their understanding of the world changes.”

The map as a door

I’d like to view the map through the words of the Canadian poet and writer Dionne Brand in Map to the Door of No Return. Having read her words below I imagined my map as a doorway through which I might pass to a troubled history. And just as in 1907 maps such as this inspired missionaries and imperialists, settlers and adventurers to leave their northern climes, so too it gives us access to the past, and returning we can recognise the patronising, ‘Orientalist’ representations of Africa. There are more disturbing paths beyond the door too: to the shores of the Atlantic slave trade, the brutality of colonial rule, and paths to a tumultuous and as yet uncharted 20th century:

“The door is a place, real, imaginary and imagined. As islands and dark continents are. It is a place which exists or existed. The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed. It is a door which makes the word door impossible and dangerous, cunning and disagreeable. There is the sense in the mind of not being here or there, of no way out or in. As if the door had set up its own reflection. Caught between the two we live in the Diaspora, in the sea in between. Imagining our ancestors stepping through these portals one senses people stepping out into nothing; one senses a surreal space, an inexplicable space. One imagines people so stunned by their circumstances, so heartbroken as to refuse reality. Our inheritance in the Diaspora is to live in this inexplicable space.”

The map as a bridge

Maps, originally, were of the heavens. This intrigues me: the idea that cartography has a religious and mythic origin. Medieval maps were geo-spiritual texts, with prominence given to Jerusalem in the East, not North.

“The map (the copula mundi of the Renaissance Neoplatonists) is from the beginning the bridge between the metaphysical and the physical world. And in medieval times the map acts as the bridge between the world of Divinity and the world of Mankind, which is the reason why we still blindly believe in them.”
– Faith and the Map: On the Metaphysical Nature of Visual Spatial Representation
by Franco Farinelli.

In Greek myth, Anaximander (6th century BC) finds himself in trouble with the gods of Ancient Greece because he dares to make a map, essentially creating a perspective on the world which hitherto only the gods had enjoyed. But the gods were not annoyed without reason:

“Anaximander’s project appeared scandalous because it aimed to immolate Earth as a function of knowledge (of the dominion) of Earth itself. It is only because, with Anaximander, the Earth becomes a corpse that the rigor (the rigidity) of death becomes the equivalent of the rigor of science; rigor mortis allows us to measure only what was once alive but is no more.”
– Franco Farinelli: Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds.

When historians discuss the Berlin Conference where the European powers gathered to divide Africa amongst themselves in the name of Christianity, Commerce and Civilization,  – the phrase “the carving up of Africa” is often used. To me, this seems somehow connected to Anaximander’s transgression: the gods were angry that he had brought death to the world with his map. The earth becomes a corpse. I cannot help but see in this myth a warning of death to come: of the millions of Africans that would be butchered in king Leopold’s Congo.

Why was his cartographic venture so offensive to the gods? How could Anaximander have reduced reality into a corpse-like geometrical scheme? (Franco Farinelli). How does  the Earth become “a corpse” through mapmaking?

To “immolate” means to kill or offer as a sacrifice;  one carves meat from a slaughtered animal. A butcher carves up a carcass. One carves meat at a banquet. A sacrifice is carved. “what was once alive but is no more… the rigidity of death becomes the equivalent of the rigor of science…”. 

“Word is murder of a thing, not only in the elementary sense of implying its absence – by naming a thing, we treat it as absent, as dead, although it is still present – but above all in the sense of its radical dissection: the word ‘quarters’ the thing, it tears it out of the embedment in its concrete context, it treats its component parts as entities with an autonomous existence…’ – Slavoj Žižek

Am I overthinking it? Is the map not simply a pleasing antique to enjoy for it’s aesthetic qualities alone?

These thoughts captivate me as I look at the map which hangs on my wall at home. It is an innocent, and not so innocent, image. Whatever else it may be, it is not a static, fixed thing, but represents a continual negotiation.




In researching this post I came across an academic paper, Living the Map: Mobile Mapping in Post/colonial Cities by Clancy Wilmott. I have included some quotes which I find really helpful in understanding the philosophy of cartography:

“Western reason is nothing but cartographical reason, its relentless unwinding and development.’ (Farinelli)

‘…the very structure of cartographic reason… draws and redraws our world, erases and inscribes again, decodes and recodes, in a ceaseless and complex array of forms of deterritorialization and reterritorialization producing the multiple and shifting identities (or assemblages) we take as ourselves.’

Modernity’s ambition to reshape the world:

“The Cartesian technologies of the grid become interoperable through Leibnizian desires for universality: to find a common basis for all phenomena: ‘Imperialism is not “the art of transforming spheres into flat surfaces” (Sloterdijk, 1999: 909-911), of flattening the world, but rather of translating an infinite series of maps that are incompatible into a single terrestrial sphere… according to the single major project of late modernity… The major project of late modernity that sought to conquer according to universal systems, whereby disobedient landscapes were wrenched, altered and reformed into unitary cartographic systems, can be traced as far back as these early Baroque ideas and the period of the Enlightenment. On a discursive level, the universal in the Leibnizian characteristica universalis, together with its topological and inflective elasticities, can be considered a central part of cartographic reason. Furthermore, it is embedded in the functioning imperial ideologies of modernity that cohere and homogenise space into a single order.”

Ordering, and the map’s relationship with money:

“…as the cartographical image is applied to mathematical principles to solve more general problems of nature, society and culture… during the Enlightenment, cartographic reason shifted from a reflective empirical description to become an ordering tool that transforms and stabilises nature according to the map, the territory and the state. This transformation foregrounds the continued abstraction of knowledge from materiality, the perception that the world – matter – is inherently ordered through stable systems which can be harnessed through representation and classification, and transformed into units of exchange

On renaming and erasure of the past:

“Warringah is pronounced War-RING-Gah. Throughout the trip, several instances occurred when the GPS struggled to pronounce the Aboriginal words that were adopted for particular places, and were later used in road naming. Similar names exist all over Sydney – markers of the European interpretation of an Aboriginal past, ghosts of the people who were driven from the landscape so that roads and skyscrapers could be built and named after them. Such toponyms carry a complicated and tense history, reminders of the devastating destructiveness of the colonial process. They, at once, acknowledge that colonial past by pushing it so far into the light that in its hypervisibility it, again, becomes invisible.” [169]

“… this coded and ordered landscape is entirely filled with simulacra, where the original referents of colonialism are lost through an endless cycle of representation and re-representation.”

“Where the past names of the A38 [a road in Australia] still contain links to the social history of the Sydney landscape, ‘A38’ no longer references Aboriginal people, nor the process of colonisation – or even its own cartographic processes of drawing lines. The new alphanumeric road names effectively remove that past becoming solely referential of the planning systems and ideologies which produced them.” [171]

“The problem, Sarah says, is a matter of rights – that white people are obsessed with their right to know things and to do things, most significantly to own and to build things – which means that in Sydney, at least, property is more important than history. The flatness of the cartographic imagination, and over time, different configurations of governments, planners and developers, have all-but erased one history and landscape. They have also erased its original custodians and replaced it with something that is more taxonimisable, [taxonomy: the science of classification] more interested in quantifying than qualifying spatio-temporal relationships. The landscape has been so reconfigured that only remnants of lives exist in white colonial maps and sketches, and in secret stories that are fiercely protected from the cartographic eye (Ryan, 1996).[259]

– Living the Map: Mobile Mapping in Post/colonial Cities by Clancy Wilmott.




Additional references:

On the Map by Simon Garfield
Publisher: Gotham Books

Living the Map: Mobile Mapping in Post/colonial Cities by Clancy Wilmott.

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