Saturday, May 24, 2014

On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way It Does, by Simon Garfield

For over a century, even into the 1860s,
maps showed California as an island.
Are we convinced it isn't one?
I love maps. When I was in primary school, the stupid boys (and to a girl of that age, all boys are stupid) would gather round the latest issue of National Geographic in the school library to see if there were any photos of half-naked women. I pored over it to see all the exciting and exotic places I might go when I ran away with the circus or stumbled upon a flying carpet.

A few years ago, my friend Rose recounted a conversation that might well have taken place in my family home:  Her mother once complained about Rose's seemingly incurable wanderlust, demanding to know why she couldn't just settle down and be content at home.  "It's your own fault!" Rose snapped at her. "You and Dad left all those issues of National Geographic lying around the house where I could find them!"  Rose and I weren't looking at Maasai warriors in skimpy loincloths (well, all right, maybe just a little peek now and then) -- we were slavering over pictures of ruined crusader castles, tiled minarets, barely navigable jungle rivers, and above all, the maps.

Simon Garfield shares our geo-lust. Place names and cartographic vocabulary turn him on, too.
The language of maps sounds no less colourful to my ear. Words like "latitude" and"graticule" rattle out of the mouth to cast a net around the world. And "cartouche", the map's decorative title block or legend, whooshes off the tongue with a breeze. Some names of places yodel; others click or sing. Gladly would I go from Grand-Bassam to Tabou along the coast of the Côte d'Ivoire, if only to say so out loud.
My dear friend Markku is Finnish. Finns aren't known for flights of romantic fancy. He disdains people who travel, say, to Egypt because they have some fluffy, new-age notions about the ancient religion. But even Mark let his grim Nordic realism slip when he confessed he's always wanted to see Timbuktu because the name captivated him when he was a kid. I also read a poll which revealed that Finns find Buenos Aires the most alluring place name. I laughed out loud when I read that #2 on the list was Kuala Lumpur. I agree -- both names sound exotic. I nearly levitated with excitement when I bought my first ticket to Kuala Lumpur, but I confess a bit of the auditory thrill wore off when I learned that it means "muddy confluence" in Malay. But yes -- maps, and the place names on them, can inspire fierce travel lust.

On the Map features many chapters about cartography in the ancient world, including various famous mappa mundi and some infamous and persistent errors. He also includes a few chapters on map-making in the electronic age. As with any other technology, this one comes with pros and cons.
For the Internet has effected an extraordinary and significant change. Before astronomers faced the gallows for suggesting otherwise, our earth stood firmly at the centre of the cosmos; not so long ago, we placed Jerusalem at the centre of our maps; or if we lived in China, Youzhou. Later, it might be Britain or France, at the heart of their empires. But now we each stand, individually, at the centre of our own map worlds. On our computers, phones and cars, we plot a route not from A to B but from ourselves ("Allow current location") to anywhere of our choosing; every distance is measured from where we stand, and as we travel we are ourselves mapped, voluntarily or otherwise.
Even the ancient maps and geographical treatises can be a joy to study, even if their accuracy is questionable. Simon Garfield, being British, seems to find Strabo's thoughts on his native islands to be misguided "assumptions".  Strabo, however, was born in what is now the Turkish city of Amasya, which Mark the Finn and I agreed is one of the world's most beautiful cities, perched on a river bank and enjoying mostly splendid weather. From Strabo's perspective, I can't see why on earth he would find Britain worth conquering.
We read Strabo's Geographica now with a mix of awe and bemusement: awe at the scale of the enterprise, bemusement at some of its assumptions. Britain is thought not worth conquering, described as wretched and uninhabitable on account of its climate (Strabo notes that the sun hardly shines in Britain, particularly not in the region we now call Scotland). Ireland is full of cannibals.
Garfield tells some great tales about individual maps, including yarns of map theft and forgery.  If I were ever to visit Washington, DC again, I would make a bee-line to the Library of Congress to study the Waldseemüller map (1507), for which the Library paid $10 million in 2003 -- then the highest price ever paid for a single map.  It was the first map to show a continent sitting in the middle of the western ocean. There is a number of unsolved mysteries about this map, like where did German cleric Martin Waldseemüller get his information?
The knowledge portrayed on the map is far more detailed than anything that had preceded it. The map broadly follows one of Ptolemy's projections but it shows the latest coastal news from Africa and India. Waldseemüller drew upon many sources and recent maps, almost certainly including the globe that his fellow German Martin Behaim constructed in 1492, just a few weeks before Columbus first set sail. Behaim, however, would have been astonished by Waldseemüller's depiction of a large ocean stretching uninterrupted to the coast of Asia, evidently the Pacific. This was six years before Vasco Nunez de Balboa first described it, and fifteen years before Magellan's first circumnavigation of the world in 1522 confirmed that it was there. How could Waldseemüller possibly have known of it? A cartographer's ghostly intuition? Or was there, perhaps, another map, containing news of other explorations, that has since been lost to us?
I do remember learning in school that the western continent was named after Amerigo Vespucci, but I never stopped to question why.  The answer to that question, then, as it often is today:  he was the financier. Columbus only risked his life and reputation, but Vespucci risked his money.
America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, a skilled but minor Florentine navigator with a background in finance; for a while he worked for a bank in Seville that provided some of the funds for the early voyages of Christopher Columbus. Vespucci and Columbus became friends, and it is likely that Columbus fired Vespucci's passion for exploration. But only one of them set sail in 1497 to land on the coast of Venezuela.
Evidently Waldseemüller did give Columbus some credit in later maps, but in truth, my vote would have gone to Terra Papagalli. Once a name appeared on a few maps, it was likely to stick.
Then, three years later, when Waldseemüller published a new twelve-sheet world map called the Carta Marina, the two get equal billing. Both are mentioned in the text, although South America now has two new names that credit neither: "TERRA NOVA" and "TERRA PAPAGALLI" (The Land of Parrots). But it was too late. The name America had already begun to appear on other maps, including influential mass-produced works by Peter Apian and Oronce Fine. And then forever more.
Of course, sometimes explorers just got it completely wrong.
In 1519, about to set foot in Mexico, Cortés invited some natives to join him for a conversation aboard his ship, and asked them for the name of the place he was about to pillage for its gold. One man replied, "Ma c'ubah than", which Cortés and his men heard as Yucatan, and named it thus on his map. Just over 450 years later, experts in Mayan dialects examined the tale (which may in any case be apocryphal) and found that "Ma c'ubah than" actually means "I do not understand you."
As these two stories illustrate, once something has gained traction on a few maps, it can be very difficult to change. California appeared on maps as an island well into the 1860s, well past the time that one might expect such an error might be caught and corrected.  (Stanford University has the world's largest collection of these maps, and the librarian quips, "California is an island. Always has been. Always will be.")
The misconception persisted for decades. It was the seventeenth century's forerunner to a mistake on Wikipedia -- doomed to be repeated in a thousand school essays until a bright spark noticed it and dared to make amends. Compiling a paper for the California Map Society in 1995, Glen McLaughlin and Nancy H. Mayo catalogued 249 separate maps (not including world maps) which cast the Golden State adrift. Their names carry bold assertions, with no wiggle room: "A New and Most Exact map of America" claimed one, while another promised "America drawn from the latest and best Observations." Between 1650 and 1657, the French historian Nicolas Sanson published several maps which showed California as an island... It was killed off by a royal decree issued by Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1747, which denied the possibility of this Northwest Passage with the reasonably clear statement: "California is not an Island." Yet news travelled slowly. California appeared as an island on a map made in Japan as late as 1865.
Garfield dedicates a chapter to the idea of binding a bunch of maps together in a book -- the birth of the atlas. In the 17th century, the Dutch were the world's leading cartographers, and Joan Blaue produced a most magnificent atlas. It spanned 12 volumes, and I would love to lay my eyes on one of them.
The Blaeu Atlas Maior was quite simply the most beautiful, elaborate, expensive, heaviest and stunning work of cartography that the world had ever seen. And everything that followed it -- right up to the present day -- seems a bit of an anti-climax in comparison... 
And the cost to the customer reflected the outlay: the uncoloured editions were priced at between 330 and 390 guilders, while the coloured editions cost 430 to 460 guilders depending on the translation and number of maps. At today's values, this would price a coloured edition at approximately £25,000 or $40,000. What else could you get for this sort of money in the mid-seventeenth century? You could buy ten slaves at 40 guilders each. And for 60 guilders in 1626 you could have bought the island of Manhattan from its native Indians.
Back on the topic of unlikely place names, Garfield turns to the highest place on earth. I suppose naming the world's tallest mountain after the surveyor who first measured it is no stranger than naming a continent after the fellow who financed its "discoverer".  And then we learn that we don't even pronounce it correctly!
It was a strange choice of name. George Everest, by all accounts a domineering and ruthlessly exacting man, was the Surveyor General of India from 1830 to 1843. Yet he had almost certainly never seen the mountain, and he suggested that the locals would have trouble pronouncing it (as do we: he called himself Eev-rest rather than Ever-rest). But the imperial British were doing what they did rather well in the middle of the nineteenth century -- putting their names on places on the map over which they had no dominion. Despite local objections, the name stuck, a small but telling by-product of the arrival in India of the new science of surveying from the mother country.
Large blank spaces on maps fill us with wonder and curiosity. For centuries the African interior was one such blank, and Antarctica likewise appeared as a pristine white patch at the bottom of maps and globes. Such lacunae work like magnets, of course, on explorers, and Garfield devotes a chapter to the men who made some of the men who tried to map them.  Apsley Cherry-Garrard titled his account of antarctic exploration The Worst Journey in the World. Robert Falcon Scott and some of his team froze to death in their tent after reaching the south pole only to discover that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beat them to it. As they neared death, Scott recorded in his diary that one of his companions had crawled out of the tent, mumbling only, "I'm going out. I may be some time."  You have to love that English knack for understatement and restraint.

We see it again in an account of a similarly disastrous early exploration of the Australian interior by a team of British adventurers. The journals of the sole survivor, a Mr. King, describe the tribulations and deaths. Mt. Hopeless was one of the geographical features they named. There's a certain dignity in this final request.
"From the time we halted, Mr Burke seemed to be getting worse," King wrote after his lonely return. "He said he felt convinced he could not last many hours, and gave me his watch. He then said to me, 'I hope you will remain with me here until I am quite dead -- it is a comfort to know that some one is by.'"
In the chapter on maps which claim to reveal the location of buried treasure, I couldn't help but see the seeds for the classic Nigerian scam, which also follows a set formula:  I have a [relative] who died an untimely death, and s/he has left a fortune in a Swiss bank account...
In 1911, the American author Ralph D. Paine undertook a survey of "the gold, jewels and plate of pirates, galleons etc, which are sought for to this day", culminating in The Book of Buried Treasure. He found one strikingly common trait. There was always a lone survivor of a piratical crew, and he, "having somehow escaped the hanging, shooting or drowning that he handsomely merited, preserved a chart showing where the treasure had been hid. Unable to return to the place, he gave the parchment to some friend or shipmate, this dramatic transfer usually happening as a death-bed ceremony."The recipient would then dig in vain, "heartily damning the departed pirate for his misleading landmarks and bearings," before handing down the map, and the greed, to the next generation.
One of the English cartographers who had once hand drawn maps for the London A-Z decried the coming of digital mapping, which he claims has as little character as the city itself nowadays.
He looks at an old sheet with trams on it, and compares it with a modern one. "London has totally been redrawn," he says. "But what always amuses me most about this is that London's not really there at all. It's just the streets and the place names, but London as we know it, the houses and the shops, the people, the soul of the place isn't there, it's done away with."
I've heard this so often from English people:  "I don't know London, any more. It's so changed. There are no English people living there now, that's certain!" Yes, I suppose the districts and landmarks of 30 years ago are still in the same places and bear the same names, but they aren't what they used to be. Maybe the A-Z cartographer would appreciate this  map drawn by Anastasiia Kucherenko (who is quite possibly not a native Brit). It is certainly a map with soul, and it's one of the many great maps of the world on They Draw & Travel.

I was reading the chapter on sat-nav and GPS in a local cafe, and the owner ambled over to ask what was making me laugh so hard. He looked puzzled when I told him I was reading a book about maps. He didn't seem to think cartography was an especially mirthful subject, but then we live in Cambodia, where few people use maps of any sort.  Phnom Penh tuktuk drivers, who make their living navigating the capital city, don't know the street names -- you simply tell them that your destination is near this market or that wat. And it works! Which is more than one can say for many of the high-tech solutions...
We had a mile to go, and Bellerby's eyes had switched from the sat nav to the road signs. "When sat navs first came out I thought, 'Why would anyone want one?', he observed. "But then my girlfriend started map reading for me and I thought, 'no, that's not the way forward -- So I bought one when we went to Greece, and short of taking us on a 150 mile detour through France it was absolutely fantastic.'" ...
In 2010, a driver in Bavaria followed his sat nav when it told him to do a U-turn on a motorway, and crashed into a 1953 Rolls Royce Silver Dawn. The Rolls was was one of only 760 made, which may explain why its owner promptly had a heart attack. He recovered; his Rolls did not. A few months later there was the case of Robert Ziegler, a Swiss van driver who followed his sat nav up a narrow mountain goat track and, being unable to turn around or reverse, had to be rescued by helicopter. Then there was the sad tale of a mini-cab driver in Norfolk who followed his sat nav into a river. His boss gleefully told the newspapers "He was in the car with his trousers rolled up. Fish were swimming around the headlights!"
There are so many of these examples that one has to wonder at which point drivers will stop entrusting their lives to the moving maps and start driving with their brains again. 
GPS, however, does more than help smart phone users to find the new coffee shop across town. The implications of its failure are heart-stopping.
What a wonder. What a potential disaster. GPS is now such a significant part of our lives that the effects of failure would be catastrophic. Malfunction would be a blow not just to the digital cartographer and the iPhone user, it would be as if the world's entire harvest of electricity, oil and gas had run out at the same time. The loss of GPS would now affect all emergency services, all systems of traffic control including shipping and flight navigation, and all communications bar semaphore. It would affect the ability to keep accurate time and predict earthquakes. It would set the guidance and interception of ballistic missiles to haywire. What would begin with gridlock at road intersections would very rapidly turn the world dark, and then off. Everything would stop. We would be practically blind. We would not be able to stock our shops and feed ourselves. Only those who knew how to plough a field like they did in the middle ages would have a chance.
As he closes the book with a visit to the Google Maps headquarters, Garfield aptly gives a nod to the label that adorned the treacherous seas in the very earliest maps:  'Here there be dragons'. Noting that the new abilities to track and thus map a person's whereabouts by following his phone's GPS coordinates toes a line between informative and invasive -- and the same goes for the StreetView imaging -- the cartographer assured Garfield that the benefits outweigh the risks.

"Our goal at Google has been to remove as many dragons from your maps as possible."  

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