Maps: A Beginner’s Cartography

Julia Lewandoski is a writer and PhD candidate in History at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation compares imperial and indigenous mapping practices in eighteenth and nineteenth century Quebec, Louisiana, and California.

Maps locate histories—stories about time—in the geographies where they happened. But they also have their own histories, and their historians have spent the past few decades demonstrating just how complicated cartography can be. As it turns out, maps aren’t just dispassionate depictions of territory, interpreted in the same, self-explanatory way by everyone who looks at them. Rivers change their meanders and humans argue over boundaries. Features have to be left off or altered, or else the map will end up as large as the territory. Maps cajole, they conceal, they simplify, they project. There’s no guarantee that they will be interpreted as their makers intended. In short, they are untrustworthy.

This critical cartography approach, first championed in the 1980s by geographer J.B. Harley, responded to nearly a century of triumphalist histories celebrating increasing accuracy and clarity in Western mapmaking since the Middle Ages. (While Harley isn’t on this list, his famous essay, “Deconstructing the Map,” is undoubtedly cited by everyone who is). Whether or not everyone before Harley actually believed that maps were little more than straightforward windows into a factual world, the healthy skepticism he introduced has been a wonderful thing for the field. The vast expansion of the questions asked about maps—from what do they show, to what do they do—has moved the history of cartography out of the realm of technical specialists. Now, writing about maps means writing about art and science, knowledge and labor, states and individuals, empire and colonialism, nostalgia and imagination, oceans and trees, and space and time.

Most of these books focus on the Americas and the Atlantic World in just the past four hundred years, but nevertheless convey the breadth of the spectrum of what maps can mean. Maps appear here as stand-ins for knowledge, as the constructed stages built for human dramas, as myths that blend past and future, as mistakes and blank spots of ignorance, and as the sharp edges that differentiate human cultures.

Places to Start

Why is it so hard to explain maps without using maps? This rough and ready guide ranges through philosophy, anthropology, social theory, and art history to provoke and address questions about how maps display, organize, and conceal graphic information. Arranged as an exhibition catalog, it contains astonishingly beautiful maps from many places and times.

Paul Carter’s poetic meditation on the British exploration of Australia complicates the map-making process. How did explorers order territories in their imaginations at the same time they moved through them? Carter’s careful attention to the cultural aspects of colonialism—its creation of inevitable histories of settlement and landscapes ordered for conquest—makes this book essential for understanding how indigenous spaces are transformed by colonizers on the ground and (equally powerfully) on maps.

Digging In

Burnett’s story of the British exploration of Guyana in a fruitless search for the riches of El Dorado captures the key role of myths in colonial map-making. Read this after Paul Carter, and watch Burnett masterfully build on The Road to Botany Bay, adding another level of human complexity to Carter’s conclusions about space and imagination.

This collection of essays, ostensibly about the surveys of Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader and explorer Peter Fidler, capture the labor of map-making, the spread of the fur trade, and the landscape of the north. Read it in particular for Belyea’s ingenious and productive comparisons of indigenous and settler maps and attempts on both sides to translate them.

Yes, his last name is Mapp. This book explains why the North American West was so hard to map during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Mapp painstakingly charts the failures of Spanish, French, and British empires to get a handle on the territory—even when they thoroughly engaged with Native Americans and their geographical knowledge—and demonstrates how ignorance about the west was central to the momentous imperial losses of France and Spain in the mid-eighteenth century.

New Moves

Robin Kelsey revisits the well-known photographs taken by U.S. Geological Survey photographers in the late 19th century American West, showing how the instrumental demands of survey photography fostered their uniquely modernist style. Beautiful plates of Western geology and a close analysis of the labor conditions of survey expeditions make this book a fascinating read.

The linear chronology is in fact a relatively new idea, argue Rosenberg and Grafton, and they propose many alternatives to mapping time, both historical and contemporary. Essentially a history of the cartography of history, they discuss some of the fundamental problems of graphic representation, raise key questions in contemporary historical theory, and provide some very useful artistic responses that rein in the abstraction.

Voices and Lives

This lively narrative history reads like a detective story, recounting the attempt of two French astronomers to establish the metric system as a measure based on nature (an exact fraction of the earth’s circumference). Their 1792 attempt to measure a meridian arc from Dunkirk to Barcelona contained a fundamental error that they desperately attempted to conceal. Their quest changed not only both of their lives and the way that most of the world measures distance, but how grievous errors of calculation are managed by the scientific community, no longer as moral failures, but as inevitable parts of the scientific process.

Hapless French swashbuckler Dumont de Montigny spent a good deal of time in 18th century Louisiana, where he drew many of his observations and made rudimentary maps. This recent translation is an entertaining first-person account of his extraordinary (though bumbling) life, as well as an exceptional demonstration of how hard it is to map a landscape that is mostly water.