Printer Friendly

An alternative route to mapping history.

From the mappaemundi to the Ptolemaic grid, maps have been both mirrors and catalysts of their times

THE SIXTEENTH-CENTURY GEOGRAPHER Hulsius once wrote, "Maps may be called the light or eye of history." It is in this role, as the primary documents for locating historical events, that early maps are still most used by the historians of the late-twentieth century. Nowhere are these uses more visible than in the study of the maps what is sometimes still called the first great age of European exploration. J. A. Williamson, the distinguished historian of the Cabots, wrote discerningly in 1937 that "old maps are slippery witnesses." But for many researchers maps still hold out the prospect of locating the elusive landfalls of a Columbus or a Drake, of reconstructing the routes of navigators or tracks of the explorers, or perhaps of identifying a place described ambiguously in written texts. Maps are the coordinates of history.

During our researches inn connection with the History of Cartography project and the Maps and the Columbian Encounter Exhibition program, we have come to understand the place of maps in early American history in some alternative ways. Maps can still be analyzed as credible and articulate witnesses to some aspects of the European voyages and explorations to America and in that sense we continue to interrogate them as traditional record of events. But we are also discovering - as we re-read them as a visual language to uncover new meanings - that they have yet more to contribute to a richer history of the Columbian encounter.

First, we are seeking a new perspective that focuses on the use of maps and on the social consequences of their making. The key question is "What happened when particular maps were made?" The research has shifted from a theoretical consideration of what maps were designed to do to what they actually did in society.

Inasmuch as Renaissance maps straddle a major transition in the history of European cartography - from the medieval to the modern - this question is especially fascinating. The dramatic shift in ways of thinking about the world, and in the way that vision was constructed, can be seen by comparing two of the dominant traditions of fifteenth-century cartography. The first tradition, the medieval mappaemundi, was allegorical, historical, and literary - a representation of the space of Christianity. Often centered on Jerusalem, these maps were introverted to the interior of the classical and medieval world by a circumscribing ocean sea. Beyond the pillars of Hercules there was nothing: Ne plus ultra (Nothing more beyond). The second tradition - represented by the rediscovered world maps of Ptolemy - by popularizing coordinates of latitude and longitude, led to a major conceptual shift in ways of fixing geographical positions and hence in visualizing and controlling the world. From the early fifteenth century onwards, after Ptolemy's Geography had been translated into Latin, the system of latitude and longitude - the symbol of modern cartography -began its ascendancy.

The coordinate system derived from Ptolemy was quickly appropriated as an instrument of the first great age of European expansion into the overseas world. Whether or not such a seemingly humble innovation was a necessary condition for that expansion we cannot be sure. But by reversing the introspection of the mappaemundi, the Ptolemaic world map projected an image of extroversion. The numbered sequence of latitude and longitude values, known as the graticule, explicitly recognized the other half of the world. Even if it was not an accurate prediction of what was there, it was a rhetorical visualization of the unknown, an invitation to fill the blank space, and to explore that previously inauspicious West beyond the ocean sea.

The importance of the Ptolemaic grid in the visualization of the world is more difficult to assess at the level of individual historical actors. With Columbus - who, as nearly everyone now knows, began from the assumption that the world was round rather than proving that this was the case - we should be especially cautious. We know that he made careful comparisons of maps and first-hand observations to promote his voyage to America yet the Bible took its place as his authority along with the Classical geographers. In a moment of self-denial, he wrote that "reason, mathematics, and mappaemundi were of no use to me in the execution of the enterprise of the Indies," but this reflects his doubts about the meaning of his mission as well as the geography revealed by his voyages. Certain questions obsessed Columbus: the size of the earth; the longitudinal width of Asia and its relationship to Japan; the corresponding width of the Western Ocean.

The common denominator of the key maps available to Columbus is that they bore a graticule either drawn or implied. So it was with the "navigation chart" drawn by the Florentine physician and astronomer, Paolo Toscanelli in 1474, and a copy of which was later sent to Columbus. Toscanelli describes his map thus: "Although I know that the world can be shown in the form of a sphere, I have determined ... to show the same route by a chart similar to those made for navigation ... the straight lines shown lengthwise on the said chart show the distance from west to east; those across show the distance from north to south . . ." We are looking here at a map graduated with parallels and meridians, a grid that enabled the user to measure the distance across the Atlantic between Lisbon and Quinsay near the city of Cathay in China (26 spaces of 250 leagues each). It may not be an exaggeration to assert that Ptolemy's grid was a critical preconception for the events leading to the meeting of two worlds in 1492. The world maps by Henricus Martellus Germanus, of which the large manuscript map he made in 1489 is the most dramatic example, are crucial for such an understanding. Its graduation in latitude and longitude implies that only 90 degrees of longitude - a quarter of the world - existed between the Canary Islands and Japan.

Second, we find that the often unintended results of making maps are as important as those that were intended. Once again Ptolemy's grid, rectilinear, abstract and uniform is a stimulus for other geographical actions. We do not know if Ptolemy in the second century AD could have foreseen what the eventual historical effects of his invention would be, bu the potential of a system of spatial reference as a source of power and inventory was quickly grasped in the Renaissance. Roger Bacon had already stressed the proselytizing power of a global coordinate system to his patron Pope Clement IV in the thirteenth century. Likewise, Jacopo d'Angelo, in presenting to Pope Alexander V the first Latin translation of Ptolemy's Geography in the early fifteenth century, wrote in the dedication that he hoped the book would serve as "an announcement of his coming rule ... so that he may know what vast power over the world he will soon achieve." And later in his book The Cross, John Donne recognized the religious symbolism of a mathematical coordinate system: "Looke downe, thou spiest out crosses in small things;/ Look up, thou seest byrds rais'd on crossed wings;/ All the Globes frame and spheres, is nothing else/ But the Meridians crossing Parallels." As Samuel Edgerton has put it, "the cartographic grid of the Renaissance was believed to exude moral power"; it expressed "nothing less than the will of the Almighty to bring all human beings to the worship of Christ under European cultural domination." The globe could now be grasped as a knowable totality and though finite, an expression of God's infinite wisdom.

The maps that carried the grid were also a super icon of this power to dominate. Initially, following Ptolemy, the "world map" had covered only the "inhabited" hemisphere of the Old World. The first map on which it extended to the whole world (globes excepted) was the Cosmographia Universalis made circa 1508 by Francesco Rosselli, a commercial printmaker in Florence. This small world map thus has an importance extending far beyond its modest appearance. Graduated with 360 degrees of longitude and 180 degrees of latitude, it is thus the earliest extant map of the world in the modern sense of "map" and "world." It takes on a special significance as drawn on an oval projection into which every point on earth could be theoretically plotted and upon which every potential route for exploration could be shown. The map had truly become a "totalizing device": it was a geographical idea of elegant simplicity.

To the monarchs of early modern Europe bent on imperial and spiritual conquest, the map became a menu for colonization. As one chart maker put it in 1534, "With these charts, the reader may inform himself about all this new world, place by place, as though he himself had been there." The world could be carved-up on paper. By its abstracted simplicity and apparent objectivity, placing the viewer above the world even before the age of the astronaut, it also homogenized space and offered to the explorer and his patron a clean slate for exploitation. The Ptolemaic grid was the perfect cartographic instrument for collecting, collating and correcting geographical knowledge. Robert Thorne could boast in 1527, "there is no sea unnavigable, no land unhabitable." The circumnavigation of the world in 1522 had made everything possible. The world could now be viewed as a marked out stage, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of Ortelius' famous atlas of 1570 and the actors - the Europeans and the "Others" - could be assigned their place. Turn over its pages, and every map has a gridded backdrop on which the Europeanization of the world could be played out. The atlases of the sixteenth and seventeenth century increasingly became the symbols as much as the instruments of European power. Spatial imagery had acquired a new meaning and a new strength.

Our third point addresses the need to consider the maps of peoples on both sides of the Columbian encounter. It highlights the extent to which mapping, rather than being primarily a European preserve, has a significant native American dimension. In the early colonial period, the fullest evidence for the coexistence of Native American and European traditions of mapping relates to Mexico. What the Europeans found in Central America after 1520, though it was not recognized as such, was an independent cradle for the invention of cartography. The claim of pre-Columbian peoples - no less than those of Europe, the Middle East, or China - to have created their own tradition of cartography is confirmed not only by eye-witness reports, as when Cortes was given a "cloth [map] with all the coasts painted on it," but also by the survival of picture maps from both the pre- and post-conquest eras. Somewhat later, it is also confirmed by some of the local maps and plans (pinturas) in the Relaciones Geograficas of New Spain in the 1580s. Though often drawn and painted in a European style, some maps perpetuate purely native or hybrid traditions of representation.

Only relatively recently has the maplike character of Mixtec ritual and genealogical manuscripts been fully recognized. For instance, the pre-conquest Nuttall screenfold and comparable codices are now interpreted as spatial histories showing episodes of an ancestral migration and conquest of the Valley of Mexico. Among the place signs identified in the Nuttall Codex are many of those for hills (shaped like a bell and painted brown), those for buildings, fortified sites, and historical events, and the strings of footprints for routes taken by the conquering lords. Such pictorializations of the land are no less a map than the Peutinger map deriving from the classical Roman world or a fifteenth-century map of a European estate. When the place signs are deciphered and related to a modern map, using archaeological, oral and pictorial evidence, we can reconstruct some of the historical places within the pre-conquest landscape: rivers, lakes, and cities as seen through the lens of an indigenous culture. Mapping as geography and cosmography was by no means alien to the cultures of ancient America and for them, too, maps were the coordinates of history and an ideological perception of territory.

A striking contribution of Native Americans to the mapping of the Encounter - also revealed by recent research - lies in their often unacknowledged choreographing of European exploration. Beginning with Juan de la Cosa's world map of 1500, most European maps showing the New World conceal a hidden stratum of Indian geographical knowledge. It is difficult to imagine what some of the early European maps of America would have looked like had there been no Indian guides when the Europeans arrived in the New World. The extent to which Columbus and his contemporaries relied on Indian knowledge was considerable. As early as October 13, 1492, Columbus reported taking prisoners and on other occasions - alike by the Spanish, English, and French - Indians were kidnapped

and taken back to Europe for interrogation. On their return they became the eyes of the map-maker. A remarkable exchange of geographical information was in progress throughout the sixteenth century and much of it eventually given coordinates in European maps. Among those who had maps drawn for them by Indians are Cortes, Coronado, Escobar, Farfan, Captain John Smith, and Samuel de Champlain. Only a few European maps acknowledge these sources so that their existence has to be inferred from features such as large lakes, artificially straightened rivers running into the west, or the fabled "golden" cities such as Cibola, El Dorado, and Norumbega.

Nor should we picture Native American peoples as solely passive agents for European mapmakers. The mapping of America was not a one-way process in which colonized peoples offered no challenge to external surveys of their territory. It is true that in some regions native voices were quickly silenced and their maps were superseded by those of the politically dominant culture. But in other regions maps were used to help resist the imposition of colonial rule. A tradition of native mapping in Mexico - as part of native art in general - survived the Conquest. We glimpse the power articulated in European maps being partly resisted on native maps which offer an alternative cartography stressing the legitimacy of their own territory.

Among the manifestations of resistance are the maps used by Indians in land claims, where they became documents for litigation in colonial courts. Elsewhere, the genealogy of ruling Indian families was inserted on maps as a way of seeking to restore land or to reduce onerous taxes. The Codex Xolotl - a narrative of the original conquest of the Valley of Mexico by the ruling family of Texcoco - is also a cartography. As the Indians sought to remake their own history through a map, it links time and space, seeking to prove ancient nobility rooted in territory. These "alternative cartographies" stood as a challenge to Spanish power.

In many of the European colonial maps we witness a process of silencing the indigenous culture. The imposition of a western way of seeking as the only valid form of representation excludes not only the Indians from the perception of their own land but also the Europeans from the perception of the Indians. If for the colonists cartography was psychologically enabling, for the colonized it let down a curtain on a familiar world. By insisting that the land will only appear in a certain way - and by affirming the "correctness" and "naturalness" of what it shows - European maps excluded the American way of seeing the land. The induction of this cartographic amnesia was a social projection a future geography. Just as Indian maps were often destroyed, so too were the traces on an Indian geography frequently eradicated from the space of European maps. The maps increasingly convey, through the articulation of the blank spaces and terra incognita, the assumption of an uninscribed earth. Later, in North America, they would contribute to the myth of an empty frontier.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Columbus in 1992, we are reaching toward an alternative cartographic history. Its tone is more reflective than celebratory. Although the maps of the Columbian era have been traditionally viewed as eloquent witnesses of European geographical discoveries, they are much more than that. They also reveal a fundamental shift in thinking by the geographers of Renaissance Europe about the shape and size of their material world. The talisman of this enlarged world was the Ptolemaic grid. But as well as inventorying places discovered by Europeans and identifying a terrain for evangelization, the coordinated space of the new maps was instrumental in the symbolic appropriation of Native American territory. By recognizing Indian peoples as the victims of a European cartography we have also begun to reinstate their contribution into the cartographic record of American history. By reading between the lines of the map, a start has been made in writing a different account of the mapping of a New World that was already old when Columbus arrived.

Maps to the

nth degree

J. Brian Harley and David Woodward have edited a multi-disciplinary world history of cartography being published by the University of Chicago Press in six volumes. The series, entitled History of Cartography, is supported by The National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Science Foundation, and private foundations and individuals. Volume 1, Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean was published in 1987; Volume 2, Book 1, Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies is scheduled for publication in Spring, 1992.

The "Maps and the Columbian Encounter" supported by The National Endowment for the Humanities, has generated a traveling exhibition with a narrative about maps and their meaning from both sides of the encounter. It is described in an illustrated guide by J. Brian Harley, Maps and the Columbian Encounter (Milwaukee: Golda Meir Library, 1990), $12.95.

J. Brian Harley is professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of the Office for Map History, American Geographical Society Collection. David Woodward is professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Harley, J. Brian; Woodward, David
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Warming up for cold sports.
Next Article:Astor Piazzolla: a new-age score for the tango.

Related Articles
Maps on the cusp of change: when Spain's Philip II sent out a questionnaire to his New World domains, native and Spanish respondents had some...
Mapping Australia's transhumance: snow lease and stock route maps of NSW.
Mapping a new colony: the geographical construction of Queensland 1860-1880.
Avalon Travel.
Exploring the Back Roads.
Meaningful maths: teaching map skills: Miranda Pacaya Whittle presents ideas for engaging upper primary students in meaningful mathematics learning...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters