Books

Atlases aren’t dead yet

Jeremy Black pores over the latest offerings from the scholarly literature on cartography

The much-reported demise of the atlas thankfully was one of the many predictions of the 2010s that proved wrong, or at least premature. Despite the aim of so many publishers to produce wrist-strainers that might seem to encourage the circe of kindle, issues of ease, comfort, practicality and aesthetics come together to press the case for resistance to modernising fantasies. One of the most obvious appeals is the aesthetic, and here maps and atlases in real, not cyber, space come into their own.

History of World Trade in Maps by Philip Parker (Collins, 2020)

Of course, the map can be presented as essentially the digital information system and not the format, but actually no: the wish to see and handle come into play. Indeed, I was recently sent for review a massive work of cartographic history, Cartography in the European Enlightenment (2020) edited by Matthew Edney and Mary Sponberg Pedley, Volume 4, of the superb University of Chicago Press History of Cartography, in an electronic form. I gave up after 50 pages and said hardcopy or nought. They sent the former and it is brilliant, continuing the already very high standards of what is the most significant series in cartographic history ever published. As is only to be expected, the volume reflects shifts in ideas over recent decades about both the Enlightenment and cartography. Nevertheless, it is scholarly rather than modish and it is especially valuable to have such a wide coverage of different parts of Europe. A must for anyone interested in maps or the Enlightenment, and a work that whets the appetite for the next volume due out, that on the nineteenth century.

The following are all recent works available in hard copy. I have already discussed Tim Harper’s excellent A World of Maps from The British Library (2018; 2020 paperback). Philip Parker’s History of World Trade in Maps (Collins, 2020), unfortunately is less successful. An attractively produced collection of maps, that profitably employs an interesting theme, but certainly does not exhaust the topic, either cartographically or analytically. It can be difficult to interest publishers in new ways to present old maps, and Parker is to be congratulated for doing so, but, precisely because such books only appear infrequently, there is a degree of responsibility on the part of the author to offer a coverage of the topic that throws considerable light on it, not least on the issues involved in the past in mapmaking, including gaps in the cartographic record.

Turning to the past and to both texts and maps, Parker offers a very Eurocentric account

The selection of maps here is interesting, but too few of them relate directly to trade, and many of the historical ones are precisely that, old maps that have nothing specific to do with it. The Hereford Mappa Mundi is a good example of this, while some of the later maps, for example the Bertius’ 1623 map of the Carolingian empire, the Ortelius map inserted to illustrate Rome’s Eastern trade, the Burckhardt map of Petra designed to show the Frankincense Route, the 1923 map of Greek and Phoenician settlements in the Mediterranean, and the modern Russian map from the Amber Combine in Kaliningrad used to illustrate “The Amber Road,” add little and are, if anything, confusing. Thus, to present knowledge as in 1923 does not capture what we have since ascertained, not least Phoenician bases further up the Iberian coast, including in the Algarve and at Lisbon (Alis Ubbo of calm harbour), as well as further down the coast of Morocco, certainly to Mogador, and possibly further. In addition, the Phoenicians traded, as the text notes, further afield, including with Cornwall, but that does not appear in the map.

In this respect, there is a falling between stools. If later maps are to be used, they should be as accurate as possible, which tends to mean taking note of recent archaeological research and providing therefore recent, not historic, historical maps. Moreover, if historical atlases are to be employed, there are excellent ones, for example the three-volume one on Canada.

Many of the maps offered by Parker on recent trade are interesting, with good sections on oil in the North Sea, Electronics and the Internet, and Banking and Finance. However, major modern trades that are ignored include drugs, money laundering, and modern slavery. There are maps of these, notably the first, in other sources.

Although perfunctorily mentioned in the section on tourism, trade by air is also ignored, with the sole map being “The Air Age Map of the World,” a 1945 work essentially of distances. This omission is remarkable because, although relatively low bulk, air travel is high value, and has also opened up areas to production as well as transformed marketing. Thus, Madrid, despite being in the centre of the country, prides itself on the quality of the fish served which is airfreighted in each morning from Spain’s oceanic ports. Longer-range air freight takes, for example, Kenyan flowers to Britain and Zambian meat to Saudi Arabia. The routes, volume and value of UPS air travel provides a relatively easy as well as important topic for mapping.

Other current trade routes underplayed by Parker include those opened up by the recent expansion to the Panama Canal, which enabled larger vessels, but also then ensured that only upgraded ports could handle them. The opening up of routes to the north of Asia and North America should also have been covered, as well as the Chinese attempt to develop a global maritime system with key ports, which is far more consequential than the map offered of the European Union.

Old maps should be contextualised accordingly while the difficulties faced by the modern cartographer should be addressed

Turning to the past and to both texts and maps, Parker offers a very Eurocentric account. There are some worthwhile sections on Ottoman maps, and spreads on the voyages of Zheng He and on Aztec trade, but the rest of the world, thereafter, is essentially organised in terms of the West. Moreover, the mechanism of trade is transoceanic, with an addition of railways in the nineteenth century. This is unfortunate in many respects. Parker downplays or ignores the range of other maritime and land milieux and mechanisms, such as deltaic, lacustrine, riverine, estuarine and inshore trade, which made up the bulk of world trade by water. As far as maritime traders are concerned, the Maya, the Omanis, and the Polynesians are the most obvious of the many who do not feature. There are of course problems with finding any contemporary mapping for them, but there is material for Polynesia and, since Parker includes historical maps, modern scholarly works could have been used. At the very least, there is a place for contextualising the West in the text.

So, more generally, with the need for a discussion of the issues involved in mapping trade, as for example in the map of the spread of Covid that ends the book, one that is innocent of any suggestion of problems with the data. An attractive work, that Parker, a fluent writer, can hopefully greatly improve in a second edition.

The English Civil War: An Atlas and Concise History of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1639-51 by Nick Lipscombe (Osprey, 2020)

I leave to others to assess my World War Two in 100 Maps (British Library/University of Chicago Press, 2020). Whereas that uses contemporary maps and discusses the issues they pose, excellent use of later ones is provided by Nick Lipscombe in his handsome The English Civil War: An Atlas and Concise History of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1639-51 (Osprey, 2020). Building on his first-rate atlas of the Peninsular War, his clear maps help the reader to follow both campaigns and battles.

Two books by Bernard Nurse, each published by the Bodleian: Town: Prints and Drawings Before 1800 (2020) and London: Prints and Drawings Before 1800 (2017) deserve attention. A former librarian of the Society of Antiquaries, Nurse is the obvious person to make these excellent selections from the extensive collection of Richard Gough, who was its Director from 1771 to 1791, a collection now held in the Bodleian.

Treat the reader as an adult, and avoid the simplicity offered in some of the exploitation atlases churned out by the trade

The London volume includes useful discussions of topographical prints and drawings, as well as Gough, and after a section on maps is organised primarily in terms of the City, Westminster, the Thames, and the environs. The maps and drawings are clearly reproduced and there is an appropriate captioning. Maps include not only those of London as a whole, but also particular parts of it, such as the plan of the houses destroyed by the big Cornhill fire in 1748. The plan separates houses burnt from those damaged. Another map of nearly the same period presents Marylebone Lane and part of the Harley estate from about 1730. It shows streets that were divided up amongst builders in the 1720s, but not exactly as they were divided up amongst builders. The sketch of Wimbledon of 1776 shows another part of the area that was being built up. A volume both beautiful and scholarly, and a joy to handle. So also with the Towns volume. The coverage ensures that this is less focused than the London one but it has all its value and values. Alongside printed works there are lesser known or accessible ones, including Barnstaple, Portsmouth and Whitehaven, as well as a full-page reproduction of Gough’s annotated map of the British Isles section of the Hereford Mappa Mundi.

Town: Prints and Drawings Before 1800 by Bernard Nurse (2020)

Moreover, the careful juxtaposition of material makes for an easy as well as engrossing read. A list of books and atlases does not address what possibly readers should expect. Without thinking in terms of conspiracy or subterfuge, it is helpful for the author to draw attention to the overlapping and interacting exigencies, issues, opportunities, and problems posed by particular topics and specific methods. Old maps should be contextualised accordingly while the difficulties faced by the modern cartographer should be addressed. It is also foolish necessarily to see an improvement through time. Treat the reader as an adult, and avoid the simplicity offered in some of the exploitation atlases churned out by the trade.


Jeremy Black’s books include Maps and History and Maps and Politics.

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