Maps are a Battlefield

Jacopo Ottaviani talks to Jerry Brotton
Photographs by Delfino Sisto Legnani

I’m in my hotel room in Nairobi. It’s late morning, and a few hours ago the animals that populate the African city stopped singing to hand over to the traffic noise. I open my laptop and log on. At last I’ve got an Internet connection that works. I have an appointment with Jerry Brotton, professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University in London, great map enthusiast, and indeed author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps (London: Allen Lane, 2012).

(Skype sound we all know…) 

Jacopo: Hi Jerry. It’s Jacopo, from Nairobi. We’ve done it at last. How are you? Can you hear me?

Jerry: Hi Jacopo! Yeah, I can hear you perfectly. Are you really in Nairobi? What are you up to over there?  

Jacopo: It seems all too convenient, but I’m here – among other things – to explore how maps are used to tell stories in the African media, and to teach some African journalists elements of digital map-making. But let’s come to you. You’re a great fan of maps. Do you travel a lot because you like maps or do you like maps because you travel a lot?

Jerry: I’ve always travelled and even now I get up and go whenever I can. I’m a grown man and I’ve got three children, but that’s still what I do. My passion for maps has always been closely linked to travel, even though they somehow insulate us from it, stripping it of all the hard work that physical travel requires. Ptolemy comes to mind, who wrote Geography, the first great work of cartography in the Graeco-Roman tradition, without moving from the library in Alexandria. The first geographical maps were based almost exclusively on travellers’ stories, so much so that Ptolemy himself continually used the word akoé (literally, “hearsay”) – as if to instil a doubt and make the inexactness underlying every map emerge.

Jacopo: Let’s try to turn the question round. It’s true that travellers transmit a certain bias and – however accurate they may be – their stories inevitably leave out some fundamental pieces of reality. But what if it were the actual maps that took us off course, and took us away from the essence of things? Thinking about it, the best surprises happen when we travel without a map (today we should say without a smartphone). Travelling off track is an experience that might be scary but it’s very fascinating.

Jerry: We had no connection for a lot of the time in Amazonia. We followed the local pace of life, in the forest, together with the native community who were hosting us. Living without maps gives a sense of freedom. I think travelling off track is a fundamental experience. In the village, we had an hour of electricity a day, and as soon as it came on it was like seeing people in cold turkey finally getting a hit. In itself, Internet is a great big map of the world, if you think about it, and we’re all hooked.

Jacopo: Surfing the Internet makes us feel that we can travel from the comfort of our wherever we’re sitting. You’re on the underground in Rome, you get out your smartphone, go on Google Street Maps and you can walk the streets of New Delhi. But that’s what the funny thing is. On one hand, the Internet helps us travel, and on the other it restricts our freedom. 

Jerry: I analyse Google and Apple in my book. What’s happening now is worrying. These huge companies produce profits through advertising and the geographical apps that they develop (like Google Maps) fall into this logic. Almost all the data that circulates on the Internet contains geographical information that can be used for commercial ends. Until not long ago, a large part of official map-making was financed by public money. Google has put an end to this tradition.

Jacopo: I perfectly understand what you’re worried about. Maps are looking more and more like a battleground where opposing powers clash. It’s getting easier and easier to map a place: just think of the number of drones there are or the easy access to satellite images. On one hand, this privatization of maps can be worrying. On the other, I’d like to put in a good word for technology and think of its positive uses, for example,, a collaborative initiative to create licence-free maps of the world.

Jerry: Absolutely. In reality, maps can be used in a very progressist way. Like maps to understand the spread of AIDS in some regions of sub-Saharan Africa or drones used to map deforestation in Borneo. It all depends on what use you make of technology and what interests it serves. A lot of maps are used to defend the environment or human rights or improve public health, and this point needs underlining.

Jacopo: As you explain in your book, maps have changed essence: from stone to clay, from papyrus to printed paper, and now the elusive pixels. This highlights how maps are an object with a form and contents, which can be deliberately adapted to any purpose. You can map the cosmos and the origin of the world, the influence of a superpower or migration flows in the world.

Jerry: The twentieth century saw map-making used as propaganda. Think of the maps produced during the World Wars and the Cold War. It’s true that maps are always subjective somehow, at the service of religion, science and politics. While they’re always a partial representation of the world, they all show fundamental aspects of a culture. And if you manage to understand the deep meaning of a map, then you can understand how a society sees itself.

Jacopo: I love going in search of dusty maps and atlases on market stalls. A question that I already know the answer to: do you go around hunting for maps too?

Jerry: Of course I do. You go in a second-hand bookshop, find an old map and ask yourself “what did people think when this map was made?”. At a book festival once a visitor said to me: “your book’s got the wrong title… It should have been called The History of Maps in Twelve Worlds.” For me the suggestion was spot on. Every map hides a world. A map is a window onto a world, and when you pick up an ancient map you embark on a journey in space and time. And then it gives you a vision of the world from above. We look at a map and dream. A map can lead us towards the utopian world that we dream of.

Jacopo: Let’s go into even more detail. My favourite map – but tomorrow I could change my mind – is America Invertida by Joaquín Torres-García, Uruguayan designer, painter and entrepreneur born in Montevideo in 1874. His map, a work of art and part of his political manifesto, represents Latin America the other way around to usual, with the South Pole at the top and the Equator at the bottom. Torres-García’s drawing launched the message of the South’s desire to assert itself against the North of the world, by saying “the South is our North”. What’s your favourite map?

Jerry: My favourite is the one by Diogo Ribeiro, Portuguese pilot and cosmographer who worked for the Kingdom of Spain between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At Ribeiro’s time, Spain and Portugal were disputing control of the Maluku Islands in the Indonesian archipelago, at the centre of the spice trading route. The two powers traced a vertical line in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean and decided to divide the world between them: the western hemisphere went to Spain, and the east to Portugal. The doubt about whom the Maluku Islands belonged to arose in 1522. So, Charles V, king of Spain, commissioned Ribeiro to produce a map of the world representing the Maluku Islands at the two extremes, to make them fall under Spanish dominion. A marvellous map, which the map-makers of the time could not question. Modern measurements have since proven Ribeiro wrong, but it took centuries to unravel this extraordinary cartographic trick.

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