The Maps of Defining Lines

In his one-paragraph short story “On Exactitude in Science,” the twentieth-century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges famously wrote of an empire whose yearning for the perfect, most accurate map was so insatiable that its cartographers increasingly refused even to compromise on matters of scale. They made provincial maps the size of cities, then imperial maps the size of provinces, and finally a map of empire that was the exact size of the empire itself. Such a map was of course absurd and ultimately useless, so much so that it soon fell into disuse, its remnants serving only as shelter for vagrants and feral animals.

What Borges reminds us is that no matter how ubiquitous and strenuous their claims to “objectivity,” “accuracy,” and “authority,” maps never simply show the world as it is; they are, as historian of cartography J.B. Harley put it, always “a construction of reality, images laden with intentions and consequences.” This is particularly true of the intimate relationship between cartography and empire, concerned as both enterprises are with dividing up the world on paper and in practice.

Such are the premises of Defining Lines, an exhibit conceived, organized, and executed by undergraduate students as part of the BorderWork(s) Humanities Lab at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute. Drawing exclusively on the holdings of Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the student-curators set out to respond to the issues raised by the artists in Lines of Control by historicizing them. Doing so inevitably raised many questions both about the nature of maps themselves and about the cartographic concerns that literally gave shape to the colonial world. In the end, what they show is that without the Defining Lines of empire, there would not be — at least in the form it has taken — a postcolonial world populated with Lines of Control.

Looking at European and U.S. maps of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America over the course of four centuries, Defining Lines thus invites you through its many different examples to appreciate the map both as a work of art and as a visual text that does rhetorical and ideological work. For instance, in his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), the sixteenth-century Flemish geographer and bookseller Abraham Ortelius offered some of the first and most widely disseminated printed images of the New World in Europe, in a relatively new format specifically designed to be compact, contained, and uniform: the atlas. The Theatrum had the power to offer people who might never travel beyond their hometown a literal “Theater of the World,” reducing it sheet by sheet into a manageable, domesticated, and compartmentalized view. Maps such as Peruviae Auriferae Regionis Typus juxtaposed to a map of Huasteca (in what is now eastern Mexico) and what is possibly the first printed map of Florida introduced European audiences to this world overseas, while tantalizing them with the great possibilities of future expansion and fortune.

Ortelius’s work raises any number of interesting issues about how to read and interpret maps, not least whether any map or collection is ever really the “work” of any one mapmaker: Ortelius himself listed just under one hundred cartographers and other sources upon which he drew to compile the atlas. It also reminds us that imperial maps were produced for any number of purposes, as often for commercial markets as for colonial administrators. The maps in this exhibit show just how deeply colonialism percolated throughout Europe; while drawn from the experiences of major overseas empires — sixteenth-century Spain, eighteenth-century Britain, twentieth-century Germany — many were in fact produced, sold, and circulated in markets that had only tangential contact with the colonial experience. This was as true for Ortelius, selling the New (and Old) World in the cutthroat world of the sixteenth-century Antwerp book trade, as it was for the Nuremberg-based map publisher Homann Heirs, when it published the Typus Geographicus Chili a Paraguay Freti Magellanici &c., ostensibly a reprint of French cartographer Guillaume de L’Isle’s thirty-year old map of southern South America. Despite apparent similarities, closer inspection reveals this edition introduced many subtle but significant changes: a new, remarkably more sedate cartouche, an historical and geographical descriptive text in the western Atlantic, color shading instead of mere outlines of different territories, French and German distance scales in addition to the Spanish from the original. The German map replaced the routes De L’Isle had inserted of sixteenth-century explorers’ routes in the South Atlantic with an inset urban plan of the regional capital of Santiago — converting what remained essentially the same map from a narrative of “discovery” to one that emphasized colonial settlement. Similarly, a half-century later, the Vienna-based atlas and map publisher Franz Anton Schrambl’s Neueste Karte von Hindostan, another treasure of the Rubenstein collection, imported to central Europe an (almost) identical reproduction of the Map of Hindoostan (first ed., 1782) published by James Rennell, the first surveyor-general of India under the expanding eighteenth-century British Empire in India. Rennell’s map shows perfectly the symbiotic relationship between maps and empire and can plausibly be credited with creating the modern idea of the shape and size of India itself. Schrambl also retained, though relocated and translated, the map’s cartouche, which had been abandoned in subsequent English editions. This striking image depicts Brahmin scholars, or pandits, handing over sacred Hindu scriptures and laws (shastras) to the figure of Britannia, under the watchful gaze of British officials and merchants, at her feet artists and surveyor’s tools, and in the distance, an East Indiaman ship. Both the map and its cartouche offer us the same message: colonialism was as much about collecting and making knowledge as it was about acquiring territory itself.

Of course, what counted as trustworthy knowledge — particularly cartographic knowledge — was not always very straightforward. All maps were composites of previous maps, explorer and travel accounts, geographies, histories, and various other sources. This was especially true for those “armchair” geographers like J.B.B. D’Anville, whose cartographic imaginations may have traveled the world and through time but who themselves remained in the confines of metropolitan centers like London and Paris; others, like the Jesuit missionary Joseph Tieffenthaler immersed themselves in local languages, culture, and society, but also ultimately relied on mapmakers and artists back home, such as du Perron, to codify and translate their work for a variety of domestic patrons and audiences. Many, like John Lodge’s eighteenth-century map of Africa, insisted they were “new” — despite relying on a striking resemblance to many earlier, familiar maps in order, ironically, to establish its authenticity and authority. In turn, maps themselves made implicit claims about formal and informal authority over territorial and maritime space, even, as in the two maps from Anthony Finley, which advertise a form of U.S. influence in South America and west Africa, for supposedly “anti-imperial” powers like the nineteenth-century United States. Some maps —such as Thomas Jefferys’s map of Anglo-French conflict in eighteenth-century Southern India, John Barrow’s early nineteenth-century attempt to claim geographical authority over the formerly Dutch Cape Colony, or Max Moisel’s representation of early twentieth-century German claims in East Africa — remind us that the story of colonialism is also one of an exportation of European conflicts and war across the globe. Others represent a bold assertion of colonial authority and power when in fact it was at its most fragile: Moreno’s early nineteenth-century manuscript maps of Alto Peru, drawn amidst anti-colonial rebellion sweeping through not only what is now Bolivia but all of the Spanish Americas, or Stanford’s map of India and Weller’s map of Lucknow, whose depictions of a stable and secure British empire in India belied the great uncertainty and anxiety prompted by the so-called “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857-58.

Despite the fact that these maps relied on so many different kinds of sources, they also show what a crucial role personal and institutional authority played in making colonial maps effective and trustworthy.  One of the most famous examples of this was the so-called Mountains of Kong, a massive mountain range that stretched across much of West Africa. “Discovered” by the explorer Mungo Park in 1797 and first appearing prominently on Rennell’s 1798 map of Africa, this imposing mountain range had only one major problem: it never existed! Created out of a combination of textual evidence, historical scholarship, and Rennell’s own inductive and deductive reasoning, the Mountains of Kong nonetheless endured through much of the nineteenth century, including on the Scottish geographer John Bartholomew’s 1879 map of Africa, also included in this exhibit. Bartholomew’s map was typical of nineteenth-century maps of Africa, which balanced extreme, dense detail near the coasts signifying European inroads into Africa with large swaths of open spaces — what Harley influentially referred to as “silences” — begging for further exploration and expansion. The map can thus be read as a portent of events soon to come, as just a few years later European and American delegates to the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85 would famously inaugurate the “Scramble for Africa,” which, as celebrated in the 1887 Spezial-Karte von Afrika and brilliantly critiqued in Yinka Shonibare’s 2003 work, also on display at the Nasher in Fall 2013, carved up the African continent among themselves, filling in many of those spaces and once again revealing the serious, inextricable, and often devastating consequences of the dividing lines of the colonial map.