Maps demonstrate the connection between countries. They are also highly subjective and allow for distortion. To simply scale down the 3D globe to a 2D projection involves alterations as the map-maker must choose what scale, orientation, key etc. These choices are often linked to the purpose of the map and the intended users. Behind the map-maker, and these decisions, often lies a set of power relations, as deliberate distortions are commonly for advancing agendas.

Brian Harley, who introduced the idea of maps as a language, argues; whether a map is produced for cartographic science or propaganda, it will always be involved in power relations. But how much influence do maps hold, and to what extent do they reflect the societal attitudes of the time? In regards to colonial mapping, how much influence did the map have on the socio-cultural-political perspectives of the reader?

There is a link between maps made during periods of Colonial dominance and the agenda of a country. Specifically, these maps were used to emphasise the power of the Europeans and the differences between them and the various peoples they subordinated. World maps, from 1569, which used the mathematically defined Mercator projection, set the European metropolis in relation to it’s overseas Empire. This was because the scale used increases from the equator to the poles so that the size and shape of continents are skewed. This therefore emphasises the size of those countries further away from the equator. Initially developed for nautical purposes, it emphasised the power of a country by increasing its size. Greenland, for example, is therefore shown to be of a similar size to Africa, and to be larger than Australia, when Africa is fourteen times and Australia three times greater than Greenland.

While using the map to showcase British trade routes, the Imperial Federation Map, 1886, also projected glory within Britain and emphasised to others the global power held by the country. With the British territories in a pink-red colour, this map implied British power over places and the peoples within. Through this map, Edward Said’s idea of Orientalism and the ‘Imperial Self’ evolved, forging national identities which were constructed in opposition to outside groups, or the Other. But how much did the map reflect the British opinion of superiority or did it instil this idea within society?

The style of the map is particularly telling with Britain at the centre and the rest of the world surrounding, connected by trade routes. This is almost as symbolic as the image of Britannia draped over the globe, cradled by Atlas at the bottom of the map. Both the map itself and the images around it makes a great piece of cartographic art as well as emphasising how a map, through visual imagery and implied messages, can play a major role in political propaganda. From this map, the British ideology of bringing knowledge to the rest of the world is reflected.

During this age, colonial power and trade went hand in hand. To trade successfully across the world, it was necessary to develop ways of knowing these places, navigating between them, and controlling the populations. This was only successful through cartography, as emphasised by the Dutch East India Company, who gained a monopoly advantage in the trade of spices in the seventeenth century. For them, maps played a key role in the combination of capitalism and imperial might that the company projected, with maps showcasing the navigational dominance they held and their ability to exploit areas for commerce.

 Both the British Empire and the Dutch East India Company used maps to enhance their agendas but for different political purposes. Maps can be manipulated to illustrate the agenda of those in power. It is important to understand whether these maps influenced societal thinking about the ideals promoted by a country through the maps they commissioned.

The map is a powerful yet problematic tool as subjectivity is central to their production and understanding. Through a comparative approach, my proposal will explore the extent colonial maps were reflecting the socio-cultural and political climate or whether they influenced the reader? Colonial maps of the British empire promoted a way of life as opposed to the Dutch who viewed themselves as a trading company but do these maps send a political message or simply mirror the views of the time? Colonial maps will always promote the agenda of the country in which they were created so by comparing different colonial maps, I want to understand what influence they had on the attitudes of society. My proposal aims to explore how the colonial map acted as political propaganda to manipulate the attitudes of society to promote the philosophies of the particular country.

Power of Colonial Maps

2 thoughts on “Power of Colonial Maps

  • March 5, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Hiya! This is a fascinating topic and a great proposal! I see that you pointed to at least two institutions – the British Empire and the Dutch East India Company – as using maps to advance their own goals. I think what may be interesting is to observe if there is a pattern found in the nature of the institution that produced the maps. What I mean is, does commercial organisations manipulate the representation of geographical space in a particular way? And does this also apply to the case of maps produced by the Empire? How do maps differ when they are used for administrative, commercial, or propaganda purposes? You are also aware of how the ‘intended audience’ will impact on how the map is made. For instance, do the maps differ if the map is produced for the general public in the metropolis, the colonial subjects, or decision-makers in the East India Company? Also, another question that came to my mind: what kind of sources can inform you about why the cartographer chose to make the map in this particular way – are there letters of commission, drafts, explanatory notes, or even diaries? I am also fascinated by the idea that maps can tell us about the representation of the Other. I’m thinking you can make a point about how such maps reflect a certain mentality of how the relationship between the colonial centre and its periphery is conceptualised – perhaps you can compare it to writings in the newspapers or elsewhere that also express a conception of colonial centre-colonies relationship?

  • March 31, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    This is a really exciting project, and it is stimulating that you have decided to include influences from your studies in Geography within your work for History. I am aware that you recently changed the scope of your project a little, but key to your project appears to be visual representation of power in various forms, and examining them to understand what the mapmaker wants to show. I recently came across a book that discusses breaking down borders between geography and contemporary visual arts, and there are several sections in it that I believe could be of interest to you, including one on “Map Art”. To quote one section that reminded me of your project: “Less concerned with geographical accuracy, the display map was about the visual effects of political authority, an aesthetic enactment of worldly power, rather than the “verisimilitude of topographical exactitude.” [p.40]. The book is called “For Creative Geographies” by Harriet Hawkins and available in the art history section of the library on level 4.

Comments are closed.