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How the world map kept changing over centuries

Each map tells us the story of the world as seen through the eyes of the one creating it

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi | December 14, 2016 7:45:24 pm

Laid out in two dimensional colourful patterns, the world map is perhaps the most definite spot to arrive at when looking out for answers to geographical curiosities. Little is it known that the world map as we know it today is a result of a long process of political evolution. The map is a lot more that just an array of lines between modern nation states. First, it tells us the story of the world as seen through the eyes of the one creating it. Second, it spins out in visual form, the history of the world as it unfolded across centuries.

An ongoing exhibition in the British library sketches out an evolution of world maps of the 20th century. Archived by curator Tom Harper the exhibition is a collection of world maps, each made at different points in time, under different historical circumstances. Be it the navy map of the British empire or map sketched out by Maurice Gomberg that sketched out the world order as the Americans wanted it to be post World War II, each of these maps give us cues to the gradual uncoiling of world history.

The earliest map- The Babylonian map of the world

Largely believed to be the earliest map of the world, this piece of cartography laid out on a piece of clay tablet is dated to 500 BCE and is currently on display in the British Museum. It conceives the world in two concentric circles with triangles extending out from the outer circle. The city of Babylonia was the centre of the circle, the area in between two concentric circles lie the cosmic ocean while the triangular extensions were perceived to be unchartered territory. The text on the map tells us that it was drawn with the intention of sketching out the world.

maps, world map, history of the world map, british library, exhibition in british library, cartography, history of maps, Indian Express The text on the map tells us that it was drawn with the intention of sketching out the world. (Wikimedia Commons)

Gerhard Mercator’s map

It is only from the 12th century on that we find maps with scientific topographies. One of the very first attempts of a calculative arrangement of world order was made by Flemish cartographer, Gerard Mercator. Mercator’s cartographic initiative done keeping in mind the nautical requirements of sailors, is the method we follow in present times for map making. Interestingly, Mercator had never travelled and had to rely upon the information given to him by sailors and travellers along with his imaginative skills for the sake of drawing out the map. Mercator was the one who found a solution for exhibiting the world in flat format by increasing the space between latitudes as they approached the poles. He is also the first person to have devised the concept of atlas as a collection multiple maps.

maps, world map, history of the world map, british library, exhibition in british library, cartography, history of maps, Indian Express One of the very first attempts of a calculative arrangement of world order was made by Flemish cartographer, Gerard Mercator. (British library archives)

The navy league map

From the twentieth century on the epistemology of mapping took on a much more sophisticated form. Further the historical occurrences of the century led to the birth of several new nation states which are seen evolving and shifting in the maps of the time. One of the first attempts at world mapping is the one drawn by the British navy in 1901.

The British navy was one of the key factors that led to the growth and sustenance of the British empire. This map was a straightforward projection of the British imperial power. Coloured in red are those areas which were part of the empire. Underneath, the statistics give numerical value to the greatness of the navy and yearly financial yields it made.

Writing for the British library’s website, curator Tom Harper says “the fact that it is dedicated to ‘the children of the British Empire’ proves its intended appeal to those future administrators of the Empire.”

maps, world map, history of the world map, british library, exhibition in british library, cartography, history of maps, Indian Express Coloured in red are those areas which were part of the British empire. (British library archives)

The German map post World War I

The First World War ended in 1919 with the victory of the allied powers (Great Britain, France, America and Russia) and the defeat of the axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). What followed soon was the famous ‘treaty of Versailles’ signed on June 28, 1919. The clauses of the treaty forced the defeated powers to claim full responsibility of the damage caused as a result of the war. As part of the treaty, Germany was forced to let go of its overseas territories with the claim that these regions had the right to statehood for themselves.

This map made by a German cartographer is a witty take on the treaty that questions the victors on the future of those territories which were part of their empires. Named in German as Was von der Entente übrig bliebe, wenn sie Ernst machte mit dem Selbstbestimmungsrecht ihrer eigenen Völker und die Zügel losließe’ , it basically asks the question ‘What would be left of the Entente if they were serious about their own people’s ‘right of self-determination’ and let go of the reins!’

maps, world map, history of the world map, british library, exhibition in british library, cartography, history of maps, Indian Express This map made by a German cartographer is a witty take on the treaty that questions the victors on the future of those territories which were part of their empires. (British library archives)

The American view of what the world might look after World War II

In the midst of the Second World War, there was much speculation among politicians and scholars regarding how they wanted to visualise the world after the war was over. One such interpretation of the new world order was the map published in 1942 by an American cartographer Maurice Gomberg. The core principle behind the drawing of the map was that a small group of nations should lead the world, for the greater good of the global order. The footer of the map listed out the American vision of the world as it would have wanted it to be.

maps, world map, history of the world map, british library, exhibition in british library, cartography, history of maps, Indian Express The footer of the map listed out the American vision of the world as it would have wanted it to be. (British library archives)

The world map as we know it today

In 1974, historian and cartographer Arno Peters proposed a new map that he said would do away with the discrepancies of the Mercator map. In the map sketched out by Gerard Mercator, the areas of the countries were drawn in a way giving more prominence to the dominant colonising nations of the world. Peters decided to do away with this phenomenon, and make a direct correlation between the real area of each country and the area projected on the map. Considering the fact that by the 1970s, two world wars had taken place and colonialism had almost ended, it was considered necessary to do away with cartographic features that portrayed some countries as more powerful than others.

maps, world map, history of the world map, british library, exhibition in british library, cartography, history of maps, Indian Express Peters decided to do away with this phenomenon, and make a direct correlation between the real area of each country and the area projected on the map. (British library archives)

The above list of world maps are only few among the several others drawn and collected in different parts of the world over time, each telling a story of its own.

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