These maps with attitude on latitude! Don’t believe everything the atlases show you

From time to time, New Delhi makes a splash because someone or the other, somewhere or the other publishes a map of India that does not show Kashmir as part of the country. Questions are raised in Parliament as to how this insult to the national integrity of the country was authorized, and patriotic-minded citizens immolate in public copies of the offending depiction.

But India is not the only country to resent ruthless mapping. An outraged resident of Rio de Janeiro has asked a court to ban the municipality from issuing atlases for geography lessons in local schools. The reason for the carioca’s outrage is that the books in question feature maps based on the standard

model which erroneously shows that the US state of Alaska is the same size as Brazil, when in fact the South American country is almost five times larger than the northern territory it purchased to Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million.

While the Brazilian is rightly practicing for his country to shrink to less size, maps based on the Mercator projection also contain several other anomalies of magnitude. The inappropriately named ice-bound country of Greenland is described as being larger than the African continent, when in reality the latter is 14 times larger than the nation to the north. The size of Africa is similar to that of Europe, although it is almost three times larger. Antarctica, in the world according to Mercator, is the largest continent while in terra cognita, it is the fifth.

The reason for these inaccuracies is that the Mercator projection, devised by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, represents the three-dimensional sphere of the Earth on the two-dimensional surface of the paper. The result is that areas closer to the North Pole and South Pole appear disproportionately larger than those closer to the equator. Despite these misrepresentations, the Mercator projection became an indispensable asset in ocean navigation because it allowed ships to chart a straight line course for their routes.

Gerardus was more than just a map maker. An accomplished mathematician, he applied the science of numbers to geography and astronomy, a union he found “extremely pleasant”. His aim, as he wrote in his 1578 treatise Introduction to Ptolemy’s Geography, was to arrive “not only at the description of the Earth, but also at the structure of all the machinery of the world, of which the many elements are not known to anyone for Date’.

He taught himself the art of engraving, on metal and wood, and in 1536 he designed a terrestrial globe for Charles V, the first of a long series he produced, some of which still exist today. Mercator was an enthusiastic debater on philosophical themes, and had he been here now, he would have welcomed the often controversial discourse surrounding his most renowned creation. For while maps based on its projection continue to be used to aid navigation and teach the elements of geography to students, there is growing controversy regarding the political, social, and cultural implications of the cartographic distortions inherent in its projection.

Critics take to task the implicit, if unintended, racism through which Europe and North America appear far larger than they are in comparison to Africa, Asia and South America, thus endorsing the concept of white superiority and indirectly justifying the history of subjugation and colonialism. In response to such objections, cartographers today have devised alternative projections – such as the Gall-Peters representation, increasingly used in corporate and school spheres, which attempts to show countries and continents to the right size but that tends to elongate them at the equator and compressed in higher latitudes near the poles.

A real map of the world is a logical impossibility. Not only would it have to be as big as the world itself, but it would also have to include within itself a map as big as itself, and so on ad infinitum. “Geography is maps / While history is guys,” said the old doggerel. But it seems the story could also be about the cards and the guys who make them.

Comments are closed.