13 January 2008


Map historian Brian Harley has said “…cartography [is] primarily a form of political discourse concerned with the acquisition and maintenance of power.” Dennis Wood, in The Power of Maps (1992) quotes Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness about blank spaces on a map being of interest to colonial powers. This leads Wood to quote Harley, that the “thirst for the blank spaces” is “a symptom of a deeply ingrained colonial mentality….In this view the world is full of empty spaces ready for taking....” Wood then states that mapmaking “…is not a disinterested cartographic activity, but the result of the…intertwining of polity and mapmaking….” Next, he says, “Mapmaking societies…reach out, not of course to make maps more comprehensive (much less more truthful), but in the unfolding of the dynamic that their growth and development have helped to set in motion (and in which the cartographic enterprise is an essential and committed partner). In so doing they subsume whatever they can….”

In an act of cartophage (my term) the colonial society and its cartography “devour” the colonized. An instructive example is the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885--part of the “Scramble for Africa”--in which a map of Africa, and thus the actual territory, was divided up. African territory was eaten up--cartophaged--by the colonial powers.

In an interesting article in Early Modern Literary Studies (“Partial Views: Shakespeare and the Map of Ireland,” Sept. 1998),
Bernard Klein traces the development of English views vis-à-vis Ireland in plays of Shakespeare, in the 1590s, and English cartography of the same general period. Klein finds that in these two types of social production the Irish moved, in English eyes and maps, from a menacing presence of “wild men and women” living in a shadowy periphery, to forced absence, to visible inclusion in the spatial unit of England, i.e., the subjugated Irish became “English,” at least on contemporary maps.

To conclude: Maps do not only contain knowledge made palatable on cartographic representations, they help to ensnare, dominate, digest, and control.

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