Maps as we know them today are the result of millennia of study and observation. Unlike modern maps, which focus on the exact lay of the land, the creations of ancient European mapmakers emphasized roads, cities, rivers, and safe harbors, since other details were not as important to travelers and traders at the time (Madan 25). As the needs of European cultures changed, so did the details on the maps. Indeed, the height of European colonialism saw some of greatest developments in map-making techniques and actually led to the development of what we conceive of as the modern map (See Geography and Empire).

Ancient and Medieval Maps

Both in content and accuracy, the map of the world, as created by pre-Renaissance Europeans, little resembles maps seen today in geography books. Often such maps existed for the purposes of national or religious propaganda, such as the well known mappa mundi (Latin for “map of the world”), which aligned the top of the map with east, the direction of Jerusalem. In the border of the map, Jesus typically sits at the top, and various seemingly “less-civilized” peoples are depicted in the southern lands. In one particular map, the further south one looks, the more deformed the people are depicted, until some at the edge of the map have dog-faces, eyes on their chest, or a single leg on which they hop (Friedman).

Of course, it would be inaccurate to think that the same map was used by all peoples across the globe. Rather, world maps developed slowly and interdependently, with explorers and traders from one region adding details known to local inhabitants of another, learning the lay of the land in stages.

The development of maps of foreign lands typically began with merchants learning land or sea routes, but leaving all other areas empty (or illustrated with any variety of monsters and extravagant flourishes) (See Spice Trade in India). The terrain became more detailed as they or those who came after them roamed further in the pursuit of new people with whom to trade. Over the course of several centuries of contact, a thoroughly detailed concept of the land emerged. Accurate cartography, however, did not come until much later, when such precision was necessary for the management of colonial holdings.

Colonialism and the Development of the Modern Map

Walter Crane map of the British Empire in 1886/public domain
Walter Crane map of the British Empire in 1886/public domain

The two main areas which Europeans mapped because of the colonial drive were Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Colonial powers had long since mapped their own continent before the age of expansion and had a detailed understanding of their homelands. Their maps of Europe had developed as the people lived there, quite unlike the explorative impetus that drove map-making in India and Africa.

Though colonial explorers were not responsible for the mapping of America, Australia, or most of Asia, this was due only to a lack of prolonged colonial presence in those regions. In the Americas, colonialism did not maintain a long enough foothold for Europeans to explore all the land, and there was never a distinct colonial presence in Northern and Eastern Asia. As for Australia, the land of the Australian outback was too inhospitable for colonial explorers to consider it worth mapping (Ryan 101). In India and Africa, however, the process of map-making closely coincided with the spread of European influence.

India: From Portuguese Sea Routes to British Rule

Travelers to India originally followed ancient or medieval land trade routes through Arabia or through northern Africa if they traveled by water bridging the eastern Africa coast and the west coast of India. In the 15th century, however, the Turks occupied key land routes to the East, making them unprofitable for merchants. This led to a drive to find a purely sea-route to India (Davies 40). Christopher Columbus erroneously believed he could sail around the world and reach India’s east coast, but it was instead Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama who, in 1498, sailed around the southern tip of Africa and reached India purely by sea.

The gradual process of trying to surmount the obstacle posed by Africa resulted in a thorough mapping of its coastline. The Portuguese were content to trade with the coastal cities of the subcontinent, though, and they made little progress into the interior lands of India. It was not until the British tried to follow the same routes to India that Europeans explored the interior. In 1614, the British destroyed the Portuguese navy near India and began to set up their own trade contacts (Madan 46).

Throughout the 17th century, the focus of map-making in India shifted from coastlines to interior rivers (Madan 47). Travel guides began to map not only geography, but also the social and cultural aspects of the various empires in the subcontinent. This material helped traders develop closer and more efficient ties with their business partners. Royally-sponsored explorers also sought to map as much of India as possible so that England’s commerce could reach all possible customers.

In the late 18th-century, British concerns in India shifted from commerce to control. Under British governor-general Lord Wellesley, the British began to slowly claim pieces of territory in the subcontinent. In 1799, after a series of short wars between England and an Indian leader named Tipu Sultan, Tipu’s holdings were divided among various other Indian kingdoms (Itihaas). As part of this partitioning, however, England annexed a large portion of the lands, and for the first time actually considered parts of India its colonies. Gradually thereafter, over the course of several decades, increasingly more land came under British control (Davies 56).

With new lands coming into England’s own possession, it became important for accurate maps to be drawn up to run telegraph and rail lines. Likewise, the military wanted accurate depictions of the terrain in the event of conflict. Beginning around the early 1830s, cartographers began a long and exacting process to triangulate the exact position of key landmarks and create a full map of India. Despite the expense of this undertaking, it was considered necessary for future development, and the Court of Directors praised it.  The mapping was completed in 1848, resulting in a cartographic map of India that is effectively the same as its modern counterparts (Madan 92).

Colonial Africa

Much like in India, European countries established their own holdings, beginning with trade in goods and slaves then moving on to include missionary work and eventually their own new settlements. However, despite earlier arrival in Africa, most European nations did not gain complete administrative control of their African colonies until the late 19th century.(See Victorian Women Travelers in the 19th Century, Cecil Rhodes)

In most early maps created by European travelers, the details strayed little into the interior, detailing only the coastline, which was mapped with relative clarity by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century (Stone24). The inner lands often were left simply empty and without detail, letting a mystique develop that survived for centuries, perhaps best seen in the writings of Henry Morton Stanley, who coined the phrase, “darkest Africa.”

The various needs of travelers influenced mapmakers, and clear differences can be seen between the maps made for hunters or slave traders and the maps created for missionaries. These maps paid primary attention to the general location of either good hunting grounds or key settlements, but also included information on the inhabitants of those areas. Before the 19th century, the European presence in Africa was overall not substantial enough to allow heavy-handed tactics, and so it was important for travelers to have knowledge of the people they would encounter (Stone 79).

As the colonial imperative in Africa strengthened, however, maps generally began detailing mostly geographical and political regions. Overall, maps became more important to European governments, not just traders or missionaries. For example, in 1865, Turkish authorities in Egypt hired American military mapmakers to chart the Upper Nile; decades later, British authorities used details from these maps to plan their invasion of the land that would become the colony of Sudan (Mercator).

In the Berlin Treaty of 1885, the fourteen nations who participated sought to develop and civilize the land, and to maintain their free trade in Africa along its coasts and rivers. Despite this second intention, though, the first one gained more strength, and true colonialism began to flourish in the years following the treaty. Countries sought to partition out the lands of Africa among themselves, so the creation of political maps became critical (Stone 77).

Like in India, maps were used for plotting lines of railroads and telegraphs, but their other usages were quite different. The Indian map-making combined all the lands of the subcontinent into one group, whereas the African partition made almost arbitrary divisions that separated indigenous cultural groups and language speakers. Many problems in the colonial period in Africa were concerned with conflicts between groups that were forced to become homogenized because of the lines on a map they had never seen. Geographical societies of scholars and government-directed cartographers devoted most attention in their map-making to plotting out areas of likely settlement and colonization, and paid little attention to how the native peoples would receive them (Stone 226).

Modern Maps

Medieval and renaissance explorers mapped their travels with attention to stories and adventure and wrote accounts that read more like guidebooks than actual maps. Imperial and colonial cartographers began to clear away the “dark” and “unknown” territories of the world, creating a clear picture of the shape of the land while sacrificing something of the concern with understanding or seeing those lands. (See Essentialism)

Now, in the modern day, with modern technology, the entire world has been mapped geographically with amazing precision. With no new lands to explore, and a slow reduction in the amount of land changing hands between nations, maps today have once again begun to be used to help understand not only the lay of the land but also the content of that land, both in goods and in people.  A look at any history textbook shows more emphasis given to the languages spoken, the economic prosperity, or the religious diversity in a region than to contours. Though we owe much of the existence of physical maps today to the exploration and scientific study of colonial-era Europeans, modern usage of maps has taken them in new, more socially-conscientious directions.

Works Cited

  • Davies, C. Collin. An Historical Atlas of the Indian Peninsula. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1949.
  • Friedman, John Block. The Monstrous Races. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • “Tipu.” Itihaas: Chronology-Modern India-1757 AD to 1947 AD. Web.  11 Nov. 2001.
  • Madan, P.L. Indian Cartography: A Historical Perspective. New Delhi: Manohar, 1997.
  • “Mercator’s World Feature? Africa Divided:” Mercator. Web. 11 Nov. 2001.
  • Ryan, Simon. The Cartographic Eye: How Explorers Saw Australia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Stone, Jeffrey C. A Short History of the Cartography of Africa. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.

Selected Bibliography

  • O’Dwyer, Michael. India As I Knew It: 1885-1925. Delhi, India: Mittal Publications, 1968.
  • Phillips, Richard. Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.
  • Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. London: Duke University Press, 1993.

Related Links

Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to Divide Africa
The Partition of India

Author: Ryan Nock, Fall 2001
Last edited: October 2017


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