Politicized Geography: Ribeiro’s World Map (1529)

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The Portuguese cartographer Diogo Ribeiro composed this map amid a bitter dispute between Spain and Portugal over the Moluccas, an island chain in present-day Indonesia and hub for the spice trade (in 1494, the two countries had signed a treaty dividing the world’s newly discovered lands in two). After Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition circumnavigated the globe for the first time in 1522, Ribeiro, working for the Spanish crown, placed the “Spice Islands,” inaccurately, just inside the Spanish half of his seemingly scientific world maps. Ribeiro may have known that the islands (which appear on the far-left and far-right sides of the map) actually belonged to Portugal, but he also knew who paid the bills. “This is the first great example of politics manipulating geography,” Brotton says.

Territorial Navigation: Mercator’s World Map (1569)

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Next to Ptolemy, Brotton says, Gerardus Mercator is the most influential figure in the history of mapmaking. The Flemish-German cartographer tried “on a flat piece of paper to mimic the curvature of the earth’s surface,” permitting “him to draw a straight line from, say, Lisbon to the West Coast of the States and maintain an active line of bearing.” Mercator, who was imprisoned by Catholic authorities for alleged Lutheran heresy, designed his map for European navigators. But Brotton thinks it had a higher purpose as well. “I think it’s a map about stoicism and transcendence,” he says. “If you look at the world from several thousands miles up, at all these conflicts in religious and political life, you’re like ants running around.” Mercator has been accused of Eurocentrism, since his projection, which is still occasionally used today, increasingly distorts territory as you go further north and south from the equator. Brotton dismisses this view, arguing that Europe isn’t even at the center of the map.

Commercial Cartography: Blaeu’s Atlas maior (1662)


Working for the Dutch East India Company, Joan Blaeu produced a vast atlas with hundreds of baroque maps gracing thousands of pages. “He’s the last of a tradition: the single, brilliant, magician-like mapmaker who says, ‘I can magically show you the entire world,'” Brotton says. “By the late 17th century, with joint stock companies mapping every corner of the world, anonymous teams of people are crunching data and producing maps.” Blaeu’s market-oriented maps weren’t cutting-edge. But he did break with a mapmaking tradition dating back to Ptolemy of placing the earth at the center of the universe. At the top of the map, the sun is at the center of personifications of the five known planets at the time—in a nod to Copernicus’s theory of the cosmos, even as the earth, divided into two hemispheres, remains at the center of the map, in deference to Ptolemy (Ptolemy is in the upper left, and Copernicus in the upper right). “Blau quietly, cautiously says I think Copernicus is probably right,” Brotton says.

National Mapping: Cassini’s Map of France (1744)

Library of Congress

Beginning under Louis XIV, four generations of the Cassini family presided over the first attempt to survey and map every meter of a country. The Cassinis used the science of triangulation to create this nearly 200-sheet topographic map, which French revolutionaries nationalized in the late 18th century. This, Brotton says, “is the birth of what we understand as modern nation-state mapping … whereas, before, mapmaking was in private hands. Now, in the Google era, mapmaking is again going into private hands.”

Geopolitics: Mackinder’s ‘Geographical Pivot of History’ (1904)


Don’t let the modesty of this “little line drawing” fool you, Brotton says: It “basically created the whole notion that politics is driven to some extent by geographic issues.” The English geographer and imperialist Halford Mackinder included the drawing in a paper arguing that Russia and Central Asia constituted “the pivot of the world’s politics.” Brotton believes this idea—that control of certain pivotal regions can translate into international hegemony—has influenced figures ranging from the Nazis to George Orwell to Henry Kissinger.