When I was a small boy I was once allowed to sit up late and watch a television programme about space. As the BBC's astronomer-for-life Patrick Moore, who by the early eighties was beginning to resemble a chunk of unlovely moon rock, showed viewers a recent satellite photograph of the earth's western hemisphere, I objected loudly. Why, I asked my parents, were the green and brown expanses of the Americas devoid of lines? Where was the long thin line that divided the United States from Mexico? Why was the isthmus between North and South America not covered in the jagged half-circles that marked out the pathetically small realms of fractious republics like Nicaragua and Honduras?
My parents were amused. Interpreting my confusion as a sign of tiredness, they sent me to bed before I could upset by a satellite's snapshot of the eastern hemisphere. I may be mistaken, but I believe that my mother said something like "You'll understand when you're older, dear", as she tugged me down the hallway towards my bed.
Thirty years later, I am still sometimes startled when I see a shot of earth from space. I'm so used to looking at maps and atlases which show the world's political boundaries - the borders between nations, but also the lines of demarcation between states, counties, districts, cantons, and cities - that I find it difficult to remember that they aren't, in the objective eye of Mother Nature, or the universe, or an approaching fleet of spacecraft filled with aliens uninterested in the intricacies of human history and sociology - real.
My parents might try to deny it, but they are partly responsible for my cartophilia. When I was too young to remember it, they pinned an enormous map of the world on the bedroom I shared with my brother. As I lay in bed before falling asleep or rising, I stared, fascinated, at the shapes of the world's continents, the tangle of its political boundaries, and the fissures made by its great rivers. Accustomed to reports of famine in Africa on the television news, I came to see the continent as an enormous skull, with its cranium bulging into the Atlantic and its mandible extending south. As the Cold War got colder in the early and middle eighties, and movies like Red Dawn
and Rocky IV turned the prospect of a Hot War into the stuff of schoolboy fantasy
, I became fascinated by that long and cryptic name The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which marched east across the wastes of Siberia towards the Bering Strait, where Alaska seemed to wait like an enormous fist.
The map on my wall was based on the Mercator model of world cartography, which was devised by European imperialists in the sixteenth century and made the northern hemisphere dominate the south spatially as well as politically. The equator sits two-thirds rather than half of the way down the Mercator map. As a result, puny Europe tends to loom as large as South America, and Greenland is bigger than Africa, even though it covers less than a third of the area of that continent.
The regular changes which wars and revolutions give to the world's lines of demarcation mean that a political map is relatively easy to date. I suspect that the map on my bedroom wall was produced in the late seventies or early eighties, because I recall it showing, near the point where Africa tapered off into the Indian Ocean, the names Angola and Mozambique, two nations which crawled from the wreckage of the Portugese empire in 1975. But Angola was still bordered by South West Africa, the name of the colony that Germany established in the nineteenth century and South Africa seized after World War One. South West Africa would not become the independent nation of Namibia until late in the eighties.
It is easy to appreciate the contingent, political nature of maps which show national boundaries, but harder to grasp that even the most scrupulously detailed map of the world's non-human features is incapable of anything approaching objectivity. In the poem
which, seven or so years ago, supplied this blog with its name, the great cartographer of regional New Zealand Kendrick Smithyman
explained the limitations of his art:
Look for an unformed road
lifting suddenly, steep. But get over the crest,
you’re on top of packed sand.
Carry on to the Head. You cross
the old tramway which used to go up to
the Harbour, remains of the one time main road
to gumfields (south of the river and this next
river) out from the edge of the Forest. It went on
down the coast, then climbed inland on the line
Of a Maori trail. Of course, the map doesn’t
say anything about that. Maps can
tell you about what is supposedly present.
They know little about what’s past and only
so much about outcomes. They work within
tacit limits. They’re not good at predicting.
If everything is anywhere in flux
Perhaps we may not read the same map twice.
Aneirin's Uncle and Aunty gave him a map of the world for his first Christmas. Where my first map was flat, Aneirin's is large and round and soft, like the brain of an elephant. It divides the world into nations, and America into states. (After examining Aneirin's world, my father complained about the way that it breaks America, but not similarly large nations like China or Brazil, into its constituent parts. He accused the cartographers involved in the production of the toy of Amerophilia, or Sinophobia, or both, and he may have had a point, but I have always thought that the United States looks better when its internal borders are shown. With its grid of states shaped like squares and rectangles and filled in with strong primary colours, America looks a little like a Mondrian canvas, or an aerial photograph of a Midwest farm sown with different crops.)
The political boundaries on Aneirin's globe are up-to-date, and yet not necessarily unassailable. His version of Europe includes Kosovo, which has been widely recognised as independent since 2008, and his Africa distinguishes South Sudan from Sudan, in recognition of the 2011 referendum where 99% of the people of the south voted to secede from their northern oppressors.
But the nations on Aneirin's globe do not include Somaliland, the former northern region of Somalia which has run its own affairs since the collapse of that state twenty years ago, and has won plaudits from Africa-watchers like Bob Geldof for its democratic elections and relatively peaceful streets. Somaliland has for years now been pleading in vain for recognition as an independent state, but its calls have been opposed by its larger and more powerful neighbour Ethiopia, which is one the United States' most important allies in Africa.
The Republic of Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia in the late nineties and is recognised by six nations, including Russia and Venezuela, is also absent from Aneirin's globe. Georgia, which is a close ally of the West, still claims Abkhazia, and has talked of regaining the region by force.
Aneirin's globe plants a P on the West Bank to signify Palestine. Is this rather drastic abbreviation a concession to the controversy around the status of Palestine, which has been occupied and colonised by Israel since (at least) 1967, yet was recently recognised by most of the world as an independent nation, or is it simply a necessity, given the tiny size of the West Bank? The mapmakers have given up altogether on naming the tiny European countries of Liechenstein, Monaco, and Vatican City, though they have been able, thanks to the generous blue spaces of the Pacific Ocean, to recognise nations like Nauru, which covers twenty-one square kilometres, and Tuvalu, which is only five kilometres larger.
With their attempts to sum up a complex and contested reality with a few shapes and symbols, maps are a metaphor for the limits of all human attempts to know the world. They are both essential and inherently flawed. They should be seen as an invitation to discussion and redefinition, rather than as final definitions. That, at any rate, is what I think I overheard Aneirin saying to himself when he was playing with his present on Christmas day...
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]