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February 23, 2006

The Mapmakers' Quest: Depicting New Worlds in Renaissance Europe - David Buisseret

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Mapmakers' Quest: Depicting New Worlds in Renaissance Europe
by David Buisseret
Pp. xxi+227. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003
Hardback, £20

This accessible, clearly-written, extensively and handsomely-illustrated and attractively-priced (given Oxford University Press's favourable tax position, all its books should be - but sadly are not) study is well arranged. After an introduction on mapping during the Middle Ages, there are separate chapters on the influence of ancient Greece and Rome, the "painterly" origins of some European mapping, 1420-1650, cartography among the ruling European élites, 1450-1650, mapping in the expansion of Europe, 1450-1700, the maps drawn during the Military Revolution, 1500-1800, and mapping countryside and town in the "new economies", 1570-1800.

The choice of maps to accompany the text is good, and reflect Buisseret's wide and well-grounded knowledge of his subject. Some are reproduced in colour. Most of the analysis is apposite. For example, Buisseret points out that alongside the ideological element in colonial cartography which helped validate the seizure of overseas territories, there was also a highly practical element. The section on "painterly origins" is particularly worthwhile.

This is all to the good, but a scholarly review should also draw attention to problems.

First, the book is not free from the teleological, indeed quasi-triumphalist, approach that characterises too much cartographic history. This relates both to mapping and to Europe. Thus, as an instance of the disinclination to engage with ambiguities (p. 112):

The ships of the European powers were by the eighteenth century so well equipped in spatial information that we might consider rephrasing the famous phrase of Carlo Cipolla, and attribute their success to their superiority in "guns, sails – and maps".
In fact, the charting of most coastal waters had to wait until the nineteenth century, while the strength of deep-draught ocean-going European warships was not matched by effectiveness in inshore waters. The ability to sail from Lisbon to Goa or London to Calcutta was very impressive, but, in terms of navigational and cartographic "fit-for-purpose", much of the world's trade and distance-finding were in inshore, deltaic, estuarine, lacustrine and riverine waters, and it is far from clear that what was required for the latter can helpfully be regarded as inferior. As far as "success" is concerned, it was the nineteenth century, with its steamships, iron or steel-bottoms, and extensive charting, that saw the European dominance of, for example, Chinese, African, Indonesian, or Micronesian waters.

Secondly, despite the claim in Buisseret's preface, there is a less than successful attempt to relate maps to their social origins. A much more successful approach is provided by Daniel Headrick in When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), and this is also valuable because maps are treated as one of a number of related information systems.

Thirdly, Buisseret claims that his "third major theme" is:

a revised understanding of the incidence of maps in the world.
He thus hopes to enable the location of European developments into the context of world history. But this is not adequately covered, not least because the comparative dimension is lacking.

Lastly, Buisseret's conclusion "The accelerating use of maps" could be stood on its head, by pointing out the limitations of cartographic culture and popular map-awareness and use in 1800, and the very different position in 1900. Buisseret suggests that the types of maps that emerged in early-modern Europe were the precursors of twentieth-century images; but it is the differences in map culture that emerge more strikingly. Indeed, here we have the usual problem with cartographic history: the focus on the heroic age, on attractive early maps, collectables and antiquarian carto-bibliography, and the relative neglect of more recent developments. This is unfortunate, but worse than that, it is seriously misleading. A focus on changing patterns of map use in the West and elsewhere from 1800 would be particularly welcome.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of Visions of the World: A History of Maps (Mitchell Beazley, 2003), Maps and Politics (Reaktion, 2000), Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past (Yale University Press, 1997) and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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