The Road to There: Mapmakers and Their Stories

by Val Ross
ISBN: 0887766218

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A Review of: The Road to There: Mapmakers and Their Stories
by Olga Stein

In The Road to There Val Ross charts the history of cartography, and thereby also the course of world history. What's in a map? The ones reproduced in this book are some of the earliest to tackle the daunting task of visually representing vast distances spanning countries and seas? The maps show the obvious: newly-charted territories, portions of coasts belonging to countries, islands, and sometimes parts of just-discovered continents, and various topographical features. Maps drawn after the early 1500s could also incorporated lines of longitude (Gemma Frisius solved the problem of east-west orientation by proposing in 1533 that since the world took twenty-four hours to spin around its axis, "if you divide the 360 degrees of that circle into twenty-four parts, you got one hour's difference for each 15 degrees you moved west or east") and after Alexander von Humboldt's exploratory visit to Peru at the start of the 1800s, some global maps also indicated air masses or isotherms. But this is only part of what is fascinating about maps; it's only part of the story the author wants us to know. From the start Val Ross takes her readers beyond the visible shapes and markings, to ask how these maps came to be drawn-the who', why' and how' of these remarkable works. In this fascinating introduction to maps and mapmaking through the ages, excellent reading for the young reader with an appetite for knowledge, Ross's focus is not so much on the maps-though she's careful to include breakthroughs in the calculation of distances and other pertinent aspects of the evolution of this multi-faceted science-as on the cartographers, their sponsors, and the wider context of their times.
What types of individuals made such maps or paid for the maps to be made? Basically, two types: One set held visionaries, men with a genuinely scientific and philosophic bent who wanted to make an important contribution to what was known of the world. Al-Idrisi, a North African Muslim scholar, serves as a superb example; in the early 1100s, he laboured for fifteen years on a giant planisphere made of silver for King Roger II of the de Hautevilles, a Norman clan occupying Sicily. Fundamentally different were the men who saw maps as essential tools for conquering other lands and peoples, a means to greater wealth and military power. Henry the Navigator or Dom Enrique, one of four sons of Joao, King of Portugal, who lived in the early 15th century, was such a man. Intent on conquering parts of Africa for gold, spices, and slaves, he financed sea voyages in order to chart Africa's Atlantic coast. Nearly always, it took both types of men to bring new maps to life as mere scholars would not have had the resources to pursue their noble aims without the ambitions of the would-be conquerors. Generally speaking, too, it's best not to describe exceptional, driven individuals in simple terms; these tend to blur the complexities of character and make us forget that even conquerors were dreamers in their own way, while mapmakers-especially those who were also navigators and explorers-had a host of motives. In Ross's book we meet fearless adventurers, who combined boundless courage and energy with brilliant seamanship-men like England's James Cook, who in 1770 discovered New Zealand and charted 3,200 kilometers of Australia's eastern coast (after his death in Hawaii in 1778 it was estimated that he had mapped "the last unknown third of the world"). Such men strove to be remembered for being the first to discover a new land or a passage through uncharted seas or territories. The maps they made rendered their claims legitimate and brought them fame and wealth. Meriweather Lewis and William Clark headed the 1804 Corps of Discovery, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, to map and claim western North America for the United States. Lewis and Clark traversed and mapped roughly 3,000 kilometers of unknown land from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific. Significantly, they found routes through three ranges of mountains: the Rockies, the Cascades, and the Coastals. Upon their return to the east, they published detailed maps which led to the settlement of the western part of the continent. But Ross doesn't let us forget that there was another side to the coin earned from their spectacular achievement:

"For Europeans, land was something to be controlled, divided up, sold, taxed, and developed. Land hunger was one big reason why the United States was born. . . . The maps these men made profoundly changed traditional Native life. North American land would never again belong to everybody. Captured by lines of latitude and longitude, western North America was jerked from Aboriginal to white hands. After the explorers, a new kind of mapmaker follower-surveyors carrying measuring chains and posts, which they drove into the earth to mark the boundaries of new townships, so the land could be sold to white settlers."

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