The Times Atlas of World History
For the best part of five centuries Western man’s vision of the world has been conditioned by the map. It was the advent of the printed map that made it possible for sixteenth-century Europeans to conceptualize global space, allowing them to replace an odd assortment of known details, vague impressions, and wild imaginings with the image of a world that could be grasped and known. In 1566 the son of St. Francis Borgia wrote to thank his father for sending him a map or sphere of the world. “Before seeing it,” he wrote, “I was still ignorant of how small the world is.” No sooner mapped, the world began to shrink; and the effect of its shrinking was to enlarge the ambition of Europeans to master and control it.
But if our view of the world is shaped by the way that we map it, it would seem no less true that our maps of the world are shaped by the way that we view it. Idrisi, the twelfth-century cartographer at the court of Roger II of Sicily, likened the shape of England to the head of an ostrich—hardly the first image to occur to the Englishman, who, if he ever thinks of his island in terms of the bestiary, is more likely to see it as a sedately seated lion. Preconceptions and inherited assumptions help determine our cartography, like everything else that we think and do. In the days of Jonathan Swift,
…geographers in Afric-maps
with savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o’er unhabitable downs
place elephants for want of towns.
If we no longer fill our “Afric-maps” with elephants, we may still be filling them with signs and symbols which are likely to tell future generations at least as much about the mappers as the territories mapped.
It would therefore not be inappropriate to salute the superb new Times Atlas of World History as an atlas preeminently for, and of, our times. It is the latest, and certainly the most glamorous, in a long line of atlases which have sought to give visual comprehensibility to historical development. We all have our schoolroom memories of those venerable and rather musty volumes which sought to lay bare the complexities of the partitions of Poland or to illustrate the battles of the Civil War. They were worthy, and indeed indispensable, compilations, reflecting, as is only to be expected, the interests and the preoccupations of the age and place in which they were produced. Their focus was essentially, although not exclusively, military and political. They were much concerned with the growth of nationhood and statehood, as was natural in an age which looked upon the nation-state as the culmination of historical development. Above all, their bias was Eurocentric, with non-European parts of the world coming to be deemed as map-worthy when they entered the European field of vision, or, better still, passed under European control.
As Europe’s global preeminence came to be questioned, and Europe itself was…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.