9 August 2001. With thanks to JS.



The Times
Maps that charted the distortions of history


The greatest map of all time was wrong. Ptolemy�s Geographia, written in the 5th century and rediscovered in the 15th, calculated the Earth at barely two thirds its true size. This calculation induced Christopher Columbus to sail westwards from Europe in search of China. Had the earlier, almost correct, calculation by the Greek Eratosthenes been in circulation, Columbus would not have dared to set sail. European colonisation of the Americas would probably have awaited fore-and-aft rig. South America might today be speaking English, or Dutch.

An exhibition opened this week at the British Library with the punning title �The Lie of the Land�. Dedicated to the cartography of distortion, its theme is the manipulation of science at the service of power. I used to regard maps as windows on the realm of reason, their makers as slaves to objectivity. I now see the latter like any other human beings as potential liars, pawns, propagandists and practical jokers.

The exhibition includes documents that are sensational. How do the liberal-minded scholars of Harvard live with the name of their town? In 1616 Captain John Smith ethnically cleansed the �barbarians� from the settlement of Anmoughcawgen and renamed it Cambridge. Thus it appears on the first map of the area, its river named after Charles, then Prince of Wales. The Indians were literally mapped off the map. Will political correctness now demand the old name of Anmoughcawgen be restored, and the relevant tribe be awarded Harvard�s title deeds? Another map shows the secret �concession� line for British negotiators at the 1783 Treaty of Paris, settling the American War of Independence. It shows Britain being ready to concede huge tracts of Canada, mostly settled by the French, to the new United States. The concession was not made and the map was considered so sensitive, not least to the French, that it was �top secret� until 1896.

All maps have a purpose. Many are anything but �lies� and some are only too true. Before the Second World War, the Germans charted the ethnic composition of Europe. A Nazi map of Slovakia gives the concentrations of Jews and gypsies, marked in black for deportation. Another shows the German-Austrian immigrant component of each American state, for use by Goebbels as propaganda to restrain Roosevelt from an American intervention against Hitler. As for the Cold War, anyone who thinks the Russians had no designs on Western Europe should see the Soviet military map of the Thames, dated 1977. Among other objectives, it depicts dock facilities in �Tarrok i Greivzend� (Thurrock and Gravesend).

Britain�s own war crime is charted in lethal detail. The bombing map of Dresden was intended to guide navigators to their target. Dark red indicates the building types and population densities suitable for incendiary firestorms. The annotator directed the bombers to high-density, non-industrial targets. �Tenement buildings in the inner residential zone may be burnt out under heavy incendiary bomb attack. The effect of high explosive is not hard to imagine.� Estimates of the resulting civilian death toll vary from 35,000 to 135,000. The map was no last minute response to a military crisis: it is dated December 1943, more than a year before the Dresden raid. Civilian massacre was RAF policy.

Maps have always been political. A map of Lancashire made for Elizabeth I indicates with crosses the houses of potentially treasonable Catholic gentry. It also shows beacons for summoning troops against any Catholic uprising. A map of Munster prepared for George IV shows the disposition of absentee landlords and the coincidence of local repression. It was a plea for government action to reform absenteeism lest the troubles worsen. The report and map were suppressed. The troubles worsened.

I remember as a boy being shocked to realise the truth, or falsity, of Mercator�s projection of the world, in the 1926 version that was widely used in British schools long after the war. The old British Empire was coloured red. The projection made Canada look far bigger than the United States and depicted in red the huge British claims in Antarctica. By centring the projection 40 degrees west of Greenwich, the map also included Australia twice. Thus did British rule appear to frame the world.

Is cartographic deception past history? No, although the British Library is careful not to stray close to the present day. After seeing this exhibition, I find I read my Ordnance Survey maps in a new light. At the weekend in Snowdonia I was using an OS 1:25,000 scale Pathfinder, doubtless computer assisted, digitally enhanced and satellite corrected. In which case, I wondered, where was the green dotted path that supposedly led from the stream up through dense woods to the top of the mountain? It was on the map but not on the ground.

Paths and rights of way on British maps are �taken from definitive local authority maps, later amended�. They may be altered and �may not be clearly defined on the ground�. As a euphemism for �impenetrable jungle�, this was an understatement. Yet landowners, local authorities and, significantly, Ordnance Survey cartographers, are off the hook. There is no obligation to keep open and mark a public right of way.

The mapmaker can pass the buck to the local authority and the authority leaves landowners to deter walkers by any means at their disposal. In France, public footpaths are checked regularly and clearly designated on trees, posts and walls.

Since in my case the landowner was the pestilential Forestry Commission and local authorities are notoriously in its pocket, I say no more. The Ordnance Survey is also a state organisation. If these august institutions claim that there is a path, a path there must be.

Facts are immaterial. This is politics. The Forestry Commission plants trees and fells them much as Bomber Harris dropped his weapons, by map co-ordinates. Nothing changes, except that here it is the landscape and those who enjoy it who are the victims. For my particular needs, a Pathfinder map was as much use as the �authentic� 1695 Map of Paradise, showing the way to the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel.

I am informed by those I trust that current official maps of foot-and-mouth outbreaks bear no relation to the truth. They indicate infected flocks and herds, confirmed and subsequently verified. They do not indicate culled, and therefore possibly infected, cases and understate the number. They do so for a reason, that ministers asserted that the disease was �under control� and ministers cannot be embarrassed. The cartographer must therefore collude in a known distortion.

A similar cartographic blight afflicts every corner of the post-code welfare state. Maps, diagrams and league tables purport to show geographical differences in hospital waiting times, crime clear-up rates and exam performance. The objective of this zest to quantify is, as ever, not to inform the public but to assist in control.

A map is politics as art. It is supremely, seductively graphic. If a statistic can be plotted on a map, it can be used to praise, blame, en- courage or terrify those who supply and use public services. That the statistics may be misleading is neither here nor there.

Post-code variations in welfare must be eliminated. Only when the map of Britain is a uniform shade of grey will a blessed equality have been achieved and Whitehall rest content.

Nothing better illustrates the yearning for truth than a map. The 15th-century rediscovery of Ptolemy set free the Renaissance imagination from 1,000 years of church dogma. The Earth was indeed a sphere and Jerusalem was not at its centre. Mapping made scientific discovery accessible to all. It shrank reality. The shrinkage meant editing, which meant distortion. But the cartographer was trusted because he had a monopoly on truth. Who cared, when such a dazzling window on the world was thrown open? Maps are indispensable. But each has its hidden agenda. It is selling a by-pass or excusing a bomber, allowing a tower block or defending a budget. Those who put their faith in maps must always be on guard. I notice that this exhibition, most unusually, has no catalogue, no guide, no map. When it closes, its subversive message will evaporate. I wonder why.

Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.