In cartography, there is much more than just creating maps. Many generalize that maps are made for navigation and acquired destinations. The maps from the Ray Brennen Collection at Muhlenberg College contradict these generalizations. Within these created maps, observations can be made and conclusions can be drawn from the details of the maps about the changes throughout time and the messages it tells the viewer.
In The New Nature of Maps, the author J.B. Harley talks of how textbooks and projections tell the system how the Earth should be represented. Then, he disagrees with that idea. He does this by writing that Cartographers concede “that they employ rhetorical devices in the form of embellishment or ornament, but they maintain that beneath this cosmetic skin is always the bedrock of truthful science… As images of the world, maps are maps are never neutral or value-free or ever completely scientific” (Harley 37). Harley explains the idea of maps as always being biased and never truly correct. The devices of rhetoric that lie beneath the “cosmetic skin” are the biased ideals that make maps never truly correct.
Maps have multiple parts that can be declared as the “cosmetic skin” where the cartographer’s messages lie beneath. One part in particular the reader can easily find the messages are within the unillustrated areas, which Harley calls the blank spaces in maps. He argues that these blank spaces have an iconological symbolism to them. He then insists that “The notion of “silences” on maps is central to any argument about the influence of their hidden political messages. It is asserted here that maps — just as much examples of literature or the spoken word — exert a social influence through their omissions as much as by the features they depict and emphasize” (Harley 67). Harley talks of how the blanks or “silences” within the map are the places where cartographers include the expressions, inferences, and ideals on certain political, social, economic, or intellectual topics. The 19th Century map of Martinique is a good example from the Brennen Collection. The bottom left shows a beautifully painted depiction of the French Colonists settling the island. The viewer can understand the cartographer’s support of the colonization because of the inclusion of two gods (Poseidon and Apollo) guiding and protecting the French ships to the new world to colonize and spread their influence. The cartographer had the belief that it was the French’s divine purpose to spread their “privilege” and monarchist ideology to new lands.
Blank spaces in maps do generate one’s ideas, yet at the same time, what most viewers do not see is that they silence oppositional ideas. That is, the depictions within the blank spaces directly and intentionally shut down ideas the cartographer doesn’t agree with. Harley writes “In colonial mapping, as in eighteenth-century North America, silences on maps may also be regarded as discrimination against native peoples” (Harley 67). Harley says here that these silences actually silence the cartographer’s opposition. In the Martinique map, the blank space depicts the natives on their knees in front of their settlers, showing that they failed in resisting the colonization. This representation shows the cartographer’s belief of the inferiority of the natives. It also takes away the Natives view in the map. Natives at this time supported the European settlers because of the exchange in raw materials and livestock. Most of the time until the wars in North America in the 1700s and westward expansion, the natives and European settlers tolerated each other. Another example would be the map on page 80 in Harley. It is an outline map of Southern Africa that in the center of it displays an angel-like person lecturing white British explorers to settle and take advantage of the economic wealth from the resources of the land of Zambesia, in which the British call their “El Dorado” of Africa. While resembling the beauty of the filled blank, I realized that the indigenous population of Zambesia was excluded from this work. This is because maps like these try to “desocialize” the place they are in so they can show more of the groups that are taking over and promote the glorious nationalism of the country’s imperialist ideologies. This also made me realize that the cartographer filled this blank with such beauty to purposely distract me from realizing there was no indigenous population. This distraction makes a clear point of how the cartographer tries to silence their opposition, which in this case is Zambesia’s native population, whose message could have been that the British were invading their land and were not welcome in their eyes. Throughout time, the bias and deregulation may have lessened, there the reader can understand why these happened through the changes in maps from back in time to today.
Two generalizations can be introduced from viewing historical maps: what the area was like back then and the changes that were made between then and now. The collection’s maps of Allentown and all the Colonial America maps from the 17th and 18th century are examples of this. They depict the borders, major points of interest, and streets that change drastically over time. Harley explains that maps from the “territorial treatises to town planning, and from railroads to the rectangular grid, they underline the making of modern America” (Harley 48). The 18th century map named Virginia, Marylandia et Carolina in America Septentrionali Britannorum Industria Exculte Representate, created by Johann Baptist Homann, shows borders of the Middle-Atlantic colonies in the 18th century. The viewer can easily catch the changes in borders from then to today. For example in the map, the colony of Virginia engulfs what would be West Virginia, the western portion of Maryland, and northwestern North Carolina in modern times. Also, the in the furthest west part of the map, where today’s Western Pennsylvania and Ohio would be, is actually Florida. The most astonishing and shocking detail I found from the map was that the colony of New Jersey, which in this map was in pretty much today’s border, was split into two: East New Jersey and West New Jersey. For over twenty years, because of land sales and religious disputes, New Jersey was split into two, and its border was disputed for many years until it was finally unified in the early 18th century. The multiple unbelievable aspects of this map, along with other colonial maps, lets the observer dive back into a more simpler time and lets them notice the substantial changes made from then to now.
In most instances, historical maps can examine glory, divine purpose, and even denigration to the creator’s opposites. They can also infer the desire for growth. This can be understood from most maps in the collection, but mostly from the 19th century maps of Allentown. We can tell from these maps that there is room to grow for this thriving metropolis. The outskirts of the city are left blank giving the viewer the idea that there is hope of expansion for an even more prosperous society. These inferences can tie to American Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion, where we had divine purpose to settle the west and have more of a chance to achieve their American Dream.
From Harley’s elaborations, to the overall examples of the maps, we learn from the Ray Brennen Map Collection at Muhlenberg College that the maps indicate certain messages from the cartographer that can be explained through the changes in the depicted area from the time of creation. Today’s society does not understand the real nature of maps that we went in depth with by taking this course. Unfortunately they are only used for navigation in the modern world. However a major topic to think is how society would be if everyone understood every aspect of maps. If that can ever be true, society will be even more affluent, and individuals will be even more successful in their ever-going quest for knowledge.