Cartography as Imperialism

While mapmaking can be many things and can serve a number of functions, it is never a value-free exercise. That is to say; a map is not a neutral, objective, transparent reflection or representation of reality. A mapmaker can certainly strive for greater accuracy, and can make a good-faith effort to avoid imposing bias or ideology onto a map, but every map is the result of choices made and a perspective taken. What is left out, what is not shown, is just as meaningful as what the mapmaker does choose to include and how to present it.

On a more explicit level, however, maps often serve more deliberate purposes and reflect biases which are either explicitly intended or which reflect unquestioned assumptions. The early colonial maps of British North America co-opted indigenous geographic knowledge for the imperial purpose of dispossessing them of the land they helped explorers and colonists to map. Our readings focused on the largely unacknowledged role that American Indian knowledge played in early European maps of the New World; not only did mapmakers often rely on Native peoples for specific information about the land beyond the explored coastline, but they sometimes–consciously or unconsciously–borrowed indigenous ways of seeing and expressing geographic features. Specifically, Barbara E. Mundy argues that the 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan, despite the European provenance and the very Eurocentric renderings of buildings surrounding the central square, is actually borrowed from a native Mexican map (which has been lost). She believes this is so because the map reflects spiritual beliefs and spatial and temporal information which Cortes and his men simply would not have “seen” because they lacked the cultural context necessary to see the city the way the Aztec residents would have.

We have already had some readings on the relationship between map-making and state-building, so the relationship between maps and colonial/imperial projects was an obvious avenue of exploration as well.


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