In his Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges writes of an Empire in which “the Art of Cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province”. As time went by, these maps were considered inexact and so a map of the Empire was made “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it”. But, says Borges, “the following generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their forbears had been, saw that vast map was useless…”

If Borges’ parable establishes forever the impossibility of the perfect map, then we must also accept his implied claim that as with other fictions of the human mind, maps usually convey to us more about their creators—their knowledge and ignorance, their fears and ambitions—than they do about the objects sought to be represented. Unlike Marx’s philosophers, who were content to describe the world, the cartographic imagination inevitably involves an attempt to fashion new social domains from the arid reality of geography. This is as true of Ptolemy and the anonymous mapmakers who carved petroglyphs in ancient southern Africa as of Ch’uan Chin, Ibn Sa’id or Gerardus Mercator.

However, it is in the hands of European merchant-explorers and colonial surveyors that cartography abandons all pretence of mere geographical portraiture and emerges as an intrinsic prop to the act of staking claims, appropriating territory and peoples. Hidden within the phantasmagoric but often ‘empty’ land masses and decorative panels of the earliest European maps of Asia, Africa and the Americas was an innocent dread of the unknown that Christendom and Capital were destined eventually to conquer through brave and improbable acts of ‘Discovery’.

“I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration,” Joseph Conrad’s Marlow recounts in Heart of Darkness. “At that time, there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map, I would put my finger on it and say, when I grow up, I will go there.” As European trading interests irradiated outwards through sea voyages, the imprecision and tentativeness of the early mapmakers made way for the more definite lines demanded by the metropolitan centres of power. As newer lands were conquered, the “blank spaces” were gradually filled in.

Missionary explorers gave free vent to their prejudices about the nature of the ‘savages’ they encountered — and one sees this reflected in the decorative flourishes on some maps. But often the maps were surprisingly value free or even deferential to the distant kingdoms and empires being depicted.

Jordanus, the 14th-century Dominican explorer and missionary who lived awhile in Surat, divided India in his Mirabilia Descripta into: India Minor, India Major and ‘India Tertia’, an almost imaginary land mass which connected the regions west of Sindh with Ethiopia. This was not Lemuria, the lost continent that supposedly existed between India and Africa. Sir Henry Yule has claimed that Jordanus’ division of India corresponds closely to the Hind, Sindh and Zinj of the Arabs.

Whatever the truth, the Arabs certainly did not share the missionary’s exotic description of the men of India Minor and Major as people who “dwell a long way from the sea, underground and in woody tracts, seem altogether infernal, neither eating, drinking, nor clothing themselves like others who dwell by the sea”. Elsewhere in this region were islands, writes Jordanus, whose women are said to be beautiful even if “the men are having the heads of dogs”.

British historian Ian Barrow argues in his paper Moving Frontiers: Changing Colonial Notions of the Indian Frontiers, that medieval travel writing like that of Jordanus or the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Mandeville’s Travels “are each probing for ways to articulate either the unimagined or the undiscovered: all are searching for a vocabulary and methodology with which to reveal what lies hidden”. Central to this project, he argues, is the notion of a “world of polarities” in which “the further the traveller went from known lands, the more bizarre and antipodean the inhabitants became”. Thus in the Periplus, a supposed account of the land and peoples of the Indian Ocean (or Erythraean Sea), the lands just before the Ganges are inhabited by “many barbarous tribes, among them the Cirrhadae, a race of wild men with flattened noses, very savage; and the Horse-faces and the Long-faces, who are said to be cannibals.”

Trading vessels on the margins of an 18th-century map
Trading vessels on the margins of an 18th-century map

Barrow says that these fanciful medieval accounts set a benchmark which subsequent explorers had to match or validate in order for their own descriptions to be taken as genuine. But though he posits a link between such literature and European cartographic practice, it is evident that pre-colonial European maps do not necessarily follow Jordanus or his counterparts in their more fanciful geographical or ethnographic assertions. For example, a 15th-century Catalan mappa mundi or world map, made before Europe’s colonial encounter with the rest of the world had begun, depicts Africa south of the Mediterranean region and Asia beyond the Levant (including India) with considerable imaginary detail. But there are no fearsome beasts lurking in the margins other than sea nymphs.

One reason for this more enlightened cartographic practice could be the production of travel writings such as the volumes published by the Dutch physician and scholar, Olfert Dapper, or the De Bry brothers. Though he never left Amsterdam, Dapper produced in the early 17th century several finely illustrated volumes describing travels in Asia, Asia Minor, the Middle East and Africa.

Culled from a variety of accounts, Olfert Dapper’s works were hugely popular at the time and were prized for their maps and illustrations. His volume on India had detailed accounts of Hindu and Buddhist mythology and a double-page map of ‘Indostan’. In this genre were the Petit Voyages of Johann Theodor and Johann Israel De Bry, published in Leiden and Frankfurt between 1598 and 1619, and considered one of the most elaborate and richly illustrated accounts of major voyages undertaken by European seafarers during the Age of Discovery.

Map of India Orientalis
Map of India Orientalis

The exquisite India Orientalis by Mercator and Jodocus Hondius, from their Atlas sive cosmographicae meditations, 1606, is one of the most important examples of European depiction of India, made more than a century after Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India. There is very little unknown territory and a large number of the place names mentioned within correspond to cities or regions still in existence today—‘Jessalmer’, Berar, Daulatabad.

By the 18th century, cartographic practices in Europe had become too enmeshed in the pursuit of geopolitical power and wealth to retain their innocence. With the European race to secure colonies in Asia in full swing, the presence of trading vessels on the edges became a standard. George Matthaus Seutter’s 1750 map, Imperii Magni Mogolis sive Indici Padschach, for example, depicts sailing ships despite the regions being mapped — northern India and Afghanistan—being quite far from any coast. It also became common for maps of this period to be decorated by angels, cherubs and nymphs, sometimes with the pigmentation of the peoples they were looking over, as if to reinforce the European or Judeo-Christian hold over the earth. Maps of the New World would also now depict slavery as a benign institution.

Native supplicants receiving an envelope from a mythical Queen Boadicea, a common feature of 18th-century maps
Native supplicants receiving an envelope from a mythical Queen Boadicea, a common feature of 18th-century maps

In India, as the British stranglehold tightened, mapping techniques became a way of creating fresh political facts on the ground. James Rennel’s 1782 map, Hindoostan, best illustrates the political purpose of the new cartography that was under way. Rennel was the first surveyor general of Bengal and in his first full map of India, the actual depiction of territoriality is given the same prominence as an illustration of native supplicants receiving envelopes from a mythical Queen Boadicea, symbolising that she was not just mistress of all that was being surveyed but also the benevolent dispenser of justice and source of well-being for the people who were in the process of being subjugated.

This article was first published in Outlook Traveller Getaway Guides‘s Heritage Holidays in India in 2005