Power of Maps, or the Maps of Power?

The readings for this week elaborate on some things briefly touched on in a book Ruel and I read for our Monday class, Empires of the Atlantic World by J.H. Elliott. Elliott is more focused on other aspects of the time period (which is rather obvious from the title) but he spends some time discussing interactions with the natives, and even all of an entire page (in a 400+ page book) on cartography. It was interesting to see an expanded view of mapmaking in at least a portion of a region I had just studied earlier in the week. I also admit that I was tempted to engage Ruel in a discussion on how the maps that were specifically created for the book may have been constructed to serve the author’s needs, but it wouldn’t have been quite appropriate for the class discussion on Monday. Might make an interesting side project later on in the year when I have the time, though!

Back to the more immediately relevant. Reading chapter 6 in Harley’s The New Nature of Maps, I could not help but wonder how Indian mapping of the “social geometry” that he discusses on p178 is similar to the way modern maps are used to depict a wide variety of things other than the simple spatial relationships between locations, especially maps such as those produced by the Worldmapper Team that distort the geographic space in order to depict other relationships, like population or wealth. It is a pity that more native maps did not survive for analysis.

Thinking about this topic raises another question in my mind. Specifically, how much of this mapmaking is about depicting not geographic information, but in reality power and relationships. Even the European style of mapmaking is ultimately founded on the importance of land ownership in determining social structure in their society. The additional emphasis placed by colonists (both in New England and throughout the Americas) on Civility and Christianity explained in the Elliott book also makes the restructuring of the land with European places and European names take on a whole new aspect. How much of it was driven by the process of creating or even imposing a European social and power structure on the land, even in a illusory manner through the production of maps?


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