Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Romantic Cartographer

My husband is a collector. He is or has collected pretty much anything I can think up. From bottle caps to erasers, ball caps, coins, stamps, to copies of Robinson Crusoe. I could go on. I’ll say it again, my husband is a collector. I am not.

He has one collection that I actually enjoy though. Maps. There’s something about antique maps that draws me in. I like to read the names of towns and trace the sinuous path of rivers and roads, and well… imagine.  

The oldest known maps are clay tablets from Babylon, believed to have been created around 2300 B.C. Some historians even claim that there are cave drawings that are maps from much earlier. Greek and Roman map makers were well aware that the world was a sphere and their maps reflected their knowledge. During the Middle Ages European maps took a distinctly odd turn, literally. T-O maps began to be created which showed an exaggeratedly large Jerusalem as the center and east was oriented toward the top of the map.

During the Age of Exploration, map making made great strides forward. It was during this time that compass lines began to be added to maps and globes were created.

Maps and globes were incredibly valuable. The country that controlled the knowledge of the trade routes had a decisive advantage. And that advantage extended from bringing home incredible wealth to the nation in control of the maps to military and diplomatic power. Because of this navigational charts and maps were soon given the status of state secrets. And by extension, cartographers became secret service agents, able to lead their countries to new lands to colonize.

The more the European powers came into competition, the more highly prized accurate information and charts became.

For example, the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal divided the world in half. And the two countries agreed to claim new discoveries only in their half. Spain took the western hemisphere and Portugal the eastern.

But there’s some evidence that Portugal’s King John II may have put one over on good old Ferdinand and Isabella. The originally proposed line was a little further west of the one that was finally agreed upon, and what might not have seemed very significant in writing would have made a huge difference if a picture had been available. You see, Pedro Alvarez Cabral is officially credited with discovering Brazil in 1500, ostensibly during another attempt to reach India via a westerly route. He promptly claimed the newly discovered land for Portugal since that bump out of the South American continent lay well within the negotiated territory. It’s believed by some historians that Portuguese ships discovered the coast of Brazil much earlier however, and that John II knowingly had the line moved in order to gain more land.

The discovery of Australia is attributed to Captain Cook, but there’s also some evidence that the Portuguese knew of the continent and kept the information a secret.

With so much at stake it’s no wonder that spies were soon dispatched to one another’s capitals to try to buy or steal those incredibly valuable maps. Lisbon in particular was inundated by secret agents.
Anybody else’s head spinning with story possibilities? What? No one else is envisioning a map sewn into a heroine’s skirt, midnight escapes and swashbuckling adventure on land and sea? Oh. Well I’ll go into my corner now and content myself with daydreaming.

Maps are more prosaic. Mere tools to get us from point a to point b. There’s no romance or intrigue in a GPS system. But when I look at my husband’s collection of (mostly fake) antique maps I can still smell a whiff of the spice islands and all the adventure of the Age of Discovery.

Do you like maps too? Any map related stories to share?

Is anyone in your life a collector? Is it you? What do you/they collect?


  1. OH, I love this. I always wondered why JUST Brazil speaks Portuguese. Now I know!

    Lovely post! You need to add an antique map to it. :D

    1. You know DeAnna, I meant to add a map then forget to go back! C'est la vie!

  2. I helped my youngest with a school project this week. He needed images and a family timeline. I found a map of property owned by one of our ancestors in what was then the Colony of Connecticut in 1639. There's something so tangible about maps that makes history real. And fiction... one of my earliest and most pleasant memories is reviewing the map of The Hundred Acre Wood in the front of my Winnie-the-Pooh books.
    As for collections? My husband seems to collect broken things. I would object, but I think I might be one of them... ;)

    1. Maos do have a way of making things come alive. I love it when they are included in books. In fact as a kid, I spent hours copying the maps from The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. I always try to find maps of the setting for stories I'm writing. For example I have a street map from Washington DC in 1917 that I bought on eBay and used for my as yet unpublished suffragette story. It's framed now and hanging on my wall. Practical and beautiful.


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