Maps: The Finest Weapons of Empires
The human story has no deficiencies in the tales of war, conquest, enslavement, exploitation, genocide, and empire. From early civilizations of the Roman Empire and the Mongol Horde to the rise of European world conquest from 1492 to the emergence of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan in the 1930s and 40s, history is littered with examples of empire and conquest. But to have an accurate depiction of what these empires own, maps needed to be weaponized for their legitimacy. In the words of J.B. Harley, “As images of the world, maps are never neutral or value free or ever completely scientific. Each map argues its own particular case”. In this case, maps made by empires argue in the conservation of empire and the idea of imperialism. But before we can approach empires, we must first look at the rise of the nation-state.
First, we must define what a nation-state is. A nation-state is a government that gains its legitimacy of the fact that members of the community are nationally or ethnically the same. With the rise of modern nation-states in Europe, they became the main financers of cartography. Thus, giving privileged knowledge to governments and not the people who lived under its domain. But the rise of nation-states also brings the rise of nationalism. Nationalism being the idea of collective pride in a nation or ethnicity to better the nation usually calls for aggressive behavior of outsiders and minorities in this context. With this aggressive mindset and cartographic monopolization, nation-states turn to expansion and war to fuel national pride.
Once the nation-state turns to war, once again, cartographic knowledge becomes even more valuable due to the strategic movements of militaries. But the fault in these as Harley puts it, “…palliate the sense of guilt which arises from its conduct: the silent lines of the paper landscape foster the notion of a socially empty space” (Harley 60). This even though the military maps are built for strategic planning, the cartographer omits the damage being done of the cities, towns, villages, farms, but most importantly the damage done against people. This omission of humanity in military maps of nationalist craven states props up the ideas of Nationalism and Imperialism while disregarding the human damage done. This is evident when Harley states, “… many [military maps] stridently proclaim military victory” (Harley 60).
After these European nation-states carved up their continent, it was time to move out. Fueled with nationalist pride and imperial spirit seen in Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”, European powers headed to the Americas to expand their dream. An example of this carving up the world as Harley states is the division of the Americas, “Pope Alexander VI thus demarcated the Spanish and Portuguese possessions in the New World” (Harley 59). What is important to point out is the omniscient of Native Americans in this decision. By calling the natives of the New World “possessions” as well as their land, this dehumanizes the Native Americans as lesser humans then Europeans. Also, the fact that one person is deciding the fate of millions of people and the future of the Americas with no input from the people who live there is text imperialism ideals. Further showing these maps are biased towards the preservation of empire. In the map Imperial Federation, the British Empire is depicted as it was in 1886. As Harley points out, “Mercator’s projection, a pink tint for empire territory, and decorative emblems showing Britannia seated on the world are used to articulate the message of ‘New Imperialism’” (Harley 58). It is important to notice the projection and the decorations of this map. Being the Mercator projection, Europe sits as the ‘center of the world’ and more specifically the British Isles. This shows the nationalist and imperialist ideas of superiority over the lesser peoples of its empire. Along with the map projection, the decorations covering the borders of the map depict the diverse subjects of the empire looking fondly towards the personification of Britain, which sits triumphantly on a globe. This continues to show the superiority over the empire’s subjects while not showing how the empire really hurt and exploited the lives and communities who had no say or power over it.
By the nineteenth century, the rise of a new frontier opened to European powers, Africa. The great scramble of the continent furthered the preservation of the empire and its ideals by filling the map with the idealization of the national pride of the conquerors. Once more, these maps do not show the native peoples who live there, their culture, and how they feel on being subjugated by outsiders. The map shows the boundaries between other empires and figuring out how to squeeze more land from their competition. These actions for the scramble of Africa or any other colony around the world has serious consequences. As Harley describes the partition of India with the independence of the colony, “…we can see how the stroke of a pen across a map could determine the lives and deaths of millions of people” (Harley 59).
It is important to point out that maps allowed nationalist driven states to conquer and suppress the peoples of the world by demeaning them to lesser beings. Through the rise of nationalism and thus the rise of the nation-state, maps have been used to was away the human cost of war and display a fake romantic depiction of the glorious fight for the nation. These ideas of extreme nationalism and imperialism stand for dehumanizing the outsider of their community and represent themselves as the superior. So, when these nationalists charged states began their future conquests, they continued to use maps to isolate any guilt that their cause was not just. This shows that maps funded by empires are as Harley states, “…are ever neutral or value-free or ever completely scientific. Each map argues its own particular case.” (Harley 37). In this case, they argue for empire.