Saturday, September 15, 2012

Historical maps, their meaning and their uses

Last night's round table on the War of 1812 attracted an audience of 35, not bad for a rainy Friday night opposite a hockey game.  We had faculty, students and people from town, and they were interested enough to stick around right up to 10 pm.

One of the most interesting discussions concerned the role of Natives in the war and diplomacy of the time, and whether that role has been ignored or misrepresented, and still is.  One point at  issue was the map above, which was being used to display basic geography.  The priority of the maker was clearly to emphasize American expansion.  Notice how solid  the American states and territories look, and the lack of provincial boundaries in British territory.  Even  more remarkable is the absence of any Native settlements or territories.  This led one participant to state that the map was "false."

Yes and no, say I.  What practical meaning did the boundaries of the Mississippi Territory have in  1812?  Weren't the Creek Indian settlements attacked by Andrew Jackson a lot realer?  On the other hand the state boundaries established in the 1810s are real and practical today.

This  returns me to a point I made to my Crusade and Jihad students in our first class meeting, when I was showing them various maps depicting Christian and Muslim expansion in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.  The maps "lied" (= "were false"), I said.

It is more accurate to say that ANY map, historical or otherwise, is very much an oversimplification for analytical or propagandistic purposes.

Thus I say that the appropriate response of a historian to a historical map is not to draw a quick conclusion but to ask more questions.

Which is pretty much what we  were doing with this map last night.

1 comment:

  1. Maps in general show different manners of thought between people and cultures. A map can be true for one culture and false for another even if those cultures exist simultaneously within the mapped area. The map illustrated here shows a long history of Western thought about property, ownership, and territorial expansion of certain regimes. Native Americans navigated the same territory with fluency, but thought about it in an entirely different way, one not based on empire but instead on usage and custom. Each of these approaches was sophisticated. One was clearly much more powerful. I suspect that the argument that a map presents a false view may be more an argument against English Common Law and its concept of property.