The Politics of the Map in the Early Twentieth Century

By Heffernan, Michael | Cartography and Geographic Information Science, July 2002 | Go to article overview

The Politics of the Map in the Early Twentieth Century


Heffernan, Michael, Cartography and Geographic Information Science


Introduction

This essay is about the politics of the map in the opening years of the twentieth century. It does not pretend to provide a comprehensive review of mapmaking in this period but considers instead the map as a geopolitical artefact; as an image of political space, both actual and potential; and as a military and strategic device that both reflected and challenged the objectives of the major nation-states at a symbolically significant historical juncture widely perceived as marking the end of a long era of European expansion. The paper is primarily concerned with the political uses (and abuses) of the map and consequently has little to say about the technical developments in mapping and survey in this period. Nor does it review the existing research on the history of military mapping before and during World War I (for example, Chasseaud 1991; 1998). I intend to re-examine, in this early twentieth-century context, the themes considered by other scholars who have discussed the politics of cartography in other periods, including those researchers responsible for the impressive body of literature on geopolitical mapping before and during World War II (see, for example, Atkinson 1995; Balchin 1987; Godlewska 1999; Harris 1997; Herb 1997; Korinman 1990; Kost 1988; Murphy 1997). Following an opening exploration of the relationship between maps and politics at the dawn of the twentieth century, the essay focuses on some hitherto unexamined mapmaking agencies established during World War I in the major cities of three Allied countries: Britain, France, and the United States.

The Cartography of the Year 1900: Mapping the Twentieth Century

The rapidly expanding literature on the history of cartography from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries has demonstrated the importance of the map in the creation and maintenance of nationalism and imperialism, the core ideologies that propelled the European peoples to colonize the non-European world (see, for recent examples, Black 1997; Brotton 1997; Buisseret 1992; Edney 1997; Harley 2001; Jacob 1992; Jardine 1996; Kain and Baigent 1992; Konvitz 1987). For some commentators, the passing of the nineteenth century seemed destined to mark the end of this long era of European empire building. The unexplored and unclaimed "blank" spaces on the world map were rapidly diminishing, or so it seemed, and the sense of "global closure" prompted an anxious fin-de-siecle debate about the future of the great empires whose potential for further development now seemed strictly limited. While the illusion of plentiful "empty" space beyond Europe had persisted, the rival expansionist powers within Europe had retained their characteristic imperial confidence and arrogance. The "closure" of the global imperial system implied not only the eclipse of the imperial age but also the beginning of a new era of intensifying inter-imperial struggle along borders that now straddled the globe (Kearns 1984; 1993).

Through the 1890s and 1900s, worrying prophesies of global "closure" came thick and fast. In the United States, historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a famous lecture about the consequences of the "closure" of American frontier settlement in the west during the Chicago Exposition of 1893, a spectacular event designed to commemorate the quatercentenary of the Columbian encounter (Turner 1998; Bogue 1998). The creation of a "transcontinental America" (Meinig 1999) was hugely gratifying, claimed Turner, but this presupposed the need for a new national project that could shape and inspire American identity in the future, just as the process of westward expansion had done in the past. If it was to consolidate its new-found power, the United States might need to seek out new frontiers beyond the American homeland.

Just over a decade later, the British geographer and Conservative politician Halford Mackinder developed a similar theme in a widely debated 1904 lecture to the Royal Geographical Society. …

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