Pics Or It Didn’t Happen! – Part I

Why digitize historical maps of Africa and Asia?

“Pics or it didn’t happen!” has become a proverb of internet culture in cases when someone demands visual—specifically, photographic—proof of seemingly unrealistic claims. Even in the face of innovations like “deep fakes,” visual images still have the power to convince. It might even be said when it comes to maps, which, although constructed and designed, still enjoy a reputation of being grounded and legitimated through scientific data and processes. This scientific reputation was created over centuries and has been marketed to the public since the 19th century. While maps designed in Europe by Europeans can be easily discredited for their complicity in imperialist and colonial projects, their innovation made them extremely useful.

Maps are everywhere, now more than ever. Our lives are full of digital maps, perceived as neutral surfaces, which allow us to navigate territories previously unknown to us. None of these digital maps, of course, are perfectly neutral, as even a casual encounter with GoogleMaps proves. One could ask, for example, which businesses are displayed and which are not. This information is often provided by the business owners themselves or crowdsourced. This then means that the information displayed on the map depends widely on the contributors, who differ even among different parts of the same city. The resulting arbitrariness of the map can and does cause difficulties for its users: searching for an ATM in a strange place can become quite a journey. But even if the digital maps we use every day are not always trustworthy, they remain useful.

It might feel wrong to attribute similar characteristics to historical maps of the 19th century, which were created through processes of painstakingly detailed artisanship. Nevertheless, the main perception of maps was that they were a neutral medium, depicting objective geographical knowledge. This perception overlooks the process of creating maps, which involved the author sorting through the diverse source material, which often led to arbitrary omissions and even inventions. This was perhaps most common in maps of faraway places, which could not easily be checked for their geographic factuality. Knowledge circulation and production, visual design and craftsmanship blend in a historical map. They contain the perspective of the author as well as the historical sources from which they are derived.

But, to return to the question above, what makes the study of historical maps worthwhile? If one were to envision maps solely as artefacts of previous stages of the ever-progressing science of cartography, or in more general terms, geography, there would be little value in turning to maps apart from aesthetic reasons. However, historical maps are not only intriguing as artefacts of historical art and craftsmanship, it is precisely their partiality that renders them precious and worthy of study. Historians, specifically J.B. Harley, have come to recognize the valuable insight that maps can offer into relations and hierarchies of power and agency.

It is equally reductionist to view maps solely as depictions of geographic knowledge. Via their design, maps conceal that they are often merely suggestions; they lend credibility to possible futures, thereby enabling them (Corner 1999). Maps, therefore, are complex artefacts that merit deconstruction because they can inform our perspective on past futures and possibilities, as they had been portrayed by the mapmakers. These authors themselves were embedded in power structures and shaped by their work practices and cultural norms.

An interdisciplinary approach to the study of maps is therefore essential: historians of cartography have employed models and theories of literary studies and the social sciences with great success. This blog continues this new tradition and seeks to spark a broad discussion on the rich material. Central to our research project are the maps of Africa and Asia found in the Perthes Collection in Gotha, dated between 1800–1945. In this era wrought with the growing importance of territory and territoriality, maps become crucial for understanding political agendas and agencies.

Zooming in on Maps of Africa

Blank spaces on an early 19th century map of Africa

Africa: Seen as a blank space to be explored and finally colonized by Europeans. Detail of a map contained in the famous Stieler’s Hand-Atlas (1818), published by Justus Perthes Gotha.
Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPA-2°-000049 (045), (CC-BY-SA 4.0).

Maps of Africa, especially those created in Europe during the late 18th  and 19th century, are fascinating to observe: with ever-increasing velocity, one can see how formerly blank areas are filled in with question marks and imagined terrain. European maps of Africa from this period embody, perhaps more so than any other maps, the aspirations of their makers. They envisioned colonial futures and enabled colonial violence by not only providing geographical knowledge but also by metaphorically stripping the indigenous landscape of its population by rendering them as blank spaces. Maps of Africa have been mostly perceived as the depiction of colonial ambitions and fantasies and therefore been viewed through the lenses of their European creators. Although there is much to be learned from approaching maps as instruments of colonialism, this view is equally reductive because it discounts other potential information embedded in a map. One main oversight is that maps of Africa were not solely products of European creators: they were often created in collaboration with indigenous intermediaries and knowledge-brokers, whose agencies and cultural norms were, often unwittingly, inscribed in the finalized version of maps.

Our outlook on maps of Africa is especially informed by a prior project, Ethiomap. While Ethiomap only targeted a specific set of maps, it brought together historians from Paris, Gotha, and Mekelle in a rare attempt to decipher their hidden ambiguities. This approach proved valuable. Our discussion prompted us to question compelling but one-dimensional approaches, which all too often applied rigid categories to the map, an ambiguous medium and often reluctant actor in colonial conquest. European map designers were not always aware of the origin of the knowledge they were including or excluding. Indigenous names entered the maps and with them, unnoticed by Europeans, local meanings that were intelligible only to a minority of map readers.

On the other hand, even if one disregards the indigenous knowledge brokers, viewing all European contributors to maps as sharing the same agency is equally misleading. It had been Europeans who not only described roads and rivers but also mountains which were said to block the flow of trade in western Africa for nearly a century (Bassett/Porter 1991). These mountains, now known as the Mountains of Kong, had been a European fabrication, a claim to support a long-forgotten scientific theory, but had nevertheless hindered European colonisation and trade. While the case of the Mountains of Kong is now one of the more obvious causes for a differentiated view on maps, we believe even more ambiguities lie in the designs and the data upon which these were based.

Looking at Maps of Asia

map of the Indian subcontinent, displaying its rich settlement structure

Detail of a map of the Indian subcontinent in Stieler’s Hand-Atlas (1828), displaying the richness of settlement structures.
Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPA 2° 000049 (044b), (CC BY-SA 4.0).

While most of the African maps in our project were finalized in Europe, the maps of Asia include a fascinating amount of maps created in Asia, which had been collected by the publishing house. Therefore, the structure of the Asian collection at the Perthes collection differs fundamentally from the collection of maps of Africa. While the design of the latter ignored local knowledge and infrastructure, maps of Asia often confront the wide variety of pre-existing human-made infrastructure, like cities or trade routes, and portray its particular richness. The geographical knowledge of Asia was not only constructed by explorers but also often conceived via indigenous maps of Asia, which had been traded to Europeans. European mapmaker such as Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon D’Anville in the 18th century offered their skills to Asian sovereigns and contained their royal license to map their territory for their use. The example of D’Anville is very closely linked to the practice of Jesuit cartography in China, which prioritised the usefulness to the Qing empire in the design of their maps. In these cases, the map became a complex matrix for transcultural exchange (Cams 2017).

European cartography of Asia was also informed by the colonial surveys. These provided additional geographical knowledge of the land and also served as grandiose colonial projects to underline European ‘ownership’ of the land and its peoples. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, conducted by the British colonial power from 1802–1872, serves as a prime example. The project was as much symbolic as it was expected to provide practical means for local government. It became a costly and time-consuming activity, involving many indigenous surveyors, known as pundits, who took remarkable risks to undertake the survey and whose knowledge and experience had been included in the effort (Raj 2002). The survey also confirmed the conviction of the colonizers, which was that cartography was as useful as it was essential to convey power and to govern. While less grand in their scope, German colonial surveys of China are also well documented in the Perthes Collection.

Another fascinating entry point for research on the maps of Asia is the question of source materials and provenance. There are interdependencies between maps that originated in Asia and maps designed in Europe at a later stage. The former had likely been used in the production of the latter. Mapmakers in this process chose which strains of knowledge to include and which they deemed irrelevant. As a result, cultural meanings and practices embedded in Asian maps may have been lost in the European versions. Questions of provenance offer the possibility for following map designs on their journey around the globe through various adaptations. The notoriously busy Justus Perthes publishing house and its peers collected maps from all kinds of actors. The collections thus document far-reaching networks, the peripheries of which are not yet fully explored.

And why blog about it?

As complex artefacts created by various actors of diverse agencies and cultural or political backgrounds, research on maps thrives when approached by a diverse and interdisciplinary cast of researchers. As such, this blog is as much a report on the digitization process as it is an invitation to discuss matters central to research on maps of Africa and Asia. We will share findings of the digitization effort, as the treasures of the Perthes collection—one of the most striking cartographic collections in Europe — are made available online. The next part of the editorial will further discuss the history and structure of the Perthes Collection.

This is the first of three parts of the editorial of our blog “Mapping Africa and Asia”, which presents finds and findings of the project “Cartographies of Africa and Asia (1800–1945)”, conducted by the Centre of Transcultural Studies and the Gotha Research Library (both University of Erfurt). Other parts will engage with the Perthes Collection and its cartographic material as well as with the chances and pitfalls of the digitization of historical maps.

Next Week: Pics Or It Didn’t Happen [Part II]: About the Perthes Collection, Its History and Artefacts

Cite this article as: Claudia Berger, "Pics Or It Didn’t Happen! – Part I," in Mapping Africa and Asia, 28/07/2021,


Bassett, Thomas J. / Porter, Philip W.,  ‘From the Best Authorities’. The Mountains of Kong in the Cartography of West Africa. In: The Journal of African History, Vol. 32 (1991), No. 3, pp. 367–413.

Cams, Mario, Not Just a Jesuit Atlas of China. Qing Imperial Cartography and Its European Connections. In: Imago Mundi, Vol. 69 (2017), No. 2, pp. 188–201.

Corner, James,  The Agency of Mapping. Speculation, Critique and Invention. In: Cosgrove, Denis (ed.), Mappings. London 1999, pp. 213–252.

Harley, John Brian, Deconstructing the Map. In: Cartographica, Vol. 26 (1989), No. 2, pp. 1–20.

Raj, Kapil,  When Human Travellers Become Instruments. The Indo-British Exploration of Central Asia in the Nineteenth Century. In: Bourget, Marie-Noëlle/Licoppe, Christian/ Sibum, H. Otto,  Instruments, Travel and Science. Itineraries of precision from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, London/New York 2002, pp. 156–188.

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