Empty Maps and Virgin Territory

Herman Moll, New England, New York, New Jersey and Pensilvania, 1729. Wikimedia Commons.
Herman Moll, New England, New York, New Jersey and Pensilvania, 1729. Wikimedia Commons.

The Guardian continues to track the issue of Palestine’s absence from Google Maps. In a long essay that is definitely worth your time, Petter Hellström links the issue with the long history of colonial maps that omitted the indigenous populations that settlers would soon displace.

Because Palestine, after all, has been removed. It is there on old paper maps, of the Holy Land, of the Roman and Ottoman empires, of the British mandate. Yet in our digital age, a search on Google Maps for Israel produces a map without Palestine. It displays Israeli urban centres down to a few thousand inhabitants, and even marks Ma’ale Adumin, an Israeli settlement on the occupied West Bank. At the same time it shows no Palestinian place-names or urban centres, not even major ones like Gaza City, Khan Yunis or Nablus. The dotted, inconsistent borders of the occupied territories leave the impression that they are not claimed or administered by anyone. […]

Historians of cartography have long studied the practices and consequences of cartographic omission. In a landmark study, “New England cartography and the Native Americans”, published posthumously in 1994, the British historian of cartography J. B. Harley analysed seventeenth-century maps to follow the progressive replacement of the Native Americans with European settlers. In Harley’s analysis, the maps were something more than historical records of that process. Because they made the colonists visible at the expense of the indigenous population, they were also instruments of colonial legitimisation.

Many colonial mapmakers preferred to leave the areas of predominantly indigenous presence blank, rather than to reproduce an indigenous geography; one example is Herman Moll’s 1729 map of New England and the adjacent colonies, seen above. The traces of indigenous presence, past and present, were gradually removed from the maps as the colonists pushed west. The apparent emptiness helped to justify the settlers’ sense that they had discovered a virgin territory, promised to them by Providence. The pattern was the same in all areas of colonial activity, including Australia and Africa.

[WMS]

Previously: Google, Palestine, and the Unbiased Map.

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.