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The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon &the-phantom-atlas-by-edward-brooke-hitching Schuster 2016)

I love maps. There’s something magical and mind-transporting about them, but the maps in this book are even more special than usual. They don’t transport your mind elsewhere, they transport your mind nelsewhere – to places that never existed, but might have done.

Or did they once exist? That’s one of the fascinating things. In some cases, phantom islands have been seen by more than one ship and in more than one year. Sometimes reports came in for centuries. Sometimes phantom islands have appeared on Google maps, like Sandy Island or Île de Sable, “northeast of Australia” (pp. 206-7). Possibly first discovered by James Cook in 1774, it was “undiscovered”, as Edward Brooke-Hitching puts it, in 2012, when a group of Australian scientists tried to find it and failed.

But perhaps it really exists and was simply mislocated. Even the most skilful navigators could go astray in the long years before electronics and position-fixing satellites. Or perhaps it lived up to its name and was washed away. That may have happened to more substantial land-masses:

Tracing the cartographic history of the island of Mayda is like tracking a spy through a series of forged identities, although, as it moves about the North Atlantic over the years, adopting a range of names and shifting in shape, it never quite escapes recognition. Mayda is one of the oldest and most enduring of phantoms, stubbornly clinging to the skin of maps for more than five centuries; it was one of the last mythical North Atlantic islands to be expunged. But in a strange twist, it may be that the phantom label is too readily applied. (“Mayda”, pg. 158)

The strange twist, Edward Brook-Hitching goes on to say, is that a ship’s captain south of Greenland “decided to measure the depth” of the supposedly very deep water he was passing over, “perhaps noticing a variation in water colour” (pg. 161). Water that was supposed to be “2400 fathoms” deep turned out to be only “24 fathoms”: there appeared to be a sunken island beneath the ship.

Or was there? Probably not, but islands do indeed come and go, as volcanoes vomit them to life and the sea swallows them again. Mountains come and go too, but over much longer stretches of time, so it’s unlikely that any of the phantom mountains here really existed. The Mountains of the Moon certainly didn’t. They were supposed to be the source of the Nile and appeared prominently on maps when “virtually nothing was known of Africa by Europeans” (pg. 162). Sir Richard Burton tried to reach them in the nineteenth century, during the great age of African exploration, and helped prove they didn’t exist. By then, another African legend was long discredited: the Kingdom of Prester John had melted away into legend.

He was supposedly a Christian king who sent a letter to “Manuel I Komnenon, Emperor of Byzantium” (pg. 194) in the twelfth century, claiming “enormous wealth and power” and descent from the Three Magi of Matthew’s Gospel. The letter proved to be a forgery and historians have long speculated about the identity and motives of the forger. But belief in Prester John took a long time to die and his kingdom appeared on many maps before explorers laid it finally to rest.

Prester John is a legend that most readers will probably have heard of before, like Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu and El Dorado. But it’s good to have them collected here in one book with lots of more obscure legends, from “Crocker Land”, the “Isle of Demons” and “Australia’s Inland Sea” to the “Sunken City of Vineta”, “Wak-Wak” and the “Phantom Lands of the Zeno Map”. The maps and drawings are always interesting, often beautiful, and Brooke-Hitching doesn’t stick strictly to geographic phantoms: he also has chapters on the “Sea Monsters of the Carta Marina”, Olaus Magnus’s “hugely influential and imaginative map of Scandinavia” from 1539, and the “Creatures of the Nuremberg Chronicle Map” from 1493.

This book is indeed a cartophile’s delight, detailed in its text and delightful in its imagery, but I would have liked a little more than maps and cartography. The chapter on the Mountains of the Moon or the Kingdom of Prester John could easily have incorporated something about H. Rider-Haggard and King Solomon’s Mines (1885) or Alan Quatermain (1887), just as one of the chapters on the Pacific could easily have incorporated something about H.P. Lovecraft and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928). And something about At the Mountains of Madness (1936) could have gone into the chapter on Terra Australis.

As the maps were filled in and the phantoms were exorcised, imaginative writers like Haggard and Lovecraft invented new sources of wonder and mystery. R’lyeh is a phantom land in more senses than one and deserved some mention here. Lovecraft would certainly have delighted in this book and drawn inspiration from it. Its appeal is captured in a story about Pedro Sarmiento, a Spanish explorer taken prisoner by Sir Walter Raleigh. He was questioned about “his maps of the Strait of Magellan” and “one particular island, which seemed to offer potential tactical advantage.” Sarmiento replied that

…it was to be called the Painter’s Wife’s Island, saying that, whilst the Painter drew that map, his Wife sitting by, desired him to put in one Countrey for her, that she in her imagination might have an island of her own. (Introduction, pg. 10)

When we look at maps, we all have islands of our own.

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Mapping the World by Beau RiffenburghMapping the World: The Story of Cartography, Beau Riffenburgh (Carlton Books 2011, 2014)

A good map is like a swan on a river. Beneath the elegance there is a lot of effort. This book is about that effort: all the millennia of research and refinement that have gone into perfecting maps. Not that any map can be perfect. As Beau Riffenburgh explains here, there are always choices to be made: what do you put in, what do you leave out? And how do you represent spherical geometry on flat paper?

The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator came up with one famous answer to that question:

Mercartor’s major achievement came in 1569 with a new projection that represented a breakthrough in nautical cartography. Since known as the Mercator projection, it is cylindrical-like, with the meridians as equally spaced parallel lines and the lines of latitude as parallel, horizontal lines, which are spaced further apart as their distance from the equator increases. This projection is uniquely suited to navigation because a line of constant true bearing allows a navigator to plot a straight-line course. However, this projection grossly distorts geographical regions in high latitudes – thus Greenland is shown larger than South America, although it is actually less than one-eighth of the size. (“Cosmographies and the Development of Projection”, pg. 51)

So the map looks wrong, but leads right. So does the famous map of the London Underground, which ignores true distances and bearings: the designer Harry Beck made it look like an “electrical circuit, with straight lines and the inclusion of only one feature above ground – the Thames” (“Mapping for the Masses”, pg. 143). Maps are about abstraction: they condense and confine what people find interesting or important about the real world.

So minds mould maps and in writing about maps, Riffenburgh is also writing about culture and politics. About art too, because maps can be very beautiful things, sometimes deliberately, sometimes incidentally. Above all, however, he’s writing about mathematics. What was implicit from the beginning – the importance of maths in mapping – became more and more explicit, as he describes in the chapter “Men, Measurements and Mechanisms” (pp. 70-3). The men are drawn from the world’s most evil and energetic group: white Europeans. Galileo, Newton and Huygens are three of them: as they contributed to maths and science, they contributed to cartography.

Another man is the Yorkshire watchmaker John Harrison (1693-1776), the hero of Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995). He was a remarkable personality and looks it in the portrait here: proud, determined and self-possessed. He needed all those qualities to get his due. He invented a chronometer that kept accurate time on long voyages and enabled navigators to determine longitude, but British officialdom “made him wait years for all of his prize-money” (pg. 73).

Elsewhere the names are obscurer and the stories sometimes sadder:

In the history of cartography, few individuals stand out for their work in so many geographical regions and aspects of science as James Rennell. Born in Devon in 1742, Rennell went to sea at the age of 14, learned maritime surveying and then, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, received a commission in the Bengal Army as an engineer. … Equipped with quadrant, compass and chain, Rennell began a thorough and scientific survey of [Bengal’s] major river systems, roads, plains, jungles, mangrove forests and mountains. (“James Rennell: Mapping India, Africa and Ocean Currents”, pg. 86)

However, he “never fully recovered from a severe wound received in an ambush” and retired to London to produce his “masterpiece – A Map of Hindoostan, or the Mogul Empire” (1782/1788). But en route to England, he had an “extended stay in Southern Africa” and developed an interest in ocean currents. So he became a pioneering hydrographer too: his posthumous An Investigation of Currents of the Atlantic Ocean (1832) “is often considered to form the historical basis of the study of currents” (pg. 89).

Later in the century, the German August Petermann worked for the Royal Geographical Society and was appointed “Physical Geographer Royal” by Queen Victoria. His assistant John Bartholomew said “no one has done more than he to advance modern cartography”, but Petermann committed suicide in 1878 after returning to Germany (“Maps reach a wider audience”, pg. 132).

Nietzsche would not have approved. But I think he would have applauded this:

Perhaps the most remarkable nautical drawings of all, considering the conditions under which they were produced, were those of William Bligh, captain of the British ship HMAV [His Majesty’s Armed Vessel] Bounty in 1789. Following the infamous mutiny, Bligh and 18 loyal seamen were set adrift in the ship’s launch. During the next 47 days, Bligh navigated approximately 3,600 nautical miles (6,660 km) to Timor, with only one stop. Throughout the journey, which is considered one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the history of open-boat travel, Bligh kept a detailed log and made sketches of his course. (“Mapping Australia and the Pacific”, pg. 77)

His chart is reproduced here. Using anecdotes like that with serious analysis and intellectual history, Riffenburgh tells the story of cartography from Mesopotamia and before to the moon and beyond. The story of maps is the story of man: even pre-literate societies like the ancient Polynesians have used maps to record the sea and its currents. In Europe, maps have reflected every advance in technology, like printing and photography. But as they’ve responded to technology, they’ve altered the way we see and interact with reality. When you look at a map, there’s a whole world of exploration, endeavour and ingenuity just beyond its margins. Mapping the World is about that world: the margins of mapness without which the maps themselves would not exist. It’s a book to stimulate the mind and delight the eye.

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Front cover of Sea Charts of the British Isles by John BlakeSea Charts of the British Isles: A Voyage of Discovery around Britain & Ireland’s Coastline, John Blake (Conway Maritime Press, 2005)

This is a bonnet-book. Opening it is like lifting the sleek, stream-lined bonnet of a car to reveal the complicated and powerful engine beneath. Sea Charts of the British Isles reminds you of what goes on beneath the surface and of what you might have been taking for granted. In this case, it’s sea-faring: the apparently simple task of sailing from one place to another. But it’s not simple and it’s never been safe:

The first lighthouse [at the Eddystone Rock off Plymouth], built by Henry Winstanley in 1698, was of wood in an octagonal shape, and strengthened in 1699. Winstanley was captured by a French privateer during construction, but Louis XIV ordered his release, pronouncing that, “We are at war with England, and not humanity.” Winstanley rebuilt the lighthouse in 1703, testing providence – and losing – as he wanted to sit out a storm in the lighthouse. The storm that came was one of the worst ever recorded and when it abated both he and the lighthouse were gone. (ch. 1, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 17)

To avoid hazards at sea, you have to know not just where they are but where you are. Lighthouses are one way of marking hazards, but you can’t put a lighthouse on every rock. So you need charts and ways of finding yourself on them. This book is about the charts and the charts are guides to navigation: they often have mysterious, slanting and radiating lines that you don’t find on land-maps. You don’t usually drown or founder if you go astray on land and you can easily ask directions. Before satellite-positioning, you had to find directions at sea for yourself:

Portolani or books of sailing directions, known in England as rutters of the sea, existed in medieval times, before the chart as we have come to know it was conceived… The English navigator would rely heavily on the rutter, given the meagre navigation equipment of medieval times, which he used along with the compass, and lead and line for sounding depths… The portolan charts were based on a framework of 16 compass roses equally spaced and arranged in a circle, with radiating rhumb lines that navigators could use as a guide to lay off a course to steer. (ch. I, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 22-5)

Looking through this book, you can trace the evolution of both navigation and cartography from page to page, century to century. Charts once showed Scotland “as a separate island (as some may wish it now)” (ch. I, pg. 11) and the coastline of Britain only vaguely resembled reality. Paradoxically, as cartography became more scientific and the charts became more realistic and accurate, so they became more evocative too. A medieval chart tastes of paper, not of the sea. By the end of the eighteenth century, charts let you taste the sea and hear the sea-birds:

The first admiralty chart published of the Scilly Isles was drawn by Graeme Spence in 1792. … This is a stunning piece of hydrographic surveying with 23 views of the indented, complex coast of this island group battered by the Atlantic. Lying 32 miles off Land’s End, with balmy temperatures all year-round, it is an internationally important area with large numbers of sea-birds breeding on the islands, including the red-beaked puffin, and most notably the European storm-petrel … (ch. III, “The South Coast of England”, pg. 65)

Spence’s chart isn’t intended as art or evocation, but it is artistic and it does evoke. So does the “Chart of Caithnesshire and the Orkneys” published by Laurie and Whittle in 1794, with “pilot information and sailing directions” for the Merchant Navy (ch. VI, “Scotland”, pg. 106). This evocation-by-accuracy found in real charts and maps is borrowed by fantasy-writers like Ursula Le Guin, whose archipelago-world of Earthsea gains extra power from the fact that it has been given a realistic map. If Earthsea also had charts with sailing-directions, it would have even more power. Symbols, sightings, soundings would add verisimilitude to an invented world and offer more food to the reader’s imagination. But there’s plenty of food for the imagination in this book about charts for a real world.

It’s also interesting to ask why charts are more powerful than maps. I enjoy looking at both, but there’s something special in a static representation of a highly dynamic thing. The sea regularly rises and falls, irregularly rages and calms, so charts have to indicate tides and currents. And depths too: the land doesn’t hide its secrets the way the sea does. Charts can also go out of date very quickly and easily, because sandbanks can shift and rock-formations collapse overnight. This book doesn’t just tour space, it tours time too, whether it’s human or hydrographic. All coastlines are beautiful, but the British and Irish coastline has a special place in maritime history, because the British Isles have given so much to sea-faring. See the sea-faring, and the special place, right here.

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