The Australian map of Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe, as printed in The New York Review of Books from February 6, 1997, depicts a continent that has been flipped upside down from its traditional rotation. In it, “Southern” countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe are now at the top of the picture, while “Northern” countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Italy appear at the bottom of the picture. The effect of this simple transformation is profound, and had the map not been labelled, I almost certainly would have been unable to name what was depicted in front of me. It is relevant to note the map’s provenance, that it has come from Australia. Australia is a country associated with being near the bottom of a global map, so much so that going there is known colloquially as going “down under.” By upending the map of Africa, the map’s cartographers leave their audience with the implication that a global map of this variety would place Australia towards the top of the picture, a move that may have symbolic value to the Australian people. What seems interesting to me is that while this is actually a very accurate map, with each country clearly labelled and identified, with distinct borders, it seems so foreign. The map’s inversion highlights some issues that people around the world face: they become so ingrained in tradition that anything that doesn’t fit with their view on life often appears alien and unnatural, and will likely be disregarded as false and misleading. In my case, I looked at the map and, on recognizing some of the names, instantly thought, “that map is the wrong way round.”
This confusion with the orientation of the landmass can also be seen when people try and identify the nations that comprise the African continent. Currently Africa is divided into many individual, independent nations, but as the quotes below show, the continent was ruled by four different countries just a relatively short time ago. J. F. Horrabin demonstrates these changes in power over time in his book “an atlas of Africa,” when he says, “The north-eastern corner of the continent […] was part of the Turkish Empire” (Horrabin 19). The author then continues, “French, Portuguese, and British had established themselves at various points on the coast […] The vast interior of the continent was ‘empty’” (Horrabin 19). This point, regarding how Africa has changed over time, is important, because many people may tend to think of a map as a permanent tool that has always been, and will always be accurate. In truth, maps are just a snapshot of the situation at one moment in time, and in some cases may be outdated in just a few years, months or even days. Maps are also reflections of politics in that era, with borders and geographical features often shifted or exaggerated for political or financial gain. Horrabin gives a perfect example of this political distortion in maps, saying that, “until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Africa had no place on the world-map” (Horrabin 18). Traditionally, cartographers have depicted the global map in a rectangle, which is a distortion of the world’s spherical shape. In the past it was common for these cartographers to split the map by lines of longitude and latitude, but this effect serves to artificially enlarge countries above the Tropic of Cancer, and below the Tropic of Capricorn, while seemingly shrinking the areas in between. The effect of this construction is to make countries such as the USA, Canada and Greenland relatively large in comparison to the continents of Africa and South America. As a result, people are often unaware of quite how massive Africa is. In fact, Africa is almost fifteen times larger than Greenland.
Throughout his book, J. F. Horrabin utilizes fifty different maps of Africa to demonstrate how the continent has changed since its initial occupation by Western nations in the 19th Century. There is a consistency to each map though: each has the ability to locate specific areas or geographical features to which the cartographer wants to draw attention, whether political borders or rivers and mountains. Tools such as maps are highly valued because they contain information which allows humans to locate some-place or some-thing. In the modern society it is easy to take “locating something” for granted, but when one notes that the whole continent of America was named after explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, it becomes obvious of the significance locating something once meant. As Robert Harbison puts it, “To put a city in a book, to put the world on one sheet of paper — maps are the most condensed humanized spaces of all…They make the landscape fit indoors, make us masters of sights we can’t see and spaces we can’t cover” (Harbison 132). Used both for political and financial gains, as well as countless other objective reasons, maps are often biased in one or more parties’ favor, and very rarely will be completely impartial, but their utility for the good of society is undisputed. Maps often give insights into different cultures and societies in times gone by. By breaking with tradition and depicting an inverted Africa to the norm, the Australian cartographer’s map I cited at the start of the essay may be providing insight into Australia’s own culture.
Horrabin, J.F. An Atlas of Africa. Frederick A. Praeger, 2006. Print.
“Australian Map of the world, 1990’s.” The New York Review of Books. Print. 6 Feb. 1997.
Harbison, Robert. Eccentric Spaces. New York: Knopf, 1977. Print.