I don’t make any apology, I love maps. I don’t know why. I just do. It is why I have a collection of atlases and maps and why I am such a fan of the website Strange Maps. Recently, I have had two separate delightful map based pleasures.

The first pleasure came from a gift from my mother-in-law of an atlas that had belonged to her late husband’s grandfather. The Chambers’s Atlas For The People was published in 1846. It shows in both the maps and the text a very different world. Pre-Civil War United States consists of 26 states, some so-called ‘organised territories’ in the middle of the country and a huge area of ‘unorganised territories’ to the west.

With the creation of the country still 20 years away, Canada was known as British North America with a large area to the north entitled ‘Territory of the Hudson Bay Company’.  There is also reference to Russian America (Alaska) which is described as “a dreary country, inhabited by a few savages”. Yep, it was a very different world.

Of course being before the American Civil War and therefore before the abolition of slavery, the map of Africa is also interesting.

Africa map web

The whole centre of the continent is marked as ‘unexplored countries’ – this being 10 years before David Livingston started his explorations – and the coast of Nigeria appears on the map as ‘Slave Coast’.

The text states that “Civilisation is only to be met with in the settlements of the Europeans” No surprises in that attitude.

In 1846  convicts were still being sent to New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land was identified as a separate colony and South Australia had only recently been founded as a free colony. Although the continent was known as Australia (as well as New Holland), it wasn’t to become a country for another 45 years.

Australia map web

The text is even less complementary about the Australian Aborigines than it is about the Africans.

The second pleasure came when I was in London recently and visited the wonderful Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library.

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The exhibition is subtitled “Power, Propaganda and Art” and features 80 fabulous maps, many of which were produced for rich and powerful people to display their realms. Most impressive is the Klenke Atlas which is the largest atlas in the world and displayed with the pages open for the first time in 350 years.

Other maps show the boundaries of territories, the progress of development and the fruits of wars. There are also maps which chart subtler conquests.

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As with the 1846 atlas, this exhibition provides a wonderful history lesson and reminds one of how much seemingly mundane objects can tell such fascinatingly powerful stories.