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Here Be Dragons
December/January 2016/17

The 1606 edition of Mercator’s map of the Arctic, which shows the North Pole as four land masses divided by four rivers (Courtesy of Simon and Schuster)

The fascination and beauty of maps both emerge clearly in this well-written, witty and thoughtful book. A map-enthusiast (a much better term than his preferred cartophile), Brooke-Hitching has assembled a wide-ranging account of myths, lies and blunders on maps. This then is another version of the imaginary map, not in most cases those that are deliberately fictional, as in the maps that accompany Winnie the Pooh, Thomas the Tank Engine, or, more portentiously, The Lord of the Rings. Instead, Brooke-Hitching focuses on unintentional error, although there is an overlap, as in the invention of a version of Taiwan by George Psalmanazar in his fantastical An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1704). This book was accompanied by a totally inaccurate map, but the key point was the inaccurate account of mass human sacrifice, cannibalism and polygamy.

In his all too brief introduction, Brooke-Hitching explains some of the reasons for error, including the confusion of low clouds for land, and the difficulties of checking the locations that were reported. At the same time, as he points out, there was deliberate error, or, indeed, sheer whimsy, for example adding references to family members.

Some of the issues have lasted to the present. The island of Bermeja appeared in the Gulf of Mexico from a map of 1539 up to another of 1921 until an attempt to find it in 2009 by a Mexican research vessel seeking to substantiate oil-drilling claims proved totally unsuccessful. It now looks likely that the island never existed, although other explanations offered include deliberate destruction by the US and earthquake.

Each episode Brooke-Hitching considers is freestanding, and readers will have their favourites, from Bradley Land and Crocker Land in the Arctic to Atlantis, and the folk tales of the fictional Isle of Demons near Labrador to the Mountains of King in modern northern Nigeria. These examples were depicted from British maps of 1798 and 1805 until an explorer correctly told the Société de Géographie in Paris in 1889 that they were non-existent.

In 1822, Gregor MacGregor sold British investors part of the fictional territory of Poyais on the Mosquito Coast, as well as having a currency printed for it. Alternatively, there was Satanazes, an island in the Atlantic west of the Azores depicted from a Venetian chart of 1424 onwards that was seen by some as the basis of the “Hand of Satan”, which emerged from the island in fog to destroy ships. The island of Wak-Wak was more benign than Satanzas. Wak-Wak was an exotic mystery, although it is unclear whether it was purely fictitious or a mystery rooted in the reality of an island in Asia.

Brooke-Hitching is by no means the first to discuss such misleading maps, and his book would have profited from a consideration of earlier such works. However, this is a spirited and enjoyable study, one that underlines the enduring fascination of maps. In London, this is catered for until March 1, 2017 in the new British Library exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line and the accompanying lecture programme and book. The exhibition shows a wide range of maps, by topic and type.


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