Maps, again

August 28, 2019

51oKC5VfkGL._AC_UY218_  61gjZBNbkqL._AC_UY218_  414ejWraUnL._AC_UY218_  Every now and then I like to look through some of the larger books I’ve collected over the years, particularly atlases, turning the pages and stopping to stare and think wherever I fancy; I jokingly refer to this is as my map porn collection… Recently I took some time to look again at Cartographia, New Worlds (Maps from the Age of Discovery) and this tome which I acquired second-hand about ten years ago.

The Times Atlas of World Exploration is an astonishing tome which I’d heartily recommend to anyone who thinks they have the same bug for explorers and armchair travel that I have: it’s a very detailed and serious work of scholarship, put together by one of the leading writers in the field, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. There are literally dozens of small maps recording the journeys of many travellers, and larger maps which finally helped me to understand how important all the different winds and sea currents were in the days of small sailing ships and primitive navigation, and why travellers sailed at certain times of the year and by particular and not often logical-seeming routes. All this makes the journeys themselves seem even more astonishing.

Recent reading has also shown me just how much exploration was going on way back in the past. I recall the big names from geography lessons at school – Columbus, the Cabots, Magellan, but there were so many others risking all to discover – what? – something to make a fortune from. And I keep having to remind myself that this is almost all from the Western perspective, and that we don’t know what travellers from other regions of the world were up to in those more disconnected times; maybe there are still-undiscovered accounts languishing and decaying in libraries somewhere…

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I am moved by the idea that people would spend ages travelling – years, often – without knowing exactly where they were headed, or what or whom they might meet, and where they would end up. It’s particularly hard to get my mind around some of the adruous journeys along the Amazon, for example. Clearly there was the usual motive of making a fortune, but some travellers went just to see: because it might be there, as it were.

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