Sorry for the lack of posting here recently, schoolwork just got crazy for a week or so and unfortunately that had to come first (also, how in hell is it midterms already? We’ve definitely only been in session for like 5 weeks). In any case, it turns out that one of my methods of de-stressing actually really fired up my imagination this weekend.
I was at the store to do my grocery shopping and I decided to pick up a few magazines. Actual physical magazines are one of my guilty pleasures. 99% of the time they’re overpriced junk with bad writing, but something about the glossy pictures and very targeted topics appeals to me greatly. But one of the things I picked up was the National Geographic Photo Issue to celebrate 125 years of publication. I pretty firmly stand by National Geographic as not being junk (I blame my grandmother’s annual gift subscriptions to Nat Geo Kids during my formative years), and usually being fairly informative and interesting, even if sometimes problematic. When I got home and started to flip through it, a folded insert fell out, and I saw it was a poster of their notable covers from the last 125 years. “Aw, that’s nice,” I thought, as I set it aside in favor of looking at pictures of waterfalls. But later that night, when I pushed everything out of my bed so I could get to sleep, it fell open and I realized there was an opposite side. And that was map of the world. In fact, it was the first reference map released by the National Geographic Society in 1922. I ended up not going to bed for another 2 hours.
I will admit that I am a lunatic for maps, especially historical ones. I suppose it runs in the family; my dad and brother both studied history in college and the walls of our house are hung with copious maps. My bedtime stories included such classics as “Henry Knox bringing the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston over hundreds of miles of ice in December and also he was like 300 pounds” and “John P. Bobo driving his bloody stump of a severed leg into the ground to continue delivering devastating fire to our enemies in the Vietnam War”. So this map, for me, was downright enchanting. Maps from different time periods show how people of the time thought about the world.
There’s so much gold in this tiny guide alone that I don’t even know where to start. “Political Divisions, including those established after the World War”. Of course, it wasn’t World War I. These men had no idea that there was going to be a second, even more devastating world war in just a few short years. Railroads were considered the most important means of distant travel, so the most important routes were marked. Travel by airplane was so new that it was possible to mark all of the air routes in the world. Provincial boundaries were marked for Canada and Australia, but unlike most world maps now, the US doesn’t show state divisions. (also the map was engraved and printed in Buffalo, so yeah, got some hometown pride going on there)
Those few lines criss-crossing the Atlantic were the only approved airplane routes at the time to get from North America to Europe, and even then, most of those were not yet approved for commercial use. Once they were, you still could only really go from St. John’s in Newfoundland direct to Dublin or Lisbon (it looks to be the shortest distance between two major cities), and then the trains could get you anywhere else.
And of course, the names for many places were completely different. When I hear the phrase “Dutch East India” it brings to mind the era of Pirates of the Caribbean, not an entirely more modern time between the World Wars. “Siam” and “French Indo-China” are mostly unfamiliar to me. In my past world history classes, places were usually referred to by their modern names, which I think is a mistake in the curriculum. It makes things seem too unchanging; it forces modern perspectives on to the past. This was also the time when everywhere seemed to belong to somewhere else. Half the places on the map list their names and then in parentheses, who “claimed them” (usually Britain, France, or the US, because Germany had just forfeited its territories to the victors of the war).
To me, the most interesting parts of the map to look at are Asia and Africa, 1) because they were undergoing massive upheavals at the time and a huge amount has changed since then, and 2) my education regarding the histories of these places was terribly insufficient. One of the first things that caught my eye was how downright fucked Africa was, and to some extent always has been. Africa was doomed as soon as the Europeans started carving it up according to who “claimed” what, ignoring racial, cultural, and territorial boundaries during the early Colonial era. I think that this is where many of the current problems in Africa stem from. In my past classes, we usually compared maps of Africa as it is now with ones from the mid-1800s. We never really looked at any in between. It’s crazy to me to look at how large the divisions are; I mean, look at how big “French West Africa” is (if you can – please forgive my terrible photos). And the names of places are just absurd. “Italian Libya”? “Anglo-Egyptian Sudan”? Half of them are the same, but with some modifier of who they belonged to, because God forbid the brown people belong to themselves. It’s only just visible in the corner, but look where Iran currently is. Persia. I will admit that all of my education has entirely skipped over this area. In 6th grade when we learned basic ancient history, we were told that Persia invaded Greece, but weren’t given any context for that. I think that’s literally the last time I heard that area mentioned in school. My high school world history classes skipped over it (along with a lot of other places, really), and my college Arab history class said that it wouldn’t be covered because they weren’t really Arabs.
Look how small China is! Or at least, I assume it is, because Tibet, Mongolia, Manchuria, and Siberia are all written in the font reserved for countries, so I assume they were independent at the time (yet another glaring hole in my education). I tend to think of China as always having been this gaping giant of a country, but it clearly wasn’t. Thinking of it now, it seems obvious that they’re having so much trouble these days; they’re trying to enforce the cultural norms of one group on at least 5 distinct cultural groups. It’s like the opposite of what happened to Africa, which was subdivided into smaller and smaller categories. It’s quite blurry in this photo, but there’s a section labeled as “Chosen (Korea)”, and even though I vaguely knew that it had been called that in the past, I didn’t know when the name changed. I think the parenthetical notation indicates that it was gradually changing at this time, but I could be wrong.
Europe and the US, being the dominant powers at the time had the most detail given to their sections of the map, but of course that meant tiny font and lots of squished in cities, which turned into a blurry mess on my camera. But the existence of Czechoslovakia, “Jugo-Slovakia”, and “Rumania” was kind of funny. Looking at the Baltics, my mind immediately said, “oh look, the former Soviet satellites”, before remembering that actually at the time, they were future Soviet satellites. On that note, Russia was just noted as Russia, not the USSR, because that just hadn’t happened yet. It was also significantly smaller, because Siberia was still listed as separate (as an interesting note, it had two borders shown – one as “natural boundary”, one as “political boundary”). Alaska and Hawaii weren’t states yet, but they were territories and were outlined in the same color as the US.
I think the most wonderful thing about this map, though, is that there are still unexplored regions. The North and South poles had both been reached fairly recently, but the surrounding areas were basically unknown, and I think that’s great. I wish our current maps would still denote unexplored areas. For a moment when I first looked at this, I got a little sad, thinking that we don’t really have any left, but that’s just silly. There’s still huge swaths of rain forests, mountains, and deserts that we haven’t seen, the depths of the ocean are a complete mystery, and we’re just beginning to probe out into space. There will always be unexplored areas, because I think people will always want to look out and find what’s next, what’s just beyond the places we know. Maps are an important tool for showcasing what we know about the world, but I think it’s just as important to admit what we don’t. I’m not saying we should go back to “here there be dragons” scrawled on the oceans, but seeing those areas where our knowledge still needs to be filled in is simply inspiring.
I think we have a problem these days with admitting that we don’t know everything. Thinking that we’ve found everything that needs to be found is foolish and ultimately stagnates scientific progress. In its earliest days (and to many, still now) NASA was a beacon of hope, inspiration, and excitement during the Cold War. Exploration of the world is a genuinely exciting thing, and I think opening up discussion on the unexplored areas on our current maps would influence a whole new generation of kids to want to find out everything they can about the world. Because if it looks like the whole map is already filled in, where’s the fun in exploring?