Accuracy & Extrapolation: Maps of the Caribbean, Ireland and Madagascar

Mapping and Mercantilism in the Caribbean

Detail of Angel from <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21332300660001021"> <i>The West-India Atlas</i></a> by Thomas Jefferys, G 1600 .J4 1794, Williams Oversize Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Detail of Angel from  The West-India Atlas by Thomas Jefferys, G 1600 .J4 1794, Williams Oversize Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Cartography in Britain, and much of Europe in general, revolved around naval commerce and travel during the early modern period.  Cartographers like Thomas Jefferys (1719 – 1771) created these maps within a competitive economic context, which eventually came to be known as mercantilism.  Jefferys, working within this ideological context, developed The West-India Atlas in the late eighteenth century to help facilitate mercantilist-influenced trade in the Caribbean.

"Jamaica" from <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21332300660001021"> <i>The West-India Atlas</i></a> by Thomas Jefferys, G 1600 .J4 1794, Williams Oversize Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“Jamaica” from  The West-India Atlas by Thomas Jefferys, G 1600 .J4 1794, Williams Oversize Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Cartographic accuracy lay at the heart of early modern Europeans ambitions to navigate across land and water. Accuracy covers a broad spectrum of topics when it comes to mapping, from depictions of landmasses to calculations of depth measurements.  Because of this, accuracy in mapping subsequently serves another purpose: the development of global economics and exchange around the world. With the growth of commercial exchange and naval commerce beginning in the fifteenth century, development of these maps became a crucial trade tool.  In the colonial Caribbean, a land of narrow waterways, tropical jungles, isolated sandbars, and erratic ocean currents, this accuracy became even more critical for success by merchants.  Ships, large and small, with cargo holds full of sugar, tobacco, rum, gold and silver, became the means of conveyance for this trade in the Caribbean and around the world.

"The Windward Passage" from <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21332300660001021"> <i>The West-India Atlas</i></a> by Thomas Jefferys, G 1600 .J4 1794, Williams Oversize Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“The Windward Passage” from  The West-India Atlas by Thomas Jefferys, G 1600 .J4 1794, Williams Oversize Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In Jefferys’ atlas, he takes care to refer to currents, places where ships could anchor and take on water, and depth measurements to assist the captains of these ships.  However, Jefferys goes beyond these elaborations and even makes references to the climate and inhabitants of the region to provide insights into the lifestyle of the Caribbean.  He indicates the dominance of the Caribbean sugar plantations, making sure to note their property borders and comment on the sugar production for almost every island.  The West-India Atlas truly embodies the context of mercantilism, and while it makes no specific arguments for the ideology, it goes to an extreme length to ensure the success of the system through accurate mapping.

  • Benjamin J. Shapiro, BC Class of 2016 and Spring 2014 Making History Public Student

 Creating Certainty in Turbulent Times

Map of Ireland from <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21321484140001021"><i>The Traveller's New Guide through Ireland</i></a> by John Cummings, DA 975 .T73 1815, Irish Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Map of Ireland from The Traveller’s New Guide through Ireland by John Cummings, DA 975 .T73 1815, Irish Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Traveller’s New Guide through Ireland was published in Dublin in 1815. The book’s illustrations are from engravings and sketches done by J. Taylor. This book was originally created to provide travelers to Ireland with a correct guide of the country, but its scope was expanded as an effort to enliven the work and to make it invaluable to businessmen and local people.

 The Traveller’s New Guide through Ireland was published when Ireland was still under the control of England and a mere 15 years after the 1800 Act of Union was signed and 17 years after the rebellion of 1798. This was a particularly important time in the history of these two regions because the Irish rebellion had been largely unforeseen and represented a larger French threat to the British Empire.

Detail of Dublin from <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21321484140001021"><i>The Traveller's New Guide through Ireland</i></a> by John Cummings, DA 975 .T73 1815, Irish Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Detail of Dublin from The Traveller’s New Guide through Ireland by John Cummings, DA 975 .T73 1815, Irish Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

This map of Ireland is specifically touted as “new and correct” regarding the roads in Ireland. Roads are important militarily because they provide access from the coastal regions to the interior regions of the island and between the villages. Some of the roads depicted were even constructed for military use to provide a means of communication and shelter. It was strategically important to have accurate maps to know the best way to mobilize troops, where resources were, and through what terrain the roads would lead. Maps like this one would if possible show if a route went through friendly or hostile areas and if the roads were near any resources. Whether or not troops had access to resources or were exposed to politically friendly residents had the potential to dictate victory or defeat and so accurate maps were essential for the military.

Table of Fairs from  <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21321484140001021"><i>The Traveller's New Guide through Ireland</i></a> by John Cummings, DA 975 .T73 1815, Irish Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Table of Fairs from  The Traveller’s New Guide through Ireland by John Cummings, DA 975 .T73 1815, Irish Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Other instances of the concern over accuracy can be seen in the precision with which measurements are taken of the road distances and the exact geographic location of the island. The Traveller’s New Guide through Ireland also carefully documents when and where local fairs and markets took place. This scrupulous cataloging of such events further demonstrates the role that accuracy occupied in cartography.

Allen’s New and Correct Pocket Map of Ireland and the charts of local fairs and markets contained in The New Traveller’s Guide exemplify some instances of the importance of maps during military and political uncertainty and transition. The concern with accuracy also reflects the political concerns of the era in which this book was produced.

  • Katherine Clark, BC Class of 2015 and Spring 2014 Making History Public Student

 Heights and Depths in Flacourt’s Madagascar

Plants of Madagascar from <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21386337120001021"> <i>Histoire de la Grande Isle Madagascar</i></a> by Étienne de Flacourt, DT 469 .M31 F5, Williams Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Plants of Madagascar from Histoire de la Grande Isle Madagascar by Étienne de Flacourt, DT 469 .M31 F5, Williams Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1642 the French East India Company was granted a charter to establish a colony on the Southeast corner of Madagascar.  After six unsuccessful years in establishing a prosperous trading outpost in this new French colony of Fort Dauphin, Étienne de Flacourt was appointed new governor of the colony.  His original mission was to establish a trading network with the local Malagasy population, but lack of cooperation from the locals and France’s inadequate support of the colony caused Flacourt to abandon this mission.  He turned instead to documenting and mapping the island around him.  And so Flacourt published Historie de la Grande Isle Madagascar , a 354-page work that gave the first European in-depth account of Madagascar.  Included in this volume are several maps of the island and many sketches of the local Malagasy people and the distinct plant and animal life in Madagascar.

"Map of the Carcassonne Valley" from <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21386337120001021"> <i>Histoire de la Grande Isle Madagascar</i></a> by Étienne de Flacourt, DT 469 .M31 F5, Williams Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“Map of the Carcassonne Valley” from Histoire de la Grande Isle Madagascar by Étienne de Flacourt, DT 469 .M31 F5, Williams Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

For example, Flacourt maps this section of current Southeast Madagascar using extrapolation.  The mountains that Flacourt plots are particularly uniform in height—this is not a coincidence, but showcases one idea of cartographic extrapolation in heights and depths.  With little accurate information of the true topography of this region, Flacourt replaced this knowledge gap with an invented and uniform topography.  Flacourt populates this map with mountains, each of nearly equal height and shape.  When compared to accurate topographical depictions, this method of height and depth extrapolation seems senseless.  This extrapolation, however, allowed Flacourt to create a sense of order and familiarity with a completely foreign and distant land.

  • Mirko Kruse, BC Class of 2014 and Spring 2014 Making History Public Student

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit Ordering the Unknown:  The European Mapping Tradition from 1600 to 1860, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Sylvia Sellers-Garcia’s Spring 2014 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.  

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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