Book Review: New Found Lands

New Found Lands:  Maps In The History Of Exploration, by Peter Whitfield

This book would have been good enough had it merely contained old maps and a discussion of the strange and uncertain progress of cartography over the centuries [1], but it ended up being even better than expected, largely because the author managed to address some important themes about exploration and the tension between the way that knowledge is passed down to others through becoming parts of maps and the larger body of geographic knowledge on the part of scholarly and bookish people who do not explore and the way that the knowledge is gained through painful and difficult exploration, almost always by people with mixed motives of money and glory as well as a desire to further knowledge and preserve secrets from others.  These mixed motives, and the fact that some places did not have obvious profit potential and were therefore not on a high priority to explore, were all aspects of cartography that were thoughtfully presented by the author.

The book, as might be expected, is divided between text and books, and contains a lot of old books, divided both chronologically and regionally.  Starting with exploration in ancient history, the authors then look at the lure of the East, specifically China, as being decisive in encouraging Europeans to travel, because while China was known, the way around the other side of the world by sea from Europe was an unknown.  The next three chapters look at the exploration of the new world, of the Pacific Islands and Australia, and the exploration of continents, particularly Africa, up to 1900, before containing a post-script on the contemporary quest for exploring mountains and even occasionally other planets.  In about 200 pages the author makes it clear that mankind operates with a variety of motives when it comes to exploring, and that the limitations of our technology and of our logistical capacity makes a big difference in what we are able to do.  Few explorers have been free of personal motives that colored the desire to explore, and aspects of patriotism have been important as well, as the desire to set one’s flag on a piece of new found land and claim it for one’s country is a lure that has affected exploration since time immemorial.

A few aspects of the maps are worthy of comment.  Some cartographers carried on errors a long time, and the problem of longitude long bedeviled cartographers when it came to getting a good sense of relative location.  Other areas, particularly island groups in the Pacific, long eluded explorers because the size of the ocean and the way that mariners dealt with it meant that certain routes were simply not taken, and the islands to be found there were just not seen by the travelers on that massive ocean.  It is remarkable how long, for example, Oceania remained largely unexplored given the fact that Spanish and Portuguese sailors were exploring the area starting in the early 16th century.  It is also remarkable that an inability to correctly estimate the circumference of the globe kept quests like the Northeast and Northwest Passages, which will likely depend on ice-free oceans, going long after they were simply impractical, to the death and harm to many sailors.  The fact that some early maps, in the early 15th century, were more accurate than later maps for centuries, underscores the fact that there was truth that was lost as well as truth gained through the passage of time, a lesson we all ought to consider lest we be overwhelmed by a feeling of chronological snobbery.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: New Found Lands

  1. Pingback: Book Review: 1066: The Hidden History In The Bayeux Tapestry | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Unruly Places | Edge Induced Cohesion

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