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Book Review


Jerry Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Pp. xix + 521. Index. $40.00 (cloth).


     Jerry Brotton's A History of the World in Twelve Maps bears a title similar to a sub-genre of world histories published by popular presses: A History of the World in Six Glasses, A History of the World in 100 Objects, The First World War in 100 Objects, and A History of Food in 100 Recipes. Brotton's work also overlaps somewhat with To the Ends of the Earth: 100 Maps That Changed the World and Peter Barber's The Map Book, an anthology to which Brotton contributed one article on an Ottoman map that is unmentioned here. The title is untruthful in a number of respects. Unsurprisingly, the book is about far more than a dozen maps. A baker's dozen is the count if the Babylonian world map from the introduction is included, but each and every chapter includes a number of additional maps (as well as map-like artifacts) that illuminate the theme and history of each of the named maps. Nor is the book really a history of the world, but more A History of Eurasian Elites' Conceptualizations of the World in Eleven or Twelve World Maps and One National Survey.1


     Each chapter in Twelve Maps hews to a similar structure. They all open with a historical vignette that sets up the milieu in which the map was produced. They each provide a miniature biography of the mapmaker or his family. After some discussion of the map's production and reception, the relationship between the map and a theme representing the Zeitgeist of the era is explicated. Finally, every chapter traces a history of the map as an object (the map sheets themselves) and as a model for subsequent cartographies. The book is well illustrated, including sixty color plates and thirty-eight black and white images. There is no bibliography, only endnotes.

     Twelve Maps' first chapter, "Science," is about the invention of cartography by classical Greek intellectuals, the scientific mapmaking that laid the groundwork for nearly all world maps to follow. "Exchange," the second chapter, traces traditions of mapmaking, astronomy, and geography in the medieval Islamic world, as well as inter-sectarian intellectual histories. Chapter Three, "Faith," reveals mappamundi to be "encyclopedic version[s] of what the world looked like to a thirteenth-century Christian," an unpacking of Christian theology from the high middle ages (84). "Empire," although centered on a Korean-made map, covers two millennia of the histories of the Middle Kingdom, Chinese cartography, and the Sinosphere. The Renaissance, Age of Discovery, and global capitalism and empires are entangled in the central cluster of chapters, "Discovery," "Globalism," Toleration," and "Money." Readers meet European mapmakers at work responding to printing press technology and the Reformation, the encounter with the New World, imperial struggles, and the growth of the bourgeoisie in western Europe. Chapter Six argues that for the first time, a world map became a "legally binding document" (212). The seventh chapter is in part a spirited defense of Gerard Mercator against postmodern charges of Eurocentrism. Chapter Nine, "Nation," cheats a bit with the premise of the book, since the object under scrutiny is the national mapping project of France, not the entire world. Here the cartography is situated as an element in the invention of modernity, including the simultaneous rationalization of recording the world and popular sovereignty in politics, "Cassini maps offered a horizontal perspective of the earth, from which every metre of territory (and by implication each of its inhabitants) had the same value" (336). Chapter Ten, "Geopolitics" delves into nineteenth- and twentieth-century international diplomacy and war. The eleventh chapter, "Equality," addresses the contemporary ideological implications of mapmakers' choices, particularly with the regard to the Global South, and the final section, "Information," covers the semi-democratization of mapmaking that accompanied the implementation of Google Earth.

Cartographic History

     Despite claiming otherwise, Twelve Maps functions well as a primer on the history and historiography of cartography. Brotton introduces the reader to a number of key scholarly findings about maps. "Mapmakers do not just reproduce the world, they construct it;" the map is "never made from a neutral cultural standpoint" and mapmaking "an imaginative act" (6-7). The chapters reveal how maps have been used as tools of internal and external power over the world, to use J.B. Harley's critical terminology.2 External power is "power … exercised with cartography," the geographic information on the map being put into use by a map-user (usually agents of the state).3 Brotton revisits time and again "centres of [geographical] calculation" compiled by empires: the library of Alexandria, the Abbasid House of Wisdom, and the Spanish Habsburgs' Casa de Contratación. Although maps of the globe themselves are generally useless for external power, since they present small-scale information, several adjunct maps are discussed with states or other actors assessing and manipulating territory, such as charts for sailors' wayfinding, landscape maps for water conservation and roadbuilding, and tactical topographies for Napoleon's armies. So valuable were maps to the modern state, Brotton notes, "Geographers were slowly but surely turning into civil servants" (319). World maps were more important with regards to internal cartographic power, as Valerie Kivelson defines, how maps "transform the way that viewers understand and experience space, place, and power [and] buttress and naturalize particular ways of understanding and enacting claims on land and space."4 Brotton illustrates symbolic rule and global claims expressed through maps, like the flags of the House of Aviz ringing the map of Africa. The Song Dynasty presented an "idealized and nostalgic space" in mapping territory they had lost, preserving conceptually the notion of "China's" right to a particular landscape (135). The first globes provided the "ability to allow [an imperial] owner to imagine the territory itself" (190). Indeed the map was central to the territorial claims of the modern nation state, a "cartographic manifestation of national consciousness" (296).

     Although the process is in no way systematic, but accumulated through reading the book in its entirety, the reader learns about the conventions of mapmaking that have been subject to scholarly critique: scale, centering and framing, projection, shape, color, boundary, orientation, and cartesian and non-cartesian grids. Crucially, Brotton explains that mapmaking through time was not necessarily a history of increasingly accurate portrayals of the earth, the old-fashioned positivist historiography of mapmaking.

     The reader also learns a great deal about the physical materials and techniques of historical mapmaking (and to some degree surveying) and how they shaped maps and worldviews. We read of baked clay, the animal skin foundation of the Hereford Mappamundi, the moveable type of twelfth-century Chinese maps, and the woodcuts of the Renaissance. Unsurprisingly, the printing press in Europe--even if it slowed improvements in cartographic technique at times--led to a number of changes: increased uniformity and precision on map copies; commercialization of the atlas trade; and the grace, revisability, and relative inexpensiveness of copperplate engraving. The influence of modern technologies of triangulation, lithography, and GIS/GPS are explained as well.

Errors and omissions

     There are a few errors of fact and interpretation in Twelve Maps. Brotton mixes up the Second Crusade with the Third (78) and mystifyingly claims that Buddhism lacked a proselytizing impulse (120). More importantly, there are mistakes with cartographic history. First, the book conflates the sort of power exerted by the map that Marlow admires in Heart of Darkness with the impact of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, yet those two cartographies had very little in common. Brotton presents a balanced account of the cartographers' wars (of words) over Arno Peters' global projection in Chapter Eleven, "Peters forced mapmakers to concede that their maps had never been, and never could be, ideologically neutral or scientific objective 'correct' representations of the space they claimed to depict" (385). Unfortunately, he undercuts this entire understanding of maps, by arguing that explicit propaganda is somehow different than the implicit political propaganda of earlier cartography: "As the [twentieth] century progressed and Europe descended into global conflict, maps became more explicitly politicized than ever before, and in some cases transformed into servants of what is now very familiar political propaganda" (374). Maps have always been servants of the political.

     Regrettably, the book's profession that "non-Western cultures are part of the story" is not mirrored in the content. Occasionally, this Eurocentrism creates inequalities of interpretation. The "hostile local tribes" who killed Magellan certainly might receive more equitable treatment in the prose (197). Elsewhere the reader at least peeks into the minds of French villagers who resisted Cassini's surveyors. The argument that the Dutch Republic "preferred the accumulation of wealth over the acquisition of territory" is a rather naive view of the Dutch companies' empires, which conquered land in Taiwan, insular Southeast Asia, Brazil, South Asia, and southern, west, and central Africa (293). This surely takes Dutch metropolitan sources at their word, without interrogating them with regards to the periphery. Providing one chapter each to "Islam" and "China," and several to European mapmaking traditions, implies the Orientalist model of a stagnant or timeless East versus a dynamic West. Finally, Zheng He's expeditions are nowhere to be found in the book, even though their ranging (more extensive than contemporary European sailings) no doubt had an impact on subsequent iterations of the Kangnido maps. This would certainly illustrate a non-Western portion of the story, one with many parallels to the Western narrative so carefully covered in the middle of the book.

Conclusion: Twelve Maps in the classroom

     Would Twelve Maps work as world history? It was not, precisely written as such, despite the title, the indefinite article (A World History) providing the author with an escape clause. Geographically speaking, the book is largely the history of Eurasian (and almost entirely European) elites, and South Asians, Oceanians, Australians, Americans, and Africans do not comprise much of the story. Although he notes that mapmaking was "not an exclusively Western activity," at most three of the thirteen main maps were authored by non-Europeans, and two of those might be "claimed" by Western civilization, the neo-Babylonian and Islamic maps (14). Even the Korean map shows the influence of Western cartographic traditions, borrowing Arabic place-names. As the second volume of the History of Cartography has shown, world maps existed across the world in "traditional" societies, and these are absent from Brotton's narrative. I would find the work too narrowly detailed and Eurocentric to work in a standard global history class.

However, individual chapters might serve perfectly for sophisticated students or a specialized world history class, especially a history of technology or empire. Chapter Six, "Globalism" illustrates how imperial activity actually shook out in the sixteenth century (rather than the simplified version that textbook maps show us), and Chapter Nine, "Nation," should work to introduce students to how historians approach conceptualizations of modernity. The book also provides a model for short intellectual and biographical histories for advanced students, and explains a great deal about how historians work with sources and evidence. Twelve Maps discusses repeatedly maps as unreliable informants. The early chapters show just how frustrating and scanty primary documentation can be, revealing the limitations on constructing historical narratives, certainly a useful experience for neophytes in the discipline.

Michael McInneshin has been teaching world history for more than a decade. He can be contacted at



1 The last chapter is not limited to Eurasian elites' views (though perhaps global elites'), and one of the maps is not a world map. Brotton admits as much, noting that "meaningful usage of applications like Google Earth [is] largely limited to predominantly Western, educated elites." (434) An alternate title might be A History of Thinking Globally in Cartographs.

2 J. B. Harley, "Deconstructing the Map," Cartographica 26.2 (Summer 1989), 1-20. Even though he references Harley's influence on the field of cartographic studies, Brotton does not use this particular terminology to describe the different types of map power.

3 Harley, 12.

4 Valerie Kivelson, Cartographies of Tsardom (Cornell UP: 2006), 6.



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