One of my hobbies is to collect old maps. Mostly these are old street directories of Melbourne.

In this blog entry I'll try (probably unsuccessfully) to explain my fascination.

For my birthday, Monika gave me a Collier's World Atlas and Gazetteer published in 1958. It has proved fascinating.

Here's a copy of the map provided of Antarctica:

Collier's Atlas (published in the US in 1958)

Compare that map with the one produced in my Reader's Digest Great World Atlas, published in the early 1960s:

Reader's Digest Atlas (published 1960 or soon after, customised for an Australian market)

There's an interesting difference between these two maps. A number of countries have territorial claims over Antarctica. The Reader's Digest map records the claims by Australia, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK.

The United States doesn't recognise those claims (and others that have been made by countries like Argentina and Chile.) So, in an atlas published at much the same time, the Collier's Atlas ignored those claims, and added a not so subtle counter-claim: those territorial assertions by other countries should be ignored because of the fact of US exploration. In the Collier's Atlas, parts of Antarctica explored only by Americans (most of the continent) are coloured green. Those bits explored both by Americans and others are yellow. Those - few - places that have only been explored by foreigners are coloured orange: and there's not much of the continent coloured orange. So those claims by other nations to Antarctica by virtue of exploration amount to almost nothing. Of course, no allowance is made for the fact that a lot of the early exploration was made by sailing boat and dog-sled. And much of the US exploration was made later by airplane and snow tractor.

The issue of who "owned" Antarctica was big in the late 1950s. As it turns out, the territorial claims were largely put on hold by an agreement made about Antarctica in 1958 as a result of the International Geophysical Year and the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1961.

But these two Atlases represent a point in time when two very different views of Antarctica were up for discussion. Readers in different countries were presented with radically different views of the world, and they probably little realised this. And as it turns out, the result was a compromise.

What tacit assumptions are built into the maps we read today?

(By the way: the Collier's Atlas also shows white areas as "unexplored". This was also the last time when there were still unknown bits of the world where a map-maker could write "there might be dragons here".)

(And also: If you look at the Collier's map, you'll see one French, one British and  two USSR, bases situated in areas "seen only by U.S. explorers". I don't know what drugs the Collier's map makers were on when they put the map together. Maybe they thought those bases were only manned during Antarctic winters when it was dark - so nothing could be "seen"???)

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Anthony Holmes February 21st, 2007 11:07:30 PM

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