Saturday, February 22, 2014

Shadow Lands

"There is no there there," Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, beginning a long history of that city usually getting no more respect than the late Mr. Dangerfield.  I wonder if she knew anything of the long and ongoing history of places that were worse off than Oakland, in that they didn't, upon closer inspection, ever really exist.

There seem to be two main reasons for the perpetuation such geographical frauds, the first being the great dislike that cartographers have for blank spaces (when not making up mountain ranges and rivers, they usually filled those voids with fantastic animals and legendary oddly-formed people).  The second reason is explorers who found that writing up stirring tales of distant lands sold well and possibly influenced those back home with authority and wealth, and often made more money than seal hunting, so...they made stuff up.  Like Fox News does today.

For over a hundred years, beginning with a 1798 map, a huge mountain range was shown on maps of west Africa, stretching west to east from Sierra Leone to Nigeria.  They were given a name worthy of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel:  The Mountains of Kong.  The man who invented such a stretch of rock was believed because he was indeed credible:  he was a co-founder of the Royal Geographical Society, a fine surveyor and a pioneer in oceanography.  The idea that mountain chain was there is possibly due to coming across a 15th century geographer's vague account, but why would someone of such scientific bent take that as proof?  Ah, well, our local CBS TV weatherman is a big climate change denier, so I guess science can keep some people on a rational path only some of the time.  A Frenchman went to the Kong region in the late 19th century, and finding just a lot of flatness, reported the same to the folks back home.  Off the maps the fabled mountains went!

There have been a, uh, boatload of imaginary islands placed in the Pacific on maps; in 1875, Captain Sir Frederick Evans got a little steamed about this and removed 123 such islands from the Admiralty charts (including three that actually were there).  But an American sea captain kept his inventions on the charts and maps until 1922, escaping Cpt. Evans' keen eye.  Benjamin Morrell claimed to have discovered Morrell Island near Hawaii and New South Greenland near Antarctica in an 1820s published account of his otherwise unproductive travels over that great ocean.  People should have been a little more skeptical, though, since he reported birds of paradise (inhabitants of steamy tropical regions) on the ice of the South Pole continent.  Others got the fictitious islands of Isla Grande, Royal Company Island, Swain's Island, The Chimneys, Macey's Island and Burdwood Island on maps of the South Pacific, either to get their names in print or to make all that emptiness a little more interesting.

Whole countries have appeared with great detail in print, like those composing "Schlaraffenland," depicted on maps made in Nuremburg (1716).  Part of the long-lived "Land of Cockaigne" legend, the native people (and their scandalous behavior) were even visualized  in a 1566 painting by Breughel.  So if it was painted, written about and mapped, it sure looked to many like it was, if far away, definitely somewhere! 

The countries supposedly in Schlaraffenland

How about an imaginary land that was found (as we'll see, more or less) to actually exist?  California was imagined, long before it was found, to be a large mythical island at the edge of the world inhabited by warrior women.  It appeared on a French map of 1656 after a popular book of legend, a little history and fiction inflamed dreamers in the early 1500s.  Rumors of its existence and plenty of gold, pearls and griffins therein were heard and believed by Mexico's conqueror, Hernan Cortes; after the first exploration of Baja California the mariners still thought it was an island, and the popular imagination (and the cartographers) kept it that way long after subsequent explorers found the west coast pretty solid, with no watery strait between the Pacific and the north end of the Sea of Cortes.  And the griffins?  Just condors.  No wild women, either.

The Island of Warrior Women today.  Still no griffins.

So, with satellites, Google and science boldly advancing our knowledge, this sort of thing is now part of history, right?  Alas, the geographical con game goes on: as recently as 2012, Sandy Island (near New Caledonia), seen on charts, a worldwide database and yes, Google Earth, for 12 years, was found not to be there by some amused Australian scientists, as they sailed over 1300-meter-deep water where it was supposed to be.  And a custom globe maker in England discovered, to his chagrin, that a reputable 2008 world map he was using as a basis for his impressive 50" diameter "Churchill" model had the capitals of Israel and Tanzania wrong, along with 148 other errors.

I think old Gertrude Stein had the best answer to:
 "Are we there yet?"


Most of the above is from Simon Garfield's fascinating 2013 book On the Map.   


1 comment:

  1. Sometimes you are there and you don't know it. Then again, that is what graveyards are. People who used to be but are no more.