`In this outstanding study of maps and mapping, Jerry Brotton reveals a dynamism in the transaction between East and West beyond anything we have previously appreciated.'
--Lisa Jardine, Queen Mary University of London
A history of the geography of Trading Territories
Trading Territories emerged from a perennial fascination with old maps and atlases. I've always been intrigued by the apparent accuracy of medieval and Renaissance maps, particularly as their accuracy always seemed rather nominal; the beauty of an Ortelius map or a Mercator Atlas is undeniable; but surely they never actually got people from A to B, in the way that our good old ordnance survey maps do today? This led me to do a little research...
The result was Trading Territories. What I discovered as I delved into the history of Renaissance cartography and geography was that these relatively insignificant and belittled disciplines came to increasing prominence as a result of their inextricable relationship to the so-called 'Great Discoveries' of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the voyages of da Gama, Columbus, Diaz and Magellan.
Two things struck me very strongly as I pursued the development of these early maps of discovery. Firstly, they were not necessarily valued for the territory they claimed to depict; European travellers invested an almost magical, talismanic significance to their maps, clutching them in the face of adversity and cultural difference as symbols of their learning and supposed cultural superiority. Secondly, I began to realize that the historical and geographical focus on Columbus' 'discovery' of the New World in 1492 was only one dimension the interest of Renaissance geographers in the changing shape of the world. Most of their maps were even more concerned with the opening up of the East, of Diaz's circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, da Gama's arrival in India in 1497, and Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522 (which turned out to be a commercial venture to corner the market in spices from the Moluccas Islands in the Indonesian Archipelago). The bogeymen of Renaissance Europe, the Ottomans, turned out to be enthusiastic patrons of geography, trading maps with their Italian counterparts. In Trading Territories they appear not as the antithesis to the development of Renaissance learning, but as one of its most lavish supporters.
The book therefore pursued a geography of its own, as the chapters followed the development of Renaissance geography and its maps, from Portugal, down the west coast of Africa, round the Cape of Good Hope, via Constantinople, and onwards to India and the maps of the precious spice trade of the Moluccas Islands. Along the way came tales of geographical skullduggery; maps stolen, hidden, forged, deliberately distorted to satisfy the desires of their patrons. Maps, it became clear, inhabited a particularly significant dimension of Renaissance thinking. As the shape of the world came into increasing focus throughout this period, maps and the geographical imagination became particularly prized possessions. Maps were often a symbol of one's wealth, status and almost magical ability to possess knowledge of faraway places and peoples. It didn't matter that you might never have been there -- it was enough that you possessed 'the knowledge'!
Of course, by the eighteenth century such speculative investment in maps became increasingly redundant, as the impact of the Scientific Revolution allowed for increasingly precise and specific forms of measurement to circumvent the need for the earlier maps of Ptolemy, Frisius, Mercator and Ortelius. But this earlier, magical, speculative investment in maps is what I think draws us to these early images of the world. This is what I have tried to capture in Trading Territories.