Actually, it’s long overdue.
Think back to your high school Geography classes, where you probably had a map of the world stuck to the wall. Maybe, like me, you gazed longingly at the map, wishfully thinking of the adventures you would like to have instead of being stuck in a classroom.
I must have enjoyed Geography, since I chose to continue studying it at Sixth Form, and throughout the years I was fortunate enough to have some great teachers. Yet I cannot recall any time that the accuracy of the world map was ever discussed, or even raised as a point of contention during my schooling. Geography lessons began with the assumption that the world map was an objective truth, accepted by all.
For most of us, this is the map of the world we’re used to seeing:
This is the Mercator projection, and almost 500 years since it was first designed, this is still the world map that you are most likely to find in shops and in classrooms. What is missing from its use in educational contexts is a critical discussion on the origins behind this map, which is in fact the perspective of one cartographer rather than a universal truth.
Context is key
The 25th May 2020 will go down in history as the catalyst that led to protests all over the world against the abuse, discrimination and marginalisation experienced daily by black people. The death of George Floyd was watched by millions online when a Minneapolis police officer restrained the compliant Floyd by pressing his knee onto his neck.
For almost nine minutes.
Until he took his last breath.
What initially began as protests in Minneapolis against the police brutality experienced by black people in America, has sparked a worldwide revivification of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. On 7th June BLM protestors in Bristol, UK, conducted a public lynching of the statue of 17th Century slaver Edward Coulston. Although many in the UK have argued that the problem of racism – towards black people in particular – is far less prevalent or damaging than in the US, this narrative is also starting to change. Daily micro-aggressions experienced by black people and people of colour have made their way onto the national conversation, revealing that many of us have had prejudice ingrained in our learning and ways of thinking at an institutional level.
Such as in the classroom.
Realising that the first step is to unlearn
Which brings me back to the world map. Produced in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, his aim was to design a world map that sailors could use to navigate the high seas easily. The map would have been used primarily to assist with intercontinental trade routes; most notably, the notorious Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Mercator map made it way into world domination (quite literally) centuries later, and even today it is still one of the most common versions you’ll see in shops, in classrooms and printed on travel-themed gifts.
The problem is, although Gerardus Mercator’s map was useful for sailors who wanted to plot straight line charts as they navigated their way on the ocean, the map tells a story that feeds into traditional ideas of Western superiority and domination.
Africa looks significantly smaller than it should
Have you noticed how Africa looks pretty much the same size, if not smaller than, Greenland? By way of comparison, the United States looks like it would fill up at least a third of Africa, and South America looks only slightly smaller than the whole continent.
The reality is very different – just take a look at the real size of Africa.
‘The True Size of Africa’ – graphic designer Kai Krause’s map sheds light on the sheer size of Africa, easily fitting the whole of the US, India and China, with room to spare. Photo: Kai Krause
Africa is in actual fact, 14 times larger than Greenland.
Does it matter? Some might argue that it doesn’t, given that despite Greenland’s larger than life size, it’s hardly considered a world leader or country of great significance. Yet given the historical context of the colonial subjugation of people across the continent, portraying Africa as taking up less space in the world than it does, is clearly problematic.
The actual size of Africa is better represented in another map type, the Gall-Peters projection, which more accurately represents the relative sizes of landmasses. In 1974 Dr Arno Peters presented the Gall-Peters map as a better alternative to the Mercator projection, yet it still has not made its way into mainstream use in educational establishments.
A Western-centric world
The Mercator map isn’t just problematic due to the inaccurate representation of the relative size of various regions; this is just the tip of the iceberg. A first glance at Mercator’s map would have you think that the UK and Europe are at the centre of the world, which fitted neatly into 16th century thinking. Europe was the home of ‘civilisation’ and spurred the development of the Enlightenment, according to the popular narrative, having just emerged from a four hundred year Crusade against the ‘pagans’ in the desert land of Arabia. At home in Europe, meanwhile, the Spanish Inquisition was just getting started on the ‘religious purification’ of Muslims and Jews from the region.
Placing Europe at the centre of the world map continues to feed into today’s dominant narrative that the Western world matters the most, is the most advanced and leads the rest of the world in almost every aspect of ‘civilisation’. Whether we choose to ascribe to this view is only significant if we critically engage in dismantling our assumptions about what we have been taught about the world, starting with how it looks.
North doesn’t belong at the top any more than the south belongs at the bottom; a flipped map would be just as accurate.
I have never wondered why Australia is known as the country ‘Down Under’, because clearly it’s located down beneath all the other countries at the bottom of the world map. As someone who benefits from living in the centre of the world (according to Mercator), I’ve never felt the need to question the phrase. On 26th January 1979, Australian Stuart McArthur launched his alternative to the Mercator projection with this map, which at first glance appears to be upside down.
Although the orientation of this map is no more accurate than Mercator’s, that is precisely the point. Clinging to the practise of placing North at the top of our maps is nothing more than an arbitrary convention that has become so ingrained in our perception of the world, we no longer remember this.
The reality is that the north doesn’t belong at the top any more than the south belongs at the bottom; a flipped map would be just as accurate. Earlier cartographers knew this and would design their map accordingly, like the famous Tabula Rogeriana by 11th century Muslim cartographer Al Idrisi.
If the orientation of the map is arbitrary, does any of this really matter?
In short, yes, very much so. The fact that the Mercator projection is used all over the world as the world map, is problematic not only for the reasons outlined above. A quick look online at maps on sale shows it still dominates our perception of the world. If you’re shopping online for maps and travel-themed gifts, you might see the Mercator projection referred to as a ‘classic’ world map, or just as ‘the’ world map, with very little to indicate the narrative of Western superiority and dominance symbolised by the Mercator projection. In some cases its use is unavoidable; even Google Maps uses a version of the Mercator projection.
What is missing from our educational settings, and thus from our general understanding, is a critical appreciation for the considerations of the unconscious (and conscious) biases that influenced the design and popularity of certain worldviews over others.
If we have learnt anything from the Black Lives Matter protests these past few weeks, it’s that we as a society have a lot of unlearning to do. So when you next open up a world map, or decide you want to buy one, be sure to check first what type of worldview you allow yourself to ascribe to.