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Introduction: Strange Wonders
Explorers pin maps to their walls; journalists tape stories to theirs. For both, doing so is a way of getting their bearings. As I sit down to write this book, the wall behind my computer is unadorned except for two photocopied articles, each of which helps me set the course for the journey ahead. The first one, which I ponder now while sipping coffee, is from a reference book called Who Was Who in World Exploration:
Houtman, Cornelius (Cornelis de Houtman). (ca. 1540-1599). Dutch navigator and trader in the East Indies. Brother of Frederik Houtman.... In 1592, the Houtman brothers were commissioned by a group of nine Amsterdam merchants to journey to Portugal to learn what they could about newly developed sea routes to the East Indies.... In Lisbon that year, Houtman and his brother attempted to acquire classified Portuguese navigational charts detailing the sailing routes to the Indies. They were arrested and briefly held in a Portuguese jail when they were caught trying to smuggle the charts back to Holland.
The coffee I am drinking comes from a Chicago establishment called the Kopi café, a place where my life was transformed one day and this book was born. As it happens, the story of how the Houtman brothers wound up in jail is also the story of how the Kopi got its name. That, however, is not the primary reason this article hangs on my wall. I keep it there to serve as a constant reminder of the extraordinary power of maps-and the lengths to which human beings will go in obtaining them.
Shakespeare once used the term mappery to describe the passionate study of a map or chart. I am neither a map scholar nor a map collector, but if there's one thing I should make clear about myself from the start it's that I am an incorrigible mapperist, an ecstatic contemplator of things cartographic. On the desk in front of me now, in fact, is a reproduction of a very old and very famous map, one that, among other things, shows why the Houtman brothers felt compelled to spy on Portugal.
Published in 1569 by Gerard Mercator-the greatest cartographer of his era and a Dutch contemporary of the Houtmans-it was the first map to use a revolutionary system for projecting the three-dimensional world onto a flat plane. More than four hundred years later, this system is still in such common use that when most of us close our eyes and imagine a map of the world, we are seeing the Earth through Mercator's eyes. But for all the work's towering achievements, what I notice at first glance are its mistakes and misconceptions, its whimsies and wild stabs in the dark.
Gazing at Mercator's chart, I see a planet strikingly different from our own, a world full of blank spaces and nevernever lands. North America turns into an amorphous blob that reaches so far west it is almost joined to Asia at the hip. South America has an unaccountable protrusion from its southwestern shores, a topographic tail feather that makes the continent look something like a giant waterfowl. This beast is, in turn, perched upon a very peculiar nest-a huge polar landmass, many times the size of present-day Antarctica. Known as the Great Southern Continent or the Unknown Southern Land (or, to more optimistic cartographers, the Country Not Yet Discovered), it was a place ancient geographers had dreamed up to complement their belief that the Earth was perfectly symmetrical. The Arctic region, meanwhile, is a massive donut of land, broken up by four rivers that lead into a polar ocean, through which water was thought to flow to the center of the Earth. From this strange sea rises a giant magnetic "black rock," which, according to ancient versions of the myth, destroyed ships by pulling out the nails that held them together.
It is easy, with centuries of hindsight, to chuckle at such notions. But for people like Mercator and the Houtmans the still-hazy outlines of the world were no laughing matter. Having refrained from widespread ocean exploration until the fifteenth century, Renaissance Europe was in a high-stakes rush to make up for lost time. Portugal had led the charge. Beginning in around 1420 under the direction of a prince who would be dubbed Henry the Navigator by later generations, the Portuguese launched a series of explorations down the west coast of Africa. Bartolomeu Dias arrived at what we now call the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, and ten years later Vasco da Gama became the first European to travel to India by sea. In so doing, he helped establish a Portuguese economic empire in the Far East, the realm of pepper, spices, drugs, pearls, and silk.
The Portuguese controlled the Indies because the Portuguese controlled the maps. Attempting to establish and preserve a trade monopoly, Henry the Navigator and his successors guarded their navigational secrets with an iron hand. "No foreign ship was allowed to sail to the Indies," wrote the historian George Masselman. "The penalty was confiscation of the ship and committal of the crew to a lifetime in the galleys." Nor were maps allowed to circulate. When Pedro Alvares Cabral returned from India in 1501-ending a trip in which he became, according to some scholars, the first European to sight Brazil-an Italian agent complained, "It is impossible to get a chart of the voyage, because the [Portuguese] King has decreed the death penalty for anyone sending one abroad."
On the browned surface of the Mercator chart, I can see signs of just how well Lisbon kept its secrets. Some scholars believe the Portuguese quietly discovered Australia in the early sixteenth century. If so, no word had leaked out to Mercator: the entire continent is missing from his map. In its place, south of Java, sit three entirely nonexistent kingdoms called Beach, Lucach, and Maletur. Lacking firsthand accounts by contemporary explorers, Mercator based these lands on the fourteenth century descriptions of Marco Polo.
At first, the Dutch did not consider their ignorance about the Indies to be a pressing issue, primarily because they were close trading partners of the Portuguese. At the time Mercator was making his map, however, that relationship was beginning to change. In 1568 the Dutch, who were increasingly embracing Calvinism, started a long war of independence against Catholic Spain, the great European power at the time. Yet just as the Dutch were breaking from the Spanish empire, Portugal was becoming part of it. In 1580 Spain invaded its neighbor, routing Portuguese forces. Portugal and Holland had now become enemies. The Dutch, brilliant shipbuilders and sailors, realized that they would need to go to the East Indies themselves-no easy task. "The route itself was almost completely unknown," wrote Masselman. "Not a single Dutchman had yet set foot in the Indies."
Their initial attempts to get to the East were by going north. When Dutch merchants looked at world maps such as Mercator's, they saw a waterway passing over Europe and Asia to the Pacific. When they ran their fingers along this route, as I am doing now, they concluded that it was shorter than the passage around Africa-and had the added advantage of being free from heavily armed Portuguese ships. No one had actually made the journey, of course; in fact, the whole concept of this northern waterway-like the notion of the Unknown Southern Land-was based on the writings of ancient historians. It turned out that, for once, the ancient historians were right, but it also turned out that no ship would complete the northeast passage until 1879. The Dutch would make three unsuccessful attempts. In the meantime, they dispatched the Houtmans to Lisbon in search of sea charts. But for all their trouble, the brothers-who were eventually freed after their sponsors paid a considerable ransom-may not even have been particularly successful in their mission. Historians disagree about whether they succeeded in smuggling maps and charts out of the country and, if so, whether these maps provided any new information to Dutch cartographers, who had by this time begun to gain extensive knowledge about Portuguese sea routes from other sources.
What the experts do agree on is that the Houtmans and their associates were "the vanguard of the age of modern capitalism," as Masselman put it. The merchants they represented were in the process of pooling their resources in an innovative enterprise called the Company of the Far East, one of the earliest modern examples of the joint stock company, or corporation. This company was the predecessor of the famous Dutch East India Company, which in turn gave rise to the Amsterdam stock market, the first forum for what the historian Fernand Braudel called "speculation in a totally modern fashion." And as the Dutch East India Company thrived, this same class of merchants would figure out a way to use windmill technology for sawing lumber into the exact shapes and sizes needed in shipbuilding-one of the earliest examples of mass production. The Houtmans were helping to define both the geographic and the economic outlines of the modern world, but this probably never occurred to them. They were just a couple of businessmen trying to make a buck.
Today the brothers are mostly remembered as explorers. In 1595, a year after returning from Portugal, Cornelius Houtman served as "chief merchant" on the first Dutch expedition to the East Indies. In 1598 he and his brother led another journey, during which followers of a Sumatran sultan killed Cornelius and imprisoned Frederik. Over the course of his two-year confinement, Frederik Houtman wrote the first Dutch-Malay dictionary; later, in 1619, he made one of the earliest known sightings of the coast of western Australia. Thanks to efforts of adventurers like the Houtmans and a number of superb cartographers, the Dutch East India Company put together a collection of 180 navigational charts. It had the status of a state secret and was, in fact, called the Secret Atlas. With it the Dutch ousted the Portuguese and became the dominant colonial power the southwestern Pacific.
They controlled the region for more than three hundred years-an entire empire built on getting one's hands on the right maps. By the end of the eighteenth century, that empire's most profitable export was a little bean, which the Dutch had begun to grow in Java in 1696. When brewed this bean produced an exhilarating beverage that the Dutch called koffie-a word passed on to the Malay and Indonesian languages as kopi.
Which brings me to the second story on my wall, a December 21, 1995, Chicago Tribune report about another man who got into trouble for stealing maps:
TAMARAC, Fla.-The small, subdued man in khaki pants asked to visit the rare book room. Library curators checked his credentials, logging him as a visitor from Florida. He went inside.
Minutes later, pandemonium-the man fleeing, security guards chasing, police asking why anyone would steal a map from a 232-year-old library book and sprint through the streets of Baltimore.
Clues, it turns out, rest in Tamarac-home to Gilbert Bland, Jr., alias James Perry, a suspect in the theft ... at Johns Hopkins University and perhaps scores more [burglaries of old maps] from libraries along the East Coast.
I had no idea, the first time I read those words, that they would soon be chiseled into my mind. Yet I do remember feeling an unusually intense jolt of curiosity, as fiery and bracing as the coffee I had raised to my lips. In those days I spent a great deal of time at the Kopi, a self-proclaimed "traveler's café" whose walls were adorned with masks from Bali and shelves were filled with Lonely Planet guides to far-flung destinations. I was then the literary critic for Outside magazine, a great job but one that was beginning to wear on my patience. The books I read were about people who climbed Himalayan peaks or rode bicycles through Africa or sailed wooden boats across the Atlantic or trekked into restricted areas of China. These tales of adventure filled my days and my imagination, yet my own life was anything but adventurous, the hours spent slogging through book after book in a dark corner of that coffeehouse or staring endlessly into a computer screen. The interior of the Kopi was ringed by clocks, each one showing the time in some distant locale, and as I watched the weeks tick away in Timbuktu and Juneau and Goa and Denpasar and Yogyakarta, I began to long for an adventure of my own. Or maybe adventure isn't quite the word. It was not that I had any particular desire to do something death-defying; what I wanted was a quest, a goal, a riddle to solve, a destination. My craving, I believe, was not unlike the one Joseph Conrad described in Heart of Darkness:
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, "When I grow up I will go there."
Looking back now, I think that what Conrad called "blank spaces" had much to do with why that article so completely commandeered my imagination from the start. In retrospect, I think I was intrigued not so much by what the story said but by what it left looming between the lines. What was it about these mysterious old maps that people found so alluring? And what kind of person would wander so far and put so much on the line for their acquisition? Who was this Gilbert Bland? I did not yet know how difficult these questions were. I did not yet know that trying to answer them would take up a huge portion of my life. I did not yet know that, even as I sat sipping coffee, my quest had begun.
All I knew was that I had to know more. I had heard about the bizarre case of Stephen Carrie Blumberg, who, during the 1970s and 1980s, removed as many as 23,600 books and manuscripts from 268 libraries in forty-five states, two Canadian provinces, and the District of Columbia. Consumed by what he called "the passion to collect, "Blumberg employed an astonishing variety of tricks to build his illicit collection. He picked locks; he stole keys; he threw volumes out of library windows; he crawled through ductwork and hid in elevator shafts; he assumed the identity of a University of Minnesota professor; he even altered books, while still inside a library, so that they appeared to be his own. Then he would haul his takings to a house in rural Ottumwa, Iowa, where he filled nine thirteen-foot-high rooms with books shelved from floor to ceiling and meticulously arranged them according to a catalog system of his own making. He somehow convinced himself that he was not really stealing but "rescuing" the books from institutions that did not give them the attention and care they deserved. Although his collection was worth up to $20 million, Blumberg never sold a single book. I wondered if Gilbert Bland had a similar compulsion for hoarding hot maps.
But I was just as fascinated by the possibility that Bland was in it for the money. For centuries thieves have reaped big rewards by catering to the peculiar needs of collectors. In our own culture extensive black markets exist for everything from art to animals and sports memorabilia-but history offers some even more outlandish examples. In the twelfth and again in the sixteenth century, for instance, the popularity of a medicinal elixir made from, of all things, the flesh of Egyptian mummies led to a booming business in grave robbing. 'Alas, poor Egypt!" wrote Louis Reutter de Rosement. 'After having known civilization at its zenith, after having sacrificed its all to respect its dead, it was now forced to see the eternal dwellings of its venerated kings despoiled, profaned, and violated and the bodies of its sons turned into drugs for foreigners."
With our own tedious era sadly devoid of contraband pharaoh goo, Bland's alleged crime spree seemed about as interesting a subject as a writer-especially a writer with his own lifelong love of maps-could hope to find. I began to look into the caper and discovered that it was even more extensive than was originally reported. According to the FBI, Bland had stolen maps from at least seventeen libraries across the United States and two in Canada. He was, it turned out, the Al Capone of cartography, the greatest American map thief in history
I took the story to my editors at Outside, who found the case deliciously offbeat and assigned a lengthy feature on Mr. Bland. I thought I would finish it in six weeks. But when it finally appeared in the June 1997 issue, I had worked on it for more than a year-and my labors had only just begun. By the time I completed research on this book, the investigation had consumed four years of my life.
Bland proved to be an extremely enigmatic and unwilling subject and, despite it all, a fascinating one. He was a chameleon. He changed careers and families without looking back; when a daughter from his first marriage asked him for help with buying a car, he refused, saying, "You're a stranger." He could seem to switch age before your eyes, appearing worldweary one minute and boyish the next. Medium height, medium weight, middle-aged, middle everything-he was a cipher, a blank slate; in cartographic terms, terra incognita. He was Bland: "1. Characterized by a moderate, undisturbing, or tranquil quality. 2. Lacking distinctive character."
Because he turned down all my requests to interview him, both for the article and, later, for this book-I was forced to build my profile the slow, hard way: visiting the places he worked and lived; walking through crime scenes; talking to family members, friends, business associates, and victims; methodically piecing together his past through criminal records, court documents, military files, computer databases, and other sources of public record. The more snooping I did, the more I began to see my quest for information as similar to that of the Houtman brothers, and my attempts to make sense of it like the task faced by Mercator. Filling in a life, it turned out, was like filling in a map, and my search for Gilbert Bland soon transformed from an investigation into an adventure. Along the way, I happened upon a curious subculture made up of map historians, map librarians, map dealers, and map collectors-all gripped by an obsession both surreal and sublime. Like the explorers of old, I found myself heading farther and farther into strange waters, never quite sure if I had found what I was looking for, but endlessly filled with bemusement and wonder.