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Off the Map
An Expedition Deep Into Empire and the Global Economy
By Chellis Glendinning New Society Publishers
Copyright © 2002 Chellis Glendinning
All right reserved.
Now nothing of this place is unknown.
Woman and Nature
Spectator, spectacle, specimen!
Technology as Symptom and Dream
Empire originates in the perception of place. Maps are the tools of perception, charting land, sea, and skyjust as they map our imaginations.
* * *
The very first map I study is an immense depiction, painted during World War II, that leans up against the playroom wall. It is a children's map, and I am a child. In it the land of North America is colored a faded mustard-yellow. Festooned upon its plains and mountains are tiny sheaves of wheat, little steel mills puffing plumes of smoke, miniature ears of corn, cows spotted black and white. Amid rows of orange trees, southern California sports a Mickey Mouseeared movie camera. The map is a child's paradise, very much like Robert Louis Stevenson's Land of Counterpane,like a dollhouse empire.
I sit, accompanied by my Winnie-the-Pooh books, and I trace my finger from the bucktooth beaver above the Great Lakes, south through the oil wells in Oklahoma, to leaping silver tarpon off the Gulf Coast. The map tells me how to regard things. The world is a magical place, it pronounces, producing all the resources we Americans need: oil for our cars springs from the horsetail and ferns crushed into the earth millions of years ago; the sky is an infinite blue repository inhaling the fumes of our manufacture; the jungles of South America offer up rubber for our tires; good neighbor Canada gives us hardwood for our houses; milk from Iowa cows miraculously lands in glass bottles on the back stoop in Cleveland.
The grown-ups tell me that this map shows the land as it is. I have since pored over completely different depictions revealing an "America" roughly divided among native peoples who hunt buffalo, plant corn, gather berries and medicines, travel from one terrain to another on foot and, some would say, by horse. Made of buckskin, bark, and rock, these maps survive today in museums and along hiking trails. They are depictions not of ownership and consumption but of experience. To native peoples, the features of geography are perceived and interpreted through history, tradition, and kin; in relationship with the animal and plant worlds; in union with the ancestors and spirits. Maps act as springboards for storytelling, song, and ceremony concerning the human experience within the natural landscape.
The mustard-yellow nation in the playroom is different. It imprints the template for a world I am supposed to see but thankfullyfor it would be too painfulnot experience. It works like a charm. As the mighty U.S. of A. is busy pocketing the world's raw materials at bargain-basement prices and dishing out oil, steel, wheat, and Hollywood from the penthouse, I nurse a childlike sense that all of history has led up to this ideal and immutable 1950s moment.
* * *
Here to there: Scale and distance. The map construes the space.
I sketch and paint with a passion. I doodle on the margin of my school assignments at every opportunity. But my delight takes the plunge to terra incognita one day in junior high school when Mrs. Froelich lines us up in the art room and insists that, from this day forward, we organize every one of our drawings according to the mathematical dictates of linear perspective. Across the hall, Mr. Cronkite is at the blackboard copying triangles and cubes and instructing us to reproduce them on grid paper in our notebooks. Mr. Schneiderman is outlining western political expansion in social studies, while Miss McPhee arranges our effervescent little teenage bodies into military formation in the gymnasium. I am receiving not just an education but an education designed to reproduce in me the perception, thinking, and body language of a citizen of empire.
Linear perspective: this is the artist's invention. In it, the artist is bound to one place like a chair bolted to the floor. Encrusted in his furniture, he becomes the spectator, always observing, ever sedentary, no longer pulsing to creation's rhythms. Look here. A medieval artist is perched, frozen, in his stone room gazing at the world through a closed window. He duplicates everything he sees through the window on his drawing board. The panes of the window impose a precise geometric grid over the world. The window frames what is outside into a never-changing object, and the artist's place behind the frame eliminates all sensual intake except vision, removing him from the smell of spring flowers and horse manure, the crumble of dirt beneath his slipper. Land and sky become his object: reduced, fragmented, vanishing into the distance; he, their spectator: estranged, immobilized, diminished.
Long mile. Mean mile. Bird's-eye view. Distance to scale: 1:1,000,000. Medieval Europe is an era for "firsts." Mapmaking is the exciting new field. Scientific thought is invented, flourishes, is written down word by word, page by page, replacing what is left of the communal land-based philosophies that have propelled European peoples since the beginning of time. Both cartography and science share a commitment to distance: in both, the spectator views the world from far away. Both attend to scale: the world, now small, becomes information; the viewer, purportedly large, becomes the authority for interpreting it. In this same period of time, a passion to explore foreign lands erupts: the spectator acts out the insecurity of his displacement from life. Autobiography and self-portraiture become celebrated art forms: the viewer, so disconnected and so diminished, focuses on himself.
1569: Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator publishes the first world map, proposing the revolutionary notion that navigators wanting to get from here to there travel in a straight line. "If you wish to sail from one port to another," he announces, "here is a chart, and a straight line on it, and if you follow this line carefully you will certainly arrive at your destination."
Mercator accomplishes his feat of mental agility by graphing lines, running north-south east-west at right angles to each other, in a precise grid that segments the world into rectangles. The accomplishment is heralded as a major advance for European exploration. This is the navigator's invention, giving sailors and explorers a fixed system from which to figure straight-line courses.
The invention hangs in every classroom in my school. Yet the Mercator map is not true. It hangs there with its thin black lines north-south east-west, proclaiming that it is. "Ah, the world!" our little minds sing in response to the certainty of its placement on the wall. Ah, the world!
But the scale is all wrong.
The blunder comes from the difference between how things are in reality and how they appear on a flat piece of paper. On a globe, the North Pole is a point. On a wall map, it extends across the whole topside of the page. Things start off well. The scale at the equator is accurate enough, and indeed, the map is at its best within 15 degrees of the famed midline. But then everything goes awry. The farther you navigate from the equator, the stranger it gets. Mercator must stretch and tug his planet to impose a straight-line grid onto a page that can be reproduced by the new printing presses. He wrenches apart his meridians, his north-south longitude lines, until they appear equidistant from each other. But for every microspace he nudges them apart, he must divert the east-west latitude circles. He pushes and strains each little box of territory, and then he moves over and does it again. Until the rectangles in the north become taller and taller and taller while displaying no more terrain. Until 80 degrees of latitude, in the cold Arctic, appears thirty-six times its actual size.
The adaptation has curious perceptual ramifications. The tiny nations of Europe end up appearing far more substantial than they really are. The United States looks bigger than Brazil when, in fact, Brazil is larger. Denmark's Greenland looks the same size as South America despite the fact that the southern continent (with its burgeoning population of natives) is nine times bigger.
* * *
(Snowflake calls me from a bluff above the lower trail my pinto and I have embarked upon. I look up to see him astride his dark sorrel. The wind has picked up into a midmorning swirl, and it whips Snowflake's black ponytail over his Levi collar. "¡That arroyo!" he calls to me. "Mira. It goes in the wrong direction, ¡Ven pa'cá!"
"Fine," I think. "I can get to where you are. I can do that." Without deliberation, I spur my pinto in a straight line toward Snowflake. The horse takes three steps ... and then freezes. We stand hoof-to-hoof with a deep crevasse gouged into the bedrock, an impediment impossible to navigate. Embarrassed by my lack of foresight, I yank the reins in retreat and trace a labyrinthian path around hills, through arroyos, and up to the bluff.
"Snowflake?" I ask, trying to locate the lesson. The wind is still stirring our hair and the tumbleweeds around us. "I read a magazine article."
"Pues, díme. I don't read so much." I rein my pinto so I am seated right next to him.
"It's about these people in the South Pacific. They live on islands, and they use canoes to fish and gather shellfish and visit their relatives. But you know what? They don't have maps like ours. They have these maps made out of palm leaves and cowrie shells. The maps aren't about roads or countries or anything like that. They're about the wind."
"¿De veras?" His interest is piqued.
"But they never take the maps with them. They memorize them. And when they go to sea, they lie down in their canoes, they put their bodies against the timber, and they feel the wind and the waves with their bones."
"Sí, bueno." He is excited now.
"Snowflake? You don't use a map."
"This is correct."
"I notice that, when you start out, you scan the land. Then you take off. You go this way and that, around this barranca, avoiding that arroyo, and finally you get to where you are going. Snowflake, how do you do that? It's like you feel the land and then you seem to know how to move with it."
"You are right," he wonders. "How you say it is how it is."
"Well, how do you do this?"
The sorrel's flank heaves a dramatic sigh, and Snowflake's black eyes turn inward to search out an explanation for something he has been doing all his life. Finally, he leans across the saddle, and he whispers: "For this, I find no words.")
* * *
North south east west: Direction. The map lays the way.
After I pore over the mustard-yellow nation in the playroom, a miscellany of maps passes through my hands. There are those Triple-A TripTiks that fall across my mother's lap in the front seat of the Ford. There are maps tacked onto schoolroom bulletin boards brightly starred with the state capitals: Salem, Oregon; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I push these to the just-barely-awake edge of my mind. It is not until the cartographic sweep of the age of European empire makes itself known that I again take notice.
This occurs in Mr. Schneiderman's seventh-grade social studies class. I have already debased myself with the only C minus of my academic career: a torturously handmade papier-mâché rendition of my ancestors' homeland. Unfortunately, my Scottish Highlands are peaking toward the bonnie-blue sky where the Lowlands should be, and the Lowlands are slouching like lowriders where hills should be dusting the clouds. Before the study of papier-mâché cartography gives way to the not-unrelated field of European political history, there is one more class project I remember, although it is not ours. This project has been saved for the more advanced ninth grade. It is a study of propaganda. Mr. S. holds up his favorite term paper: a neatly ballpoint-penned report on the subject at handblown to illegible shreds by a huge, messy bullet hole.
My first critical thought in the realm of scholarship follows. Mr. S. unfurls a chart across the blackboard revealing the full achievement of European imperialism, circa 1914. It is vast. England's territory alone covers a full quarter of the globe: from Ireland, across Africa and the Middle East, including parts of China, New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, islands in the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent in its entiretyall frosted by the obligatory pink of the queen's dominion. France's holdings are likewise considerable, as are those of Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Russia, and the United States. Mr. S. announces with pride that the "rise of the West" constitutes the most astounding accumulation of land and resources in world history. In the year 1800, he says, Western powers hold 35 percent of the Earth's surface. By 1875, the proportion reaches 65 percent, and by 1914, the West holds a grand totalas colonies, dependencies, protectorates, and commonwealthsof 85 percent of the Earth.
Just over a generation later, seventh graders sit quiescent in classrooms across the United States with huge and messy bullet holes shot through our heads. European empire? This is how it is, was, and should have been. As I impatiently fidget at my writing desk, a thought wings its way into my mind like the first robin of spring. European empire? Wouldn't the very act of charting a map serve the conquerors to subjugate the land? In fact, they couldn't do it any other waythat is, if they didn't know where they were going or where they had been.
* * *
To-the-death races to chart where they are going and where they have been mark the age of European empire, 1857: Richard Francis Burton leads the British Royal Geographical Society's expedition to capture the headwaters of Africa's Nile River. Bolstered in the effort by more than one hundred African porters, the explorer sets out from Zanzibar to become the first European to set eyes upon the watery expanse of Lake Tanganyika. With knee-jerk alacrity, he determines this pool to be the very source the society seeks, inks it onto his charts as the official headwater of the Nile, and then, jungle fever having gotten the better of him, plunges into his cot like a bag of rocks.
The ever-ambitious John Speke then sneaks out of the encampment on his own and stumbles upon an even larger lake to the east. He names it after Queen Victoria and, with bravado, proclaims it to be the real fountainhead of the Nile.
Come 1864: the candelabras illuminating one of Britain's most renowned lecture halls are polished in preparation; Anglicans in their wool overcoats are lining up to hear the details of this latest cartographic spat. The day before the debate, Speke is found shot with his own hunting rifle. It is suspected that he has ended his life rather than face ridicule of his cartographic claim to fame.
Ever earnest, the society now persuades the most celebrated explorer of the century to take up the cause. David Livingstone sets out ... and promptly disappears. Worried for its investment, the society dispatches a young newspaper reporter to track him down. Henry Stanley locates a delirious Livingstone on the eastern shore of Tanganyika. He hunches into the musty tent. "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" Between dry coughs and nauseous swoons, Livingstone answers with the big plan: the source of the Nile lies farther south than either Burton or Speke has proposed, he wheezes. Another river, the Lualaba, must surely be the source of the Nile. But before he can track this uncharted river, Livingstone keels over, slumped on his knees as if in prayer, dead as a dog. Devotedly, his native helpers carve out his entrails and bury them under a tree. The body then makes its final voyage to the motherland to be interred beneath the marble floors at Westminster Abbey.
Henry Stanley settles the mystery of the Nile. Equipped with a humongous barge, he traces the Kagera River southwest from Lake Victoria to the Nile's first tender tricklings in the Burundi mountains. He sets off again, this time accompanied by seven hundred porters, to chart the unknown Lualaba, which Livingstone has proposed to be the fountainhead of the Nile. He endures constant attack from angry tribes and loses hundreds of men to disease and starvation. But Stanley is nothing if not determined; he discovers once and for all that the Lualaba holds no relation to the Nile.
In a mere three years, Henry Stanley surpasses all previous explorers in the effort to commit Africa to parchment. Along the way, he cannot help making diplomatic headway as well. His accomplishments open the terrain not just to European-style cartographic abstraction but to European-style settlement; European-style roads and railways; European-style exploitation of animals, plants, minerals, and peoples; European-style government. Stanley tricks the Bugandan people at the north end of Lake Victoria into hosting a Christian mission, a foothold that leads to the founding of the British protectorate of Uganda. Undaunted by considerations of national loyalty, he goes on to establish trading posts up and down the Congo River for Leopold's Belgian "kingdom."
* * *
(We come upon a trickling of a desert river. We dismount. Snowflake unsheathes a crude knife with a leather handle, I take out my Swiss Army, and without talking we trail both sides of the stream, cutting bouquets of the purple-flowered trébol herb. When we each accumulate a delicate collection, we meet back by the horses. Silently we place our flowers on the grass; we kick off our boots. Our toes brush the sand like the cheek-feather kiss of a flicker bird.
"To me it is pleasing to be here," confesses Snowflake. "Here, este río. I was here before con mi abuelo on our way up the monte to hunt. We were riding burros, not horses como now. Mira." He is pointing to a granite boulder in the grass. Oh. I see. It has a picture etched onto its rock marrow. The picture is a human hand. Snowflake places his hand over the image. It makes a perfect fit. "When mis antepasados ran away from the Apaches, they stopped by this little río to get water. They were afraid for their lives, ¿qué no?"
"What does the hand mean?"
"Pa' mí, es la mano de Dios, the hand of God. Have faith, it is saying." He clasps his own hands in his lap, breathes quietly, and then turns to me as if to deliver a message. "I have been to México y Califas in my life. Also Texas y Colorado," he says. "Pero I have not much desire to go anymore." He edges over to the flowing water and mindfully lowers one foot into the stream. "I want only to be here, to be in love with this land.")
* * *
This and that: Detail. The map names what is.
A tradition gets started in the early years of junior high. On a Friday night, usually in November, a chattering coterie of girls assembles in my mother's kitchen, overflowing with butter and molasses, to execute a gingerbread map of the United States. The execution is massive. And detailed. We construct each section of the country on a separate baking tincontouring the Rocky Mountains in dough, painting the Finger Lakes with blue food coloring, marking the forests of the Northwest in green sprinkles, the state capitals with silver balls. We bake each section at 375 degrees and then assemble them all into one steaming jigsaw masterpiece on the dining room table. The result is a teenage triumph, fraught with hysterical titteringand almost no hands-on living-breathing knowledge of the terrain we are charting.
For our homey project, who could care? We bake our gingerbread U.S.A. for fun. Yet as we giggle, unbeknownst to ourselves, we are learning an axiom of imperialist cartography: the mapmaker is omnipresent; he comes from elsewhere nowhere everywhere, hauling in the tools of calculationparchment and plume, measuring wheel and astrolabe, surveyor's level, chain, and brass caps; helicopter, satellite, return-beam vidicon, four-channel multispectral scanner. All the while, the living details of the place, the details that chronicle the daily intimacy of people with placehow they make their way, when the elk sip at the pool, where the tadpoles wriggle and grow, how the cottonwoods breathe into the windthese details are missed and dismissed. They fall into oblivion, and only the details of the imperial fiat remain.
From this perspective, waterways are details of great import. European exploration is fueled by a drive to obtain resources from faraway peoples and faraway placesand one must get there if one is to get the goods. The British Empire gets the goods. One detail is not well understood: England could never have accomplished the feat of capital accumulation, technological development, and mass-scale manufacture historians call the industrial revolution without the dirt cheap materials and labor it wrenched from India. This fact is overlooked in common parlance, while only the wonder of the accomplishment is touted. Machines! Factories! Finery! Yet, indeed, how could a nation catapult its production so far beyond what it has within its own shores without access to other shores?
Detail: England explodes, India implodes. The British East India Company sets up its first textile factory along the Mahanadi River in the state of Bengal. The year is 1633. In return for monies slipped to the governor, the company receives rights to a "free trade" that, in fact, gives it freedom while taking freedom away from indigenous weavers and merchants. Exemption from taxation is the first such right. Next, Bengal's weavers are forbidden to work for themselves. Then, factory-made textiles are priced to undercut what local weavers charge to make a profit. And finally, the company receives the right to stop Indian merchants attempting their own trade.
On the Dutch East India Company's 1648 map, "Nova totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula," the Mahanadi River is designated a prominent detail.
Details, details. Terrain on a map displaying no detail at all presents mortal embarrassment to the cartographer. "It was almost a religious duty not to leave a blank," writes geographer Walter Jervis, "a sign of abysmal ignorance." One of the most amusing attempts to avoid the display of ignorance is a calligraphy legend filling in a roaring blank on a medieval mappae mundi of northeast Asia: "Hinc Abundant Leones," it trumpets, Here Lions Abound.
Detail: the empire turns on itself. It always has. The blatant turning against the people and land in faraway places mirrors the same turning within the empire itself. Hinc Abundant Leones. The year is 1770. Lancashire County, England, heartland of Britain, where tales of the infamous Robin Hood still pass from mother to daughter by the crackling hearth. Find it on the map. Life here is good. The weaver is working in his stone cottage. His little ones play as they clean the weft; the weaver's wife cards and spins. The older girls hoe their vegetable garden and walk about the village, gossiping and showing their skirts. The weaver climbs onto his roof to repair the thatching. His family is growing their own carrots and herbs, raising chickens and turkeys, earning twenty shillings a week.
The year is 1820. Lancashire County. The empire turns on itself. Life is no longer good. In a single generation the land has been made unrecognizable by the assault of industrialism. The houses, now better described as hovels, are blackened by smoke belching from six-story textile factories. Gardens are dry from neglect and overrun by char-faced vagrants. Just as in India, the local weavers are outtaxed, and the lower prices of factory-made goods force them to give up. They labor now sixteen hours a day at machines that dictate the pace in filthy little rooms, earning five shillings a week. For any spinner found with his window open, the penalty is one shilling. For a spinner late to his machine, two shillings. Everything seems lost. The community is broken. The weaver's children are strapped to their stations with hemp, and the foreman stomps down the aisles using a leather piece to whip those who are slumped over, hysterical with fear, or numb with boredom. Sometimes he hauls a child out back by the trash bins and rapes him in the anus.
* * *
("¿Chela?" Now both of Snowflake's feet, looking brown and pink like river trout, are bobbing in the water. "¿Chela, what of tus padres?"
"I like to talk about my grandmother, Snowflake. I don't like to talk about my parents."
This statement strikes Snowflake as unbelievable. "¿Por qué no?" he gasps.
"My father was not a nice man."
"¿He was strict?" Such a quality is apparently the worst he can imagine.
"Worse than that." The facts of history do not lend themselves to the songs of the river. My bones quiver in expectation of the rejection I sense will come if I tell him the real story. "He raped and beat me and my brother."
"¡Oh, Chelita!" Without repulsion or judgment, Snowflake grasps my grass-stained hand and presses it to his cheek. "Del mero fondo de mi corazón, I am sorry. So sorry.")
* * *
The people are changed. The land is changed. The mapmaker himself is changed. The map does not show the changes.
Excerpted from Off the Map by Chellis Glendinning Copyright © 2002 by Chellis Glendinning. Excerpted by permission.
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