THE PHANTOM ATLAS
by Edward Brooke-Hitching
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Maps are wonderful things, ways of looking at the world and see how everything fits together, not just geographically, but politically and economically. However, maps can also impart incorrect information, sometimes purposefully, such as the appearance of the towns of Goblu and Beatosu on maps of Ohio to allow mapmakers to identify plagiarized cartography, but they can also be incorrect because they represent incomplete information. Most of the maps in Edward Brooke-Hitching’s The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps fall into this latter category.
Brooke-Hitching has provided an alphabetical list of maps that were created, mostly, during the golden age of cartography, when maps were created to show the world as it was being discovered by European explorers. Occasionally, these explorers made mistakes, claiming to have sighted islands where nothing existed or misplacing rivers. Other times, they would add features like cities to maps based on heresay, or, in one case, invent a large central Australian lake because they “know” one should be there from geographical experience.
Each map is accompanied by text which explains the maps origin, why the mistakes in the map were made, how they impacted history and trade, and when the maps were corrected. In some cases, such as the island Bermeja in the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico still is trying to prove it exists, despite satellite imagery to the contrary, in order to gain territorial waters.
Brooke-Hitching’s text is informative and transparently written. His explanations of what the maps detail aren’t too detailed in and of themselves, nor are they too sparse, leaving the reader looking for more. He fills them with anecdotes and personal histories, introducing the reader to inventor William Leonard Hunt, who claimed to have found the Lost City of the Kalahari, and buccaneer William Dampier, who reported on Davis Land.
If the book has a drawback it is that too many of the maps are reproduced in a way that either details are lost or context is lost. For the entry on Groclant, which was supposed to lie beyond Greenland, Brooke-Hitching produces the main map and then includes smaller map showing detail, such as it is, of Groclant. While this allows the reader to see where the island was believed to have been located as well as the sparse information about it included in the map, it is tantalizing that the larger map provides much detail which can only be made out with a magnifying glass, an issue which recurs throughout the entire book.
Phantom Atlas literally opens up worlds, places which no longer appear on maps, but which were believed to be real locations at one time. The descriptions further bring these deceptive places, whether intentional hoax or misplaced island, to life, offering readers a vacation to lands that never were, but which aren’t fictional in quite the same way as the worlds created by favorite authors.
|Purchase this book|