All maps are biased

If you’re a traveller, physical or armchair, you’ve examined a map or two. Schools have to change their maps as countries and boundaries change. But we rarely think about how each country or territory is delineated – we just accept that what we’re looking at on a current map is gospel.

However, borders have not only been wrangled over throughout history, they continue to be to this day. A website called Metrocosm offers an interactive map that shows current disputed borders, Mapping Every Disputed Territory in the World. According to their accompanying article, “at least 124 countries (or “would-be” countries) are involved in a territorial dispute of some kind”.

Maps are inherently biased – they show what the map-maker chooses to show.

Have you ever drawn someone a map to get to your house for a party, for example? In doing so, you choose your reference points – things that will allow the reader to orient themselves – and leave out unimportant details. You’ll probably indicate several major streets that surround your home, perhaps indicate a couple of landmarks that will help drivers navigate, and offer some details about your abode to look for, such as a brown brick, 2-storey home with white shutters, or a 10-storey beige apartment building. You’ll list your house number, or the street address of your apartment/condo, but you won’t list every other building number, or the fact that there’s a bus stop or fire hydrant out front (typically).

So, ultimately, you’re giving them edited information. The same holds true for all map-makers. Every piece of information about a location can’t possibly be included, and choices are made regarding what should be listed.

When it comes to larger concerns like border divisions, the map-maker has even more choices ahead. The size of the map dictates how much information can realistically be included, and the larger the landscape, the harder it is to lay it out accurately if on a flat, i.e. two-dimensional map, because, of course, we live on a big roundish ball.

Cartographers have wrestled with this dilemma since the 3rd century BC, when Greek philosophers and astronomers determined that our planet is round and were actually able to calculate its circumference. The problem was solved by the creation of globes, a more accurate representation of the geography of the Earth.

The laying out of empires, countries, territories, provinces, states and other political divisions has fluctuated regularly over millennia. Massive empires have risen and fallen, like Alexander the Great’s, which now covers many smaller, independent countries.

Map of Alexander’s empire and his route — By Generic Mapping Tools – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=656066

WWI changed the world’s map considerably. The Russian Empire broke into Poland, the Baltics, Finland and Poland, while the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created the countries of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. (Watch a descriptive video on the Business Insider website.) Since then, Yugoslavia itself has split into seven different countries.

So how do map-makers keep up? With a great deal of frustration, possibly. However, digital maps can be easily changed. Globes, however, are time capsules of the world situation when they were created.

According to a fascinating article on Afar, The Politics of Globes, there’s actually no governing body to oversee the legitimacy of maps, as inconceivable as that might seem. And so cartographers can draw anything they want, and maps have often been used as political propaganda.

For example, a map of the world create in 1910 by cartographer Arthur Mees used large flags to show how “Great Britain has built up a great empire, because, wherever her influence has gone, she has planted the seeds of freedom…”. In reality, the “freedom” part was hardly true. Indigenous cultures, in particular, are still fighting the effects of colonialism, including right here in Canada, and would hardly have agreed with Mees’ portrayal of the empire.

By Mees, Arthur, 1850-1923 – Mee, Arthur. 1910. The Childrens' Encyclopaedia. Vol. 2.Cornell University: Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46308345

When my hubby and I visited Zimbabwe and Zambia, we were well aware of Britain’s exploitation of the former country/region of Rhodesia, which was demarcated by the British South Africa Company.

Bisected by the Zambezi River, the region was split into Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and was overseen by the infamous Cecil Rhodes, the company’s founder and managing director. His activities were so reprehensible that there have been campaigns to change the name of the prestigious scholarship in his name at Oxford University. In October 2019 the head of the scholarship program, Elizabeth Kiss, stated that changing the name would be “running away” from the colonial legacy, while campaigners insist that there should be no celebration of the man who basically started apartheid. (You can read more about the Cecil Rhodes controversy on the BBC website.)

Today, you can walk across the bridge that Rhodes built to cross the Zambezi and link the two former regions, now separate countries. You’ll need a visa to cross the border, and there are interesting things to see on either side, including very different view of the spectacular Victoria Falls, which explorer David Livingstone named after his queen, but which is called something quite different in the local culture.

Victoria Falls Bridge straddles the Zambezi River, joining Zambia and Zimbabwe – photo by E. Jurus and all rights reserved

As people returns to travelling around our globe, whenever you consult a map or cross a border, remember that you’re dealing with many layers of history and shifting politics, and that the situation you see today may not be the same in twenty, a hundred or a thousand years.