Exploring the dark art of map manipulation

Written by Tom Flanagan | 28th January 2020

Maps have long held the reputation of being a reliable source of truth. In many ways, we’ve always been at the mercy of maps–and those who draw them–to guide us, inform us and keep us safe. But at certain points throughout history, maps have taken a more sinister turn. Countries around the world have adapted and manipulated maps to support and justify a number of political goals and nationalistic agendas skewing and misleading the public conscience. Cartography expert, Harald Fredriks, explains why persuasive cartography is one of history’s darkest arts. 

During the 1920s, a map of Germany known as the ‘Deutschen Volks- und Kulturbodens’ was published. It demarcated Germany’s borders based on an ideological belief that certain land was its birthright, essentially marking territory as ‘German’. The problem with the map was, it didn’t represent Germany’s actual borders.

After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles where Germany made multiple territorial concessions, a number of prominent German scholars and geographers sought to reframe what Germany looked like and reinvigorate the public’s belief that certain land belonged to them. Much of this supposed German land actually cut into countries like Switzerland and then Czechoslovakia. Albrecht Penck came up with the ingenious idea to convey this through a map. With the help of cartographer Arnold Hillen Ziegfeld, Penck redrew Germany’s borders and in turn its identity. The map would later become a cornerstone of geographic education in Germany under the Weimar Republic and persuasive cartography became one of the chief tactics for advancing German geopolitik.

Allegory in early maps

While Germany’s map is one recent case of persuasive cartography, the art of manipulating maps was by no means a new one. “Cartographic propaganda can be seen as the conscious manipulation of a map to influence the perception of the reader in favour of the mapmaker, a group of people, a country or even a continent”, explains Harald. “It’s a practice that has been around since the Middle Ages and it’s been incredibly successful, especially when you consider individuals didn’t have access to information the way current technology allows us to”.

The '3 Roads to Eternity' (1825). Wikimedia Commons.

Early examples go beyond simply geographical sketches – they’re allegorical too. “Plenty of persuasive maps are about belief and superstition. Medieval maps presented Jerusalem, the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion, as the centre of the world. In addition to all countries of the world, the Garden of Eden was also depicted. The story of creation, salvation and The Last Judgment went together with an image of the world known at that time”. 

Allegory was a popular device for those pushing religious beliefs. At times when salvation and sanctity were highly favoured, maps were used to convey the perils of life’s paths and the many that led to sin. This map from the PJ Mode Persuasive Cartography Collection at Cornell University Library, titled ‘The 3 Roads to Eternity’, illustrates the wide path to ‘destruction’ and the narrow path to redemption, and promoted a type of map emulated by religious communities during the 19th century.

Maps advocating against sin were not limited to those published centuries ago. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the UK and U.S. both used maps to encourage temperance. One notable example in the UK was a side-by-side map illustrating on the left-hand side the distribution of crime in England & Wales in 1902, and on the right-hand side the distribution of drunkenness. Alone, they’re maps supposedly presenting hard statistical evidence. Side by side, however, it becomes a visceral mechanism highlighting presumed ‘problematic’ areas in the country; in this case the north of England and dense parts of Wales which likely helped cultivate the classist divide and attitudes between the north and south that still pervades the country today.  

The 'Temperance Map' is an allegorical map showing life's many trappings, including Beer Lake and the land of Ruin. Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, in the U.S, William Henry Blair—a Republican senator and keen supporter of prohibition—produced a book on advocating for prohibition, which contained a sprawling map of New York City in 1886, showcasing the +9000 saloons of the city. A dense map filled with red markings to indicate saloon presence, it’s an achievement in characterising NYC as a raucous, sinful place and in Blair’s own words, “[creating] a chart of the capital city [that looks like] the regions of despair”.

Influenced but not inaccurate

One of the major misnomers around persuasive cartography is that persuasive maps are entirely false. “Maps have certain motivations and seek to promote certain causes but they aren’t always inaccurate”, explains Harald. “Size and colour all play a role in drawing the eye of the reader and emphasising a message, and this takes precedence over the traditional function of geography in a map”. 

'Imperial Federation Map of the World' (1886) by Walter Crane. Wikimedia Commons.

A Portuguese map depicting the country’s colonies suggests Portugal’s outsized influence vs its European counterparts by overlaying countries like Angola and Mozambique onto the size of European nations. While the map presented European geography, the purpose was to communicate Portugal’s power. Equally, Britain’s ‘Imperial Federation Map of the World’ by Walter Crane, serves as a showcase of embellishment, where Victorian motifs present a lavish picture of British rule and reach. It’s a colourful and fantastical portrayal of colonial rule, cramming statistics and caricatures into one map. While it's an illustrated picture of the globe, the map is less about showing Britain's place in the world and rather everyone else’s place in Britain’s world. 

Map monsters and politics

As Mark Monmonier writes in A History of Cartography, maps have always been a symbol of power and nationhood, and so they make for the perfect tool in advancing political agendas, especially during wartime. Maps can prefigure assumptions and grounds for invasion because they are most often thought of as a source of truth. “General themes are the reduction or enlargement of parts of the world, the relocation of areas or a part centrally located on the map”, says Harald. “A good example of how influential maps can be is the motivations for US involvement in World War II, inspired in part by a cartographic account of the ultimate consequences of German expansion even for the then distant Americans”. 

Leo Belgicus (1617) symbolised Dutch power and identity. Wikimedia Commons.

In wartime, the question of territory is at the heart of things and Harald says that the monsters of maps illustrate this well. “Caricatures, for instance, were used for certain places to give a coloured picture of a country from which a threat originates. There is a long tradition of beastly maps: the United States as an eagle and the great empires of their time (Great Britain and Russia) as octopuses with fearsome tentacles. The Soviet Union was often presented as an octopus, though the motif of the octopus is another topic entirely in cartography. The 'Leo Belgicus' map that emerged at the end of the sixteenth century is another example, with the Netherlands depicted as a friendly lion.” The far-reaching tentacles of the Soviets and British, or even in the case of the Netherlands, positioned these countries as oversized, over-influential and overzealous in their advancing territorial ambitions. 

The eye for detail

Today, maps are manipulated in ways we don’t always immediately recognise. Real-time access to satellite imagery allows us snapshots of the earth previously unseen, but data manipulation and technology still distort our view. Europe or the U.S. still lies at the centre of default earth views as Western perspectives skew to the dominant. Remembering the history of persuasive cartography compels us to regard these perspectives with a critical eye. The past has taught us there's always more to every image than what we see at first glance. 

The 'Communist Contagion'( 1946) is a good example of how colour and characterising threats as virulent still shapes our map reading today. Wikimedia Commons.

While the British adored Crane’s ‘Imperial Federation Map of the World’, a closer look unveils that he had his own say on the realities of the Empire. As ruling Britania sits atop the globe, beneath her, at the very bottom, is a squashed Atlas—the Titan god—sporting a sash. In minuscule writing that only the most eagle-eyed could read, it says ‘Human Labour’ – a reminder of the dark underbelly of some of history’s most notorious maps, and of the notion that maps, even when they seem to work in your favour, can manipulate you right back. 


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