Map Quest

I’ve noted my love of maps on here before. One of the joys of my career is teaching the undergraduate survey World Geography course. Here’s a great piece from the Wall Street Journal attempting to put the age of digital maps in context.

But my favorite cartographic error is the Mountains of Kong, a range that supposedly stretched like a belt from the west coast of Africa through half the continent. It featured on world maps and atlases for almost the entire 19th century. The mountains were first sketched in 1798 by the highly regarded English cartographer James Rennell, a man already famous for mapping large parts of India.

The problem was, he had relied on erroneous reports from harried explorers and his own imagined distant sightings. The Mountains of Kong didn’t actually exist, but like an unreliable Wikipedia entry that appears in a million college essays, the range was reproduced on maps by cartographers who should have known better. It was almost a century before an enterprising Frenchman actually traveled to the site in 1889 and found that there were hardly even any hills there. As late as 1890, the Mountains of Kong still featured in a Rand McNally map of Africa.

And then there was the case of Benjamin Morrell, who had drifted around the southern hemisphere between 1822 and 1831 in search of treasure, seals, wealth and fame. Having found little of the first three, he apparently thought it amusing to invent a few islands en route. The published accounts of his travels were so popular that his findings—including Morrell Island (near Hawaii) and New South Greenland (near Antarctica)—were entered on naval charts and world atlases. In 1875, a British naval captain named Sir Frederick Evans finally began crossing some of these phantoms out, removing no fewer than 123 fake islands from the British Admiralty Charts. It wasn’t until Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 Endurance expedition, however, that the matter of New South Greenland was put to rest. Shackleton found that the spot was in fact deep sea, with soundings up to 1,900 fathoms. Morrell Island came off maps not long after that.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on the early mapmakers, these pioneers of error. I would argue that Morrell and his misguided fellow adventurers made the world a more exciting and romantic place in which to live. Haven’t we lost something important as mapmaking has become a science of logarithms and apps and precisely calibrated directions?

Though those who gratefully downloaded Google Maps on their smartphones last week might disagree, there is something valuable about getting lost occasionally, even in our pixilated, endlessly interconnected world. Children of the current generation will be poorer for it if they never get to linger over a vast paper map and then try in vain to fold it back into its original shape. They will miss discovering that the world on a map is nothing if not an invitation to dream.

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