In defence of maps

Posted by Tory Historian Friday, October 24, 2008 ,

Tory Historian loves maps. Maps of any kind – black and white or coloured; political or geographical; historical or up-to-date ones. One of the most wonderful events in Tory Historian’s life was being allowed by that great personage, the librarian of the Royal Geographical Society, to handle and examine the first atlases ever made in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Bliss!

History books need maps, travellers’ accounts need maps, biographies often need maps, even detective stories are better if there is a map or a chart with X marking the spot where the body was found.

So why are there no proper maps in Niall Ferguson’s “Empire”? There are nice pictures and lots of graphs – line graphs, block graphs, even pie-charts possibly, as Professor Ferguson is an economic historian but no proper big maps that show journeys, discoveries, battles, acquisitions? The odd small map of the British Caribbean or of the global telegraph network or a schematized, uninteresting chart of British Africa do not make up for the fact that one cannot follow Dr Livingstone’s various journeys, not even the really important ones.

What is the point of talking about Livingstone’s serious misunderstanding of what the Zambezi was really like if one cannot turn a page and chart the progress of his first and second expeditions?

How can one grasp what really happened during the American War of Independence without a map of the 13 colonies with battle lines carefully drawn?

Maps, we need more maps. Here is one for starters.


  1. James Dowden Says:
  2. Hear, hear! But have you got a larger version of that map?

  3. The Creator Says:
  4. The reason forthe shortage of high-quality maps in modern history books is that publishers in general have no idea how to create them and invariably balk at the cost. They see them as essentially no more than a different form of illustration which should accordingly cost no more than a conventional image. Trouble is, maps, especially good ones, are expensive. They also require specialised talents to brief them and to create them.

  5. Simon Harley Says:
  6. I can't disagree with The Creator, but cost is certainly the main issue. One of the reasons older books aren't reprinted is because publishers refuse to reproduce the large fold out charts which used to abound. It's a great shame, as it means that historians have to rely on the older books which now cost a small fortune.

    If I wanted all 5 volumes of "From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow", a series of books on WWI British naval history published by OUP in the '60s and '70s (and chock full of large charts) it would cost me hundreds of pounds. And because of the essential nature of the charts the series will probably never be reprinted. And one day the library copies will all be gone...

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