Cartographic Practices

Lisa Blansett
Florida International University

Unlike the magnetic compass that reportedly dazzled America's indigenous peoples with its free-floating needle, the surveyor's compass was used to draw maps and to establish relations in space. On Smith's map, the large, seemingly decorative compass draws the reader to the map's scale, indicating the spatial relationship between the representation and the landscape. Like the iconic sword of many an English gentleman's portrait, the surveyor's compass becomes the de rigueur accoutrement to the Renaissance map. The instrument can be seen on most maps as well as in the hands of geographers, navigators, and explorers depicted on frontispieces throughout the period. This compass and the scale delineated beneath it function as indicators of accuracy, thus gesturing toward the supposed technological superiority of the Western explorers. In its capacity as a graphic mediation between a representation of the land and the land itself, the scale informs the reader that the land exists at a proportion larger than the representation, and makes the map's strangeness familiar by drawing a spatial analogy: this measurement is to be imagined as another league, for example.

To make the strange familiar emerges as one of the major roles of maps. The Renaissance cartographer brought new geographies to the eyes of the European reader, publishing large geographies and atlases in great numbers for the first time. The brave new world was represented in cartographic conventions that are now fairly familiar to the modern reader, but at the time were rather new. The medieval "T-in-O" map (a tripartite map with a "T" pattern of lines that divide space within a circular plane) relied on a symbolic representation of space heavily invested in a Judeo-Christian cosmography; it divided the world roughly into Asia, Africa, and Europe, which coincided with the biblical narrative of a world parsed among the three sons of Noah.

This symbolic notion of space was slowly replaced by a Ptolemaic system—geometric Click to See a Larger Viewand abstract—which represented the world proportionally, including longitude, latitude, and divisions based not on the spiritual but on such earthly concerns as climate. The cartographer of the early modern map would begin at "known" points and draw perpendicular axes intersecting at this point of origin, then measure and calculate distances and relations from that point. The medieval map's cosmographic triumvirate of God, earth, and man is thus replaced in early modern cartography with oppositions of known and unknown, old world and new, center and periphery, England and America.

The old and new, England and America, are represented on Smith's map by the technology of western cartography juxtaposed with the ethnographic iconography of the Powhatans. The inclusion of the compass as a sign of technology establishes one of the map's many narratives by suggesting the means for delineating, describing, and declaiming the territory. The instrument foregrounds the scientific conventions that regularize the space, a significant move toward rendering the relationship between representation and referent as transparent and uncontaminated. The map endeavors to function as a representation of reality, that is, of the land itself—the colonial map is the territory to the English. The map rules the realm of the rational, a rational that obscures the many struggles involved in such practicalities as establishing the colony, exploring the territories held by indigenous peoples, or negotiating the disputes that emerge out of inhabitation. At the same time, however, the surveyor's compass acts as a reflexive sign that de-naturalizes the map, breaks the frame, and establishes a different iconicity than that established by the map. While the icon is representational, marking the scale of the map, it also challenges that scale by changing its own—the compass is not shown actual size in relation to the landscape.

At the level of the territory, the map's center is not the English colony of Jamestown but native American territory. The limits of the frame represent knowledge that was reported by Western explorers but also gathered from native reports. The map is thus a hybrid of knowledges and epistemologies presented as naturalized in a single map. In some ways, then, the techniques of mapping become an allegory of the conflicting cultural practices and myriad anxieties of contact. The English hoped alternately to interpolate the Indian into their world, to establish relations by creating fluid borders over which trade and social relationships could emerge, or to solidify boundaries, continually pushing the indigenous people back beyond the English pale.

Suggestions For Further Reading

Bud, Robert and Deborah Jean Warner, eds. Instruments of Science: An Historical Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.

Cormack, Leslie. "'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors': Geography as Self-Definition in Early Modern England." Isis 82 (1991): 639-661.

Helgerson, Richard. Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Moran, Michael. Renaissance Surveying Techniques and the Mapping of Raleigh's Virginia. Chicago: Newberry Library, 1990.

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