Book Review: Mapping an Atlantic World, Circa 1500
Metcalf, Alida C. Mapping an Atlantic World, Circa 1500. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. 248 p. $54.95. LC: 2019056150. ISBN: 9781421438535.
In this book, Metcalf argues that in the year 1500, a paradigm shift occurred that is rooted in cartographic and mapmaking processes. That shift was that the Atlantic Ocean began to feature prominently on maps, after having been confined to the margins for centuries, which allowed users to imagine an interconnected Atlantic World. In articulating this significant shift during a quite brief period of time, Metcalf creates a strong argument for understanding cartographers and mapmakers as a driving force in shaping the intellectual history of the Atlantic.
Metcalf accomplishes this task in a short and quick-moving eight chapters, including an introduction and conclusion. The chapters are organized chronologically, beginning with the earliest maps and then moving forward in time, and are followed by chapters organized by theme. After succinctly laying out her argument in the introduction, in the first chapter, titled “The Atlantic and the Periphery,” Metcalf sets the stage by walking the reader through multiple maps to demonstrate that the Atlantic was almost a marginal feature on maps made before 1500. Then, in chapter two titled “The Year 1500,” she demonstrates that the Atlantic Ocean began to feature quite suddenly on maps, but not as immediately following 1492 as one might expect. While chapters three and four (“Chartmakers” and “From Manuscript to Print”) continue to progress chronologically, the two are also connected by theme, as both chapters delve into the physical process of making maps and charts. Chapter three covers this process with charts, and chapter four covers this process with print maps. The two final chapters preceding the conclusion, five and six, dive into the “visual codes” used on maps, parrots and trees and then cannibalism, respectively.
Throughout these chapters, Metcalf thoroughly utilizes material culture to meticulously build up to the book’s final argument: that more thorough and vivid mapping of the Atlantic not only allowed for its crossing for trade, exploitation, and colonial endeavors, but that more vivid mapping promoted an interconnected Atlantic World, making a dangerous journey more visually enticing through the features described on maps in chapters five and six. Metcalf’s physical descriptions of the materials the book is engaging with are arguably the book’s strongest feature and best asset: each description is vivid, engaging, and brings the reader not only closer to the map but also closer to the world in which it was created. It deftly illustrates the practical consequences of material culture. These creators shaped the understanding of the world through a complex network of colonial exercise, patronage, and practice.
By providing such rich description with her argument, Metcalf is also driving another thesis throughout the book. This second, underlying thesis is that material culture and its creators have not only informed the culture around them, but they have taken an active part in fundamentally shaping the general public’s understanding of the Atlantic World, which has had significant impacts in the following centuries. The choices that map and chart makers made and chose to repeat on subsequent cartographic materials, Metcalf argues, shaped, informed, and determined early modern Europeans’ worldviews. In this well-articulated argument, art and creators can, quite literally, shape the world.
Overall, this book is a quick and engaging read dotted with multiple lovely examples of historical maps. For historians or scholars interested in material culture, it would be a great addition to their bibliographies. While the premise might be beyond the scope of a casual researcher or reader, such a reader would find themselves taken along on the journey through Metcalf’s clear descriptions and accessible language. This volume would be an excellent addition to any historical map collection or special collection, as it would serve as a companion in intellectual history to the material culture housed in such collections.
Cartographic Metadata Librarian
David Rumsey Map Center
Palo Alto, CA