Reference books with authority and prestige

Quick Search



The Power of Maps - Part One

Published 23rd April 2015 by The Times Atlas  

Maps are an extremely powerful form of graphic representation. Maps define territory – they tell of ownership and dominion, they marshal spatial information. They can also subvert and propagate alternative world-views. All maps serve an interest and work through two main forms of power.

First, the external power of their creators, often governments or their agents, who control the content of maps both in terms of what is included and what is withheld, and thereby broadcast a particular viewpoint. Second, the internal power of maps themselves – the perception of maps as precise, objective and accurate representations of reality which convey an image of geographical order.

Maps are still regarded by many people as dispassionate representations of the external world. However, this has been challenged in recent decades as their political and cultural connotations are revealed and become more widely understood. 


Throughout history there has been a tendency for map makers to place their own territory or some ideologically significant place at the centre of the map. Jerusalem, for example, was portrayed as the centre of the world on medieval world maps. Other representations of dominion use artistic conceits such as anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. Europe has been drawn as a queen representing the realm of the Holy Roman Empire and Italy drawn as Garibaldi. Maps sometimes depict countries or regions as animals representing virtues such as courage or wisdom.


Engraved in Cologne, 1586. The map is the message: the Low Countries are defiant. Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism is a common propaganda mapping technique through which both positive and negative images are presented. Other examples include nineteenth century maps showing Russia as a threatening octopus or bear, and more recently the UK portrayed as the USA’s poodle.

A Eurocentric bias in world mapping remains a significant feature of the modern world and has played a role in representing and maintaining ‘western’ hegemony within the international system. The well-known Mercator map projection, despite it having been originally developed as an invaluable navigation aid, has become implicated in such hegemonic representations as it exaggerates area in high latitudes to the visual and perceptual benefit of Europe. Maps of the British Empire are perhaps the ultimate expression of this, some even repeating the territory of Canada or Australia on both edges of the world map to emphasize the Empire’s global reach – the Empire on which ‘the sun never sets’. 


This map of 1886 displays the British Empire in the classic rose red tint. The peoples of empire gaze admiringly on Britannia from the map’s margin. She sits centrally, astride the globe, her trident a ‘north arrow’ drawing the eye to Britain. To one side a soldier holds a chained tiger, representing both  European dominion over nature and Asia.

Colour is an important component of the message within maps. The British Empire has traditionally been displayed as pink or red, strong colours in the visual hierarchy, with implications of health and vigour, while the French have used a deep blue, another ‘positive’ colour. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, his English hero, Charlie Marlow, gazes upon a world map and makes the requisite connotations as he prepares to sail to the Belgian Congo: ‘There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn’t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre.’

Yellow has often carried negative connotations. A German propaganda map from the Second World War neatly turned a conventional map of the British Empire on its head by substituting the imperial red for yellow against a black ground – nature’s warning colour scheme – evoking an image of Britain as a predatory power and a danger to international peace. Similarly, a British map in The Harmsworth New Atlas of the World warned of Germany’s ‘peaceful penetration’ of the global economy in the interwar period with splashes of acid yellow.


This is taken from the Power of Maps section in The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. Buy the book now.


© 2016 HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, registered in Scotland, Company No. 27389. Registered address: Westerhill Road, Bishopsbriggs, Glasgow G64 2QT. Times World Atlas , various forms of Times World Atlas’ signature and monogram, and the titles of Times World Atlas’ works are registered trade marks of The Times World Atlas and/or its licensees. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd and The Times World Atlas expressly reserve all their rights in the content of the site.