Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians


Our earliest map appears on a coin made in the Roman Empire and our latest appears as pixels on a computer screen. In between we have the most complete set of Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain, the grand collection of an 18th-century king, secret maps made by the Soviet army as well as the British government, and a book that stands taller than the average person. Read more

20 July 2015

The Kangxi atlas in the King’s Topographical Collection

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The following blog focuses on an atlas of China produced by French Jesuits and now in the Topographical Collection of George III.

 The founding of the Académie des Sciences in Paris in 1666 put France at the forefront of the scientific developments in Europe. The Academy’s efforts resulted in dramatic advances in cartographic and surveying methods, as well as expeditions to remote locations in order to contribute to the accurate depiction of the globe. The French Jesuit mission to China in the 1690s was focused on this very ambition – geographical exploration in order to build a better European understanding of the empire.

 For the Chinese authorities mapping represented a means of control over areas conquered by the Manchu Qing Dynasty. The resulting Kangxi or K'ang-hsi atlas (taking its name from the emperor, who ruled from 1661-1722), was completed from the surveys carried out between 1708 and 1718, chiefly by Dominique Parrenin (1665-1741), Thomas Antoine (1644-1709), Joachim Bouvet (1656-1730), Jean Baptiste Regis (1663-1738) and Pierre Jartoux (1669-1720).

 In 1705 the Jesuits had been given the task of creating a map of Tianjin region, an area of intense flooding, and the region around Beijing in 1707. Satisfactory results of these initial projects piqued the emperor’s interest to see the Great Wall and further areas mapped. This led to the survey of the vast areas of the empire including all the Chinese provinces and parts of Tartary. The Jesuits were not allowed into Tibet, Korea and Eastern Turkistan, and here they used maps constructed by Chinese officials. Tibet was surveyed twice and the additional information collected was used for printing of subsequent editions of the atlas.  

The first woodcut edition was printed in 1717, followed by copperplate edition in 1719 and, the second woodcut version in 1721. The King’s Topographical Collection printed copy of the atlas (Maps K.Top.116.15,15a,15b.) is a fine example of the first engraved edition. It comes in the form of three large rolls each measuring around two by three metres. The map covers fifteen Chinese provinces, Korea, Great Tartary and Tibet. The text on the map is in Chinese and Manchu script. Additionally, the manuscript annotations in Italian transcribe names of provinces, cities, rivers and islands. The hand is likely to be that of Father Matteo Ripa, the Italian Jesuit, engraver of the copperplate edition of the map. It was also Ripa who presented the copperplate set of Kangxi atlas to George I, during an audience on 9 September 1724 when he visited London on his way back from China.

This in itself is interesting. Even more interesting is the presence of another map (Maps K.Top.116.18.a-d.2 TAB.), comprising four manuscript rolls and containing the east coast of China, from Hainan to the Russian island of Sakhalin, with the Amur delta. The geographical notes in Italian are in the same hand as the manuscript annotations on the engraved copy of the atlas. Peter Barber suggests the map might have been part of the presentation to the king. Nevertheless, attribution and the exact story of provenance of this map can only be speculative. Sources are inexistent with regards to a manuscript copy of the map being presented by Ripa to George I. Copper plates were part of the presentation set, but  no sign of these plates in the King’s Topographical Collection can be found.


The Jesuits’ mapping of China can be viewed as part of a wider pattern of early-modern era monarchs commissioning the mapping of their dominions. This is well represented by Cassini’s work in France and Peter the Great’s mapping of Muscovy. Good mapping was essential for expansion and for the maintenance of political control. In China, this became part of the evolving system described as the Manchu-Chinese diarchy, intended to minimize the dichotomy between the conquering and the conquered.

From a European perspective, the Kangxi atlas formed the basis for building a more accurate understanding of China. However, it took almost another fifteen years, before the monumental work by Jean-Baptiste Du Halde: "Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise", was published in 1735, including 41 maps of China by Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville. The wider European reception of this atlas is another story.

Further reading:

Barber, P., “A very curious map of China: The acquisition of Chinese maps by British Library and its predecessors, 1724-2014” (in press)

Bagrow, L. 1964. “The cartography of Asian peoples”. History of cartography, revised and enlarged by R.A. Skelton, 197-211. London: C.A. Watts & Co.

Foss, T. N. 1988. “A Western interpretation of China: Jesuit cartography”. East meets West The Jesuits in China, 1582-1773, 209-251. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

Gray, B. 1960. “Lord Burlington and Father Ripa’s Chinese engravings”, 40-43. The British Museum quarterly, 22 (1/2).

Hsia, F.C. 2009. “Observational fortunes”. Sojourners in a strange land: Jesuits and their scientific missions in late imperial China, 110-128. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hostetler, L. 2001. “Mapping territory”. Qing colonial enterprise ethnography and cartography in early modern China, 51-80. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Xiaocong, L. 1996. A Descriptive catalogue of pre-1900 Chinese maps seen in Europe, 162-163.

Yee, C.D.K. 1994. “Traditional Chinese cartography and the myth of Westernization”. Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies. Vol. 2.2. of The History of Cartography, eds. J. B. Harley and David Woodward, 170-202. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

08 June 2015

A Bohemian rhapsody*?

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Within the many treasures of George III’s Topographical Collection, comprising some nearly 40,000 maps and views of all areas of the world, is a curious map of Bohemia by Jodocus Hondius (1594 or 1595-1629) that is amalgamated from two separate copperplates, printed on two separate sheets, and joined here to form one map.

1Maps K.Top.89.15. – the join of the two sheets is just visible beneath the mileage scale and extends across the whole width of the map.

The southern portion of the map, beneath the join, expands the geographic detail to include the River Danube with the cities of Linz and Vienna prominent. This “extension” is printed on a separate piece of paper from a separate copperplate and is carefully joined to the “original” map on the sheet above. This additional portion of the map also includes a statement of responsibility on a plinth at lower left, directly beneath the title cartouche on the initial sheet:

Ornatißimo Doctißimq. viro D. Ioanni Wilhemo Bogardo, reipublicae Amstellodamensis Scabino, et vice-Capitaneo, observantiae ergo, D. D. Iudocus Hondius. A.o Domini 1620.


Maps K.Top.89.15. – detail of the title cartouche and statement of responsibility, with the paper join visible between the two.

The map is dedicated to an alderman (?) of Amsterdam “Ioanni Wilhemo Bogardo” (Jan Willem van den Boegaerde?), about whom further information is sought.

However, the printed date of 1620 perhaps offers a contextual reason for the map’s geographic extension into Austria at this time. Peter Barber was quick to point out that the map makes no reference to “Bila Hora” (= “White Mountain”) near Prague, suggesting a date of production in 1620 prior to the important battle there in November. After the defenestration of Prague in 1618 Catholic governors Vilém Slavata of Chlum and Košumberk and Jaroslav Bořita of Martinice, along with their scribe Philip Fabricius, fled Prague for Vienna and the support of their fellow-Catholic, the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, also King of Bohemia (1617–1619 and 1620–1637). The Bohemian Revolt (1618–1620), the Protestant uprising against the rule of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty that had deposed Ferdinand II as King of Bohemia for the Protestant Frederick V (King of Bohemia 1619 – 1620), culminated in 1620 with the Battle of the White Mountain outside Prague when Ferdinand II regained the crown and drove the Protestant “Winter King”, Frederick V (the Elector Palatine), into exile in the Netherlands.

Perhaps the market dictated the need for a map illustrating the ever-changing events in Bohemia by showing routes between Prague and Vienna - this map’s extension to both cities renders it rather topical! One might conclude that the map was published (in Amsterdam) during the short reign of the “Winter King”.

3Maps K.Top.89.15. – detail showing Prague and environs.

No other institutional examples of the map with this extension have been located thus far.

Following this map within the collection is another example of the Hondius map of Bohemia without this seemingly unique extension. Maps K.Top.89.16. is a more standard version of the map that was published in the 1631 Latin text edition of the atlas Appendix Theatri ... et Atlantis. It is identified as such by the Latin text to verso with the signature "DDDDDD" at the bottom of the page (see Van der Krogt, P. Koeman's Atlantes Neerlandici,Volume II, atlas 2:021, map 83, page 42).


Maps K.Top.89.16.

The Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third, etc., London, 1829, which was essentially the collection inventory on its transfer from George IV to the British Museum that has been masquerading as its catalogue since publication in 1829 (thus highlighting the value in the current cataloguing project), listed this second Hondius Bohemia map as "Eadem Tabula" (= “the same map”) where the previous listing was "Bohemiae Tabula per Judocum Hondium, 1620”. They are clearly not the same map and their differences are cartographically, bibliographically and historically important.

To further support the K.Top cataloguing project and the potential for subsequent discoveries please visit the British Library website.

Kate Marshall 

* rhapsody, n. “3. gen. a. A miscellany or medley; esp. a muddled collection of words, ideas, etc. Now rare.” From the Oxford English Dictionary online.

05 May 2015

A British Reverse in East Africa - from the War Office Archive

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The recent attack by al-Shabab gunmen on a university in Garissa, north-eastern Kenya, demonstrates the threat still posed by the group, despite its losing control of the main cities and ports in Somalia. Conventional military tactics often prove ineffective against them, as they melt away and blend into the civilian population, then re-group to strike, as one BBC article put it, ‘like mosquitoes in the night’.

Two sheets in the War Office Archive reveal the use of similar, light-footed tactics, albeit in a different scenario, against British military forces there over 100 years ago -

Detail of WOMAT/AFR/BEA/32

In November 1900 the British Sub-Commissioner in Jubaland, Arthur Jenner, was killed while making a tour of the interior through areas inhabited by the nomadic Ogaden tribe. This part of southern Somalia was at that time under British administration within the East Africa Protectorate, and had in the preceding months been largely peaceful – Jenner was travelling with only a light escort, and was probably killed at the instigation of an Ogaden chief whom he had previously detained on suspicion of the murder of Somali policemen. According to one contemporary account, ‘It was well known that [the] murder was due to personal motives and should not have been treated as a political revolt’. However, a caravan of local traders had also recently been attacked, and shortly afterwards a report was sent back to London suggesting the imminent uprising of the whole Ogaden tribe.

Detail of WOMAT/AFR/BEA/32

By January 1901 a force of 600 troops, the Ogaden Punitive Force, had assembled at Kismayu on the Somali coast with a transport of 590 camels, around 900 porters and a number of carts, donkeys and oxen. A plan of Kismayu shows new infrastructure put in place in advance of their arrival. The official report states -

‘Preparations for the expedition were now hurried on... A trolley line 1,200 yards long was laid down from the pier to the town, where two sheds were prepared for the storage of rations, etc. The water supply was improved and extra wells were dug for the large number of transport animals which were expected… The defences of the town were at the same time strengthened and a hospital was established.’

Detail of WOMAT/AFR/BEA/28

 Detail of WOMAT/AFR/BEA/28

The troops marched inland from Kismayu across hostile terrain - labels indicating ‘Thick Bush’, ‘Dense Thorn’, ‘Very dense Thorn’, and the description ‘Dry’ pepper the expedition map – as far as Afmadu, where the Ogaden Sultan was quickly captured and sent down to the coast. From there a flying column of almost 400 men continued into unknown territory to the north-west, where the chiefs linked to Jenner’s murder were said to be.

Detail of WOMAT/AFR/BEA/32

For days as they advanced the troops saw fresh tracks around them in the sand, but at no point did they see the enemy they knew was there. Eventually, at a place on the map marked ‘Samasa’, they halted to make a reconnaissance, and even as they pitched camp a force of Ogaden militia rushed from the surrounding bush.

Detail of WOMAT/AFR/BEA/32

The attack was repelled, but the British beat a retreat, first to Afmadu, accompanied by the Ogaden at a distance, and from there back to Kismayu, where they arrived on 12 March.

Three months later the Ogaden Punitive Force relinquished its activities and left the area, after the captured Sultan ‘promised on behalf of the tribe to pay a fine of 5,000 cattle and to do his best to obtain the surrender of Mr Jenner’s murderers’.

But back in London the expedition was considered a fiasco. Commenting on the difficulty of making war in this terrain against such nimble opponents, the Commissioner of the East Africa Protectorate, Sir Charles Eliot, declared, ‘If our officers will avoid getting murdered in future we had better let the Somali alone, and avoid such conflicts between a lion and a swallow.’


Nicholas Dykes

The British East Africa portion of the War Office Archive is being conserved, catalogued and digitised with generous funding from the Indigo Trust.

Further Reading:

Mary Harper, Somalia's al-Shabab: Striking like mosquitoes, 26 Feb 2014,

Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India, Compiled in the Intelligence Branch Division of the Chief of the Staff Army Head Quarters India, Vol. 6, 1911

H.R. Tate, Some Early Reminiscences of a Transport Officer: Ashanti Field Force and Ogaden Punitive Force, in Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol 41, No. 163, April 1942

T.H.R. Cashmore, Studies in District Administration in the East Africa Protectorate (1895-1918), Nov 1965