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

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



24 April 2015

Maps lie in a new online course

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At first maps were only thought of as representations of the places and the things they showed.

But in the 1980s (thanks in part to Jorge Luis Borges' tatty old lifesize cloth map) postmodernist historians began to see more power in them, and they became understood not as surrogates but as the prime reality of the places they were supposed to be showing. Given that one can't see an entire country very easily (apart from from space), it is easy to see how maps can become not just virtual, but actual realities to those who look at them.

From this point it is just a short leap to the position that maps - truthful, believable maps - are being used to persuade, hoodwink and indoctrinate. And so we come to the British Library, the University of Nottingham and FutureLearn's new and FREE  online course entitled 'Propaganda and Ideology in everyday life.' Designed to explore how propaganda interacts with us on a daily basis, in positive and negative ways, the course uses content and ideas from our 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' exhibition, and maps from our more recent 'Lines in the Ice: seeking the Northwest Passage'. 

The maps include a Russian 'Atlas of the Arctic', a powerful high-end and symbolic cartogrpahic product, but maps don't just function in the corridors of wealth and power. Maps for schools,  including this Russian one from 1903, persuaded schoolchildren, by means of  beautiful colourful decoration, that Russia had lots of food and produce. It was in fact in the middle of a famine, but if the map shows it, it must be true. Right?


Наглядная карта Европейской Россiи. Составлена М.И. Томасикомъ. Дополнена и издана кружкомъ учителей подъ редакцией В.В. Урусова. M. I . Tomasik, Warsaw, 1903. British Library Maps Roll 537. 

The British Library contains one of the vastest and most powerful map archives the world has ever seen. Millions of virtual (or are they actual?) worlds are contained in our vaults. But I'm not the only person surrounded by maps. You are too. What is great about this course is that it encourages its students to notice and collect maps in everyday life. Maps are all around us, and their shapes and symbolism works powerfully upon us- especially powerfully, since we don't really notice it happening.

If you take the course (which starts on 11 May) have your eyes opened to propaganda in your everyday life. It will be especially potent during the General Election campaign. Use the underground / metro / subway and you will see far more maps down there than just the tube map. Look around you!



13 April 2015

Lines in the Ice: top five highlights

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As we enter the final week of the British Library's free exhibition Lines in the ice: seeking the Northwest Passage, here are my top five (unashamedly map-heavy) highlights of what has been a memorable and eventful five month residency. 

1. Robert Thorne's world map from 1582.

ThorneRobert Thorne, Orbis Universalis Descriptio [London : T. Dawson for T. Woodcocke, 1582]. British Library C.24.b.35  Untitled

You probably won’t see another one of these exhibited in your lifetime, one of the earliest maps to have been printed in England, with only two in existence today, a clever bit of publicity by the Muscovy company which aimed to convince that the North West Passage didn't exist. Judging from the following 250 years of mostly fruitless searching, perhaps this point of view could have been given a bit more attention.   

2. Listening to icebergs

They are very big and very cold, and make a surprising racket. Curator Cheryl Tipp selected a number of sounds for the exhibition, which appear on sound points, and piped directly into the space. The angry polar bear was particularly eloquent.

 3. Explorer Ryan Nelson speaking at the BL

In an amazing coup, the British Library, the Eccles centre for American Studies and the Canadian High Commission hosted a talk by Ryan Harris, the man who discovered Sir John Franklin's ship Erebus on the sea bed. The event sold out almost before the ship was discovered!


4. An egg-shaped Arctic-biased world map on display for the first time

This rare and extraordinary educational 20th Century map (featured in this book) cleverly positions the Arctic (and Antarctic) centre stage using the 'Atlantis' projection. Its purpose was to focus minds on these zones in order to combat the vast problem of overpopulation. Oil was first extracted from within the Arctic Circle just a few years later.

  Amaps_37_b_55E.W. Fenton, The world we live in. Ipswich, 1958. British Library Maps 37.b.55.

5. Writer-in-residence Rob Sherman and his explorer Isaak Scinbank

6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c7769f4d970b-800wi 6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c737e2d3970b

Top: Rob Sherman, bottom: Isaak Scinbank

Rob Sherman's work has been a stunning feature of the exhibition. His fictional explorer Isaak Scinbank, online and in his written journal (which is exhibited), attempted to discover what happened to Sir John Franklin. For me, Rob's work has helped explore how narratives and stories (and their meanings) develop and change over time, and how they can be invested in objects. This isn't the last you'll hear of Rob, I feel fairly certain... 

6. Charles II's map of the Arctic

G70112-95Moses Pitt,' A map of the North Pole and parts adjoining’, from The English Atlas , London, 1680. British Library Maps 1.TAB.16.  Untitled

Another map that has never before been exhibited is Moses Pitt's map of the Arctic, this copy owned by Charles II and acquired by the nation via the Topographical Collection of George III. 

The gold leaf on this map will be shimmering in public until Friday, so if you have the chance to visit the exhibition before then, please do. We are also holding a free seminar on Friday to celebrate the end of Rob Sherman's residency. Thank you to all who has visited Lines in the Ice since November, and thank you to everybody who helped make the exhibition a reality.