Maps and views blog

03 June 2010

Magnificent Maps that didn't make the exhibition #2

“The Red-Lined Map”

by John Mitchell.

London, 1775 (with manuscript additions to 1782)

Copperplate engraving on 8 sheets, 136 x 195 cm.

British Library Maps K.Top 118.49.b

Red line 
John Mitchell's The British and French Dominions in North America is a hugely significant map with an incredible history, and one would have thought The British Library's copy of it - 'The Red-Lined Map' - a dead cert for inclusion in Magnificent Maps

Mitchell's was the most up-to-date map of North America from the 1750s, but by 1783 its title at least was out of date, since the 'British and French dominions' had become the 'newly independent and victorious United States of America' after the British defeat in the American War of Independence that same year.

Now here is the interesting part. The British Library's copy of the map was actually used by the British delegation in negotiations for the Treaty of Paris, which established the terms of the United States' independence. Red lines were drawn onto it by British delegates to show the proposed new borders of the country. Hence the 'Red-Lined Map' moniker. 

But here is the even more interesting part. If you look at the map you'll see a red horizontal line running across northern Canada, far further north than the eventual U.S.A.-Canadian boundary, established in 1783. Clearly the British were prepared to surrender far more land than they eventually did, and so scared were they at this being found out that successive governments forbade unauthorised access to the map in the British Museum until 1896.

I bet they wished they'd used a pencil.

And so why, you ask, why did this cartographic colossus not make the exhibition? Well (I answer), the map deserved a rest after appearing in the amazing Maps: Finding our Place in the World in Chicago in 2007-8, as well as in the British Library's own Lie of the Land show of 2001-2. Perhaps more importantly, we were keen to include as many lesser-known maps as possible, so we opted for a different side of the story to the 'Red-Lined Map', and a map which has lived in its shadow for too long. Abel Buell's map of 1784 is the first map of the United States to have been made by an American, and a true demonstration of national pride. Come and see it if you possibly can. Let nothing stand in your way.  



While I much enjoyed the exhibition and learned much from is, I was astonished and disappointed by the absence of any map from the medieval (and later) Arabic-Islamic civilization. It is so important nowadays that the general public become aware that a part of the Western heritage goes back to that civilization and modify its stereotypical view of it. So while the exposition 1001 Inventions concentrates exclusively on that civilization and its contributions, the BL exhibition ignores it totally. Can there be no integrated view?

Best wishes from Paris,

Gad Freudenthal

Thank you for raising this interesting point. Whilst I agree with you that Islamic influences upon Western cartography are not commonly appreciated, you have misunderstood the focus of 'Magnificent Maps,' which is emphatically not about the development and influences of cartography. Its focus is on the qualities and functions of display maps, and you will surely be aware that not a single fragment of a large Islamic wall map (if you discount the Piri Reis map in Istanbul)is known to have survived.

Additionally, we have based our selection of exhibits on documentary sources relating to their reception, and again, historical evidence for the reception of maps in Islamic society is extremely scarce.

For an example of an integrated view, please see

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