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The consequences of errors and lies on old world maps

Long before satellites and Google, cartographers traced out maps of the world, some with errors that persisted for hundreds of years. In "The Phantom Atlas," author Edward Brooke-Hitching compiles the greatest "myths, lies and blunders" on maps, from honest mistakes to deliberate lies. Brooke-Hitching spoke with the NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson about this history and its legacy.

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  • HARI SREENIVASIN, NEWSHOUR WEEKEND:

    Before satellite imagery and GPS, paper maps helped us navigate the world. Perhaps, not surprisingly many contained errors. What might surprise you is that some of those errors were intentional. In a new book “The Phantom Atlas,” author Edward Brooke-Hitching explores what he calls “the greatest myths lies and blunders in map making history” and the consequences for those who tried to follow them. Brooke-Hitching recently spoke to NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson from London.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON, NEWSHOUR WEEKEND:

    The book contains some fascinating examples of mistakes on maps that were that were truly honest mistakes. People felt they saw something or maybe they actually did see something and then it disappeared?

  • EDWARD BROOKE-HITCHING, AUTHOR:

    Yes, I mean, obviously before the time we could measure longitude, before Harrison’s chronometer, estimating your position at sea was done basically by educated guesswork and so of course, there were a lot of honest mistakes that were made and not just at sea. One of the greatest obsessions, particularly with the British Admiralty, was to find a northwest passage from Atlantic to the Pacific and the captain sent in 1818 was John Ross, dispatched to Lancaster Sound, which is the entrance. But, as he entered this open body of water west of Greenland, he stopped. He cancelled the mission because he claimed he saw a mountain range blocking Lancaster Sound that it was a bay and he made them return home and no one else saw these mountains called Croker’s mountains and he was pilloried when he returned home and it inhibited the progress of discovering this grand passage for another 80 years. And it was based purely on a mirage, What we call the fata morgana, which appears like a strip of coastline. So they have real serious consequences, politically and and mortally. And there’s a Russian expedition to find the Sannikov land in 1981, which was led by Baron von Toll and these men pushed on 150 kilometers past the New Siberian Islands into the Russian north and the Arctic temperatures cold enough to freeze hell where ships couldn’t follow and they were pursuing this report of a land that supposedly emanated a bluish fog and nothing was ever heard from these men again. All we’ve ever found is the baron’s diary which was later published but they just pushed on because they glimpsed this land that had been marked on maps and they knew they had to return with news of.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    You write in the book there are also examples of mistakes that were intentional — things that were completely made up. Tell us about some of those.

    Yes. Well, I think one of my favorite characters, genre of characters in history is the travel liar — the person who invents geography, a country for their own self-serving purposes. And one of the most colorful is an American sea captain from the 1820s called Benjamin Morel, who, if you read his biography, is clear that he wanted to eminate his great heroes of exploration Captain Cook and so on. Unfortunately, he seems to have done this by inventing islands on his four journeys around the world. And so you have Buyer’s island off the Hawaiian chain and you have New South Greenland of the Antarctic coast and they’ve all been since found to be completely nonexistent. But some of them lasted for at least a hundred years and that’s what these phantoms can do is have an incredible long lasting life on maps.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Can you give us some examples of mistakes that lasted for years on maps of the United States?

  • EDWARD BROOKE-HITCHING:

    I think my favorite is probably the Great Sea of the West, which is marked on maps from 1750 as a giant inland sea taking up the entire western half of North America. And this is traced all the way back to Verrett Zauner when he was investigating the Carolingian coast and saw Pamlico Sound and was convinced that was the Pacific that he could see all the way across America. So, America has existed on maps an incredibly contorted, almost yoga like forms trying to fit this idea of a very narrow waist.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    One interesting example in the book of a mistake that had pretty significant political consequences as the island of Bermeja. Tell us about that.

  • EDWARD BROOKE-HITCHING:

    Yes so the island of Bermeja is a fascinating story that actually got me onto the trail of this research initially. It’s based in the Mexican Gulf and in 1539, an island was mapped by Spanish cartographers and no one paid any further attention because it was only a few miles across and there was no reason to find it. Until someone in Mexico noticed that this island this Mexican island existed right in the middle of international order. So they realized, if they could claim ownership to this island, if they could prove it existed, they could claim the oil of that region. And so, for the rest of the 20th century, ships were sent out on research missions to try and find this elusive island until amazingly 2009 when it was conclusively proved that Bermeja not only didn’t exist but had never existed.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Why did you write this book? Why is it important to understand the stories of myths lies and blunders on maps?

  • EDWARD BROOKE-HITCHING:

    I think it’s because today there can be a tendency to maybe feel like everything’s been discovered that chewing gum has been chewed and I wanted to experience what it must have felt like when the world had this addictive endless possibility. This is almost a nostalgia for just the excitement of mystery and how yes, how terrifying the world must have been. But just how thrilling it must have been as well.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Edward Brooke-Hitching, thank you so much for joining me.

  • EDWARD BROOKE-HITCHING:

    Thank you.

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