October 21, 2018

Review: The Phantom Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching

On sale now.

Love maps? Looking for something a bit unconventional and unique? We recently finished a fascinating compendium of the world as it never was, and lands that were thought to be. We’re talking about The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps by Edward Brooke-Hitching, out from Chronicle Books. The Phantom Atlas is a definitive collection of lands that never where, though they found their way onto charts and atlases, some persisting until very recently.

The book breaks down 58 fascinating entries in alphabetical order, from the Strait of Anian to the Phantom Lands of Zeno. Even if you’re a hardcore geographer or historian, I’ll bet there are at least a few you haven’t heard of. In our case, I’d say about half of the entries were new to us.

Some of these were fleeting apparitions, Fata Morganas at sea, icebergs or mirages. Others were embellishments, tall tales meant to stir up interest or investments.

Some of our faves from the book include:

The tragic story of the Territory of Poyais: in 1822, soldier of fortune turned con artist Gregor MacGregor convinced prospective settlers (twice!) in Scotland and England to buy phony land deeds and pack up and head to a supposed new colony in Honduras. When they arrived, the settlers found nothing more than a malarial marsh.

Norumbega: I found this one interesting, as it’s one of the few entries that ties in with my home state of Maine. Also, it relates to the fascinating tale of David Ingram, who supposedly walked 3,000 miles across North America in 1568.

Wak-wak: what’s not to love about a supposed island off the coast of Japan and Korea where human-shaped fruit hangs suspended on trees?

A few popular lands also made the cut, including Atlantis, El Dorado, and the lands of Prester John, an Ethiopian king rumored to want to come to the aid of besieged Crusaders in the Holy Lands.

Why study false maps? Well, the map entries in the book give us insight into just how our ancestors viewed the world around them, and how this view is changing, even today. Did you know, for example, that an expedition ventured out to look for the fictitious Bermeja Island… in 2009, seven years after the launch of Google Earth? Or that sounding measurements made in 1948 in the North Atlantic suggest that Mayda Island may have once been real, before it was submerged by volcanic activity beneath the waves?

The Phantom Atlas also provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of map making, and how our view of the world has evolved to the picture we have today. Editing is a laborious task even today, and one can only imagine how tough the task was in the Middle Ages, as cartographers only had limited information and the anecdotes of wayward seafarers. The temptation is often strong to simply embellish and fill in the gaps on maps with islands and lands that, while they tell a good tale, simply do not exist.

Be sure to pick up The Phantom Atlas for a look at the world as if never was, though we once thought it should be.

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