The Mercator Projection in Empire

Authors: Michele Abee*, University of North Carolina - Greensboro
Topics: History of Geography, Cartography
Keywords: The Mercator Projection, Empire, History of Geography, History of Cartography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/9/2020
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Plaza Court 7, Sheraton, Concourse Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The Mercator Projection is tied to the imperial map and it created realities of western European empires. The agency of imperial maps underpinned what empires perceived their colonies should look like. From the eighteenth century into the twentieth century, western European empires used the map as a way to bring indigenous polities under their empirical control. During the eighteenth century, the Mercator Projection spread from navigation charts to reference and early thematic mapping through the founding and growth of geographic and scientific societies. Scientific-based explorations co-sponsored by governments and scientific societies worked with navigators and scientists to improve navigation and nautical science. The Mercator Projection’s early association with these efforts link it to early thematic cartography and the early spread of western European empires. Second, individual scientists and navigators involved in joint society and government explorations, like Halley, Cook and Humboldt, impacted the display of geographic data. These scientists, and geographic societies, used the Mercator Projection for the display of their data. This act indirectly validated the association of the Mercator Projection with the display of data on thematic and reference mapping. Maps reflect cultural perception and the use of the Mercator Projection for general reference and thematic maps became a norm, an integral part of the mathematical and scientific methodologies used to visualize the world. Therefore, the Mercator Projection became a tool of empire.

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