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Maps and Discovery

Maps are made for a purpose and represent a point of view. This film shows how a map of North America was used to promote exploration and exploitation
In this step, we are looking at how to use maps as historical sources. Maps are interesting to use for research, because all maps are subjective. They all have a context in which they were created. And it’s actually part of their creation. Every map that you look at is effectively trying to do the same thing. It’s trying to take space from the earth, which is a globe, and convey it on a flat piece of paper. And so to do that, you need to project the map. You need a projection for the map.
So to create a projection, you need to create a perspective. And in creating a perspective, you’re creating a particular angle, a particular view on any map. So any map is partial, and any map is subjective, irrespective of wherever in the world it shows and whatever of the world it shows. So what we’re going to do in this step is show you how to use historic maps as part of your research and look at what sort of procedures and analysis you should use in order to conduct your research effectively. The map that we’ve got today is a map of the Arctic.
It’s a map of Hudson’s Bay that was produced in the mid 18th century to encourage further research into the Northwest Passage. Now, if you look at the map what you see is a geography of what is today Canada and the Great Lakes area and Hudson’s Bay. But it looks very different from the sort of geography that you might understand and imagine in your head. If you look over to the Western side of the map and in the Northeast corner, you’ll see that it says that the of coast of North America tapers off, cutting off large sections of what would today be Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and Alaska, a huge amount of space. So the map is obviously wrong.
And what we’re going to look at today is why the map is wrong, and what the reasons for it being conveyed in such an incorrect way might be. So why is the map this way, and what is the map trying to do? Well, with any map, an important thing to keep in mind is the context in which it was produced. And with Dobbs’ map, it’s actually produced as part of a larger book. So the map of Hudson’s Bay and any potential Northwest Passage was included as part of a text and printed argument. And if you look at the book, you can see from the title page exactly what Dobbs’ is trying to achieve.
This map is all about making a case for further exploration of the passage. He talks very clearly in the introductory text on the title about how what he’s going to show to the viewer, show to his reader, is an argument that conveys how practicable the Northwest Passage might be, what resources there might be there in terms of furs and whales, how previous explorations have suggested that a Northwest Passage is there and ripe for discovery, and also that other nations– particularly the Spanish and maybe the French– are also involved in the search for this passage, and how that might be detrimental to the British Empire. When you look at the book, the map has a very particular role.
What the map is actually acting to do is provide a synopsis of all of Dobbs’ arguments. Effectively, the book itself is over 150 pages long, and it contains many detailed arguments as to why continued exploration for the Northwest Passage is something that the British parliament should aim for. The map does all of this on one page. It conveys to the viewer that the search for the Northwest Passage could be easy, and could potentially bring great riches to the British Empire.
But how can we tell exactly how incorrect the map is? And how can we tell some of the ways in which Dobbs was trying to skew his information in order to make his argument more believable to his readers? Well, we have to compare the map to other maps that were produced around the same time. While the geography of the West Coast of North America was still relatively unknown at this point, even earlier historical maps had shown that the geography of the country ran far to the North of the coast of California, and also potentially ran out to the West.
Indeed, by the time Dobbs was formulating his argument, the Dutch navigator Vitus Bering, who was sailing for the Russian government, had already discovered the passage that bears his name between Russian lands and modern day Alaska, which is the Bering Strait. So there was a sense that the geography of North America extended much farther to the North and to the West than Dobbs’ account. So who was Dobbs? Well, Dobbs was a parliamentarian who had significant interests in the furthering of the British Empire. He was a patriot, and he believed in the growth of the British Empire. But more than that, he was also a man who had significant land interests in North America, specifically in North Carolina.
And of course, if we think about what the role of the Northwest Passage was as a trade route potentially, then that suggests that Dobbs saw any further discovery of the Northwest Passage as being a potential outlet for goods and products that were being produced in lands that he owned title to. Effectively, the discovery of the Northwest Passage could make Dobbs a much richer man. And so when we look at this map, and we look at the book that it’s produced in, and we look at the context of the individual who produced it, we begin to see the factors which have shaped the making of this map and shaped the view of the world that it provides us with.
A final note about this map is that it was printed in England. It was given to key members of Parliament who subsequently debated the sponsoring of a prize for the eventual discovery of the Northwest Passage. Now, despite the erroneous information contained in the text, and despite the clearly erroneous information portrayed by the map, it seems to have done its function, because as part of that debate, parliament sponsored an award for 20,000 pounds for the eventual discovery of the Northwest Passage. And this is the prize that over a century later captains like Sir John Franklin were still chasing when they left searching for the Northwest Passage in the 1840s and the 1850s.
So what can we tell from the erroneous perspectives provided to us by Dobbs? Well, it tells us that even a map that we would understand as being wrong actually provides us with some very significant historical insights, because we need to bear in mind from the beginning of this session that all maps convey a perspective that’s subjective. And so what we’re doing when we look at this map is we’re seeing Dobbs’ perspective of the world. And it allows us to open up a whole series of questions as to why Dobbs saw the world, or indeed, wanted to see the world in the way that he conveys on this map.
And that allows us to begin to see all of these answers, which are about power and politics and trade and international relations. So by bringing critical perspectives to these historic materials, we open up a whole series of historical insights for ourselves. From this, we can take away three key lessons that we should apply whenever we work with a map as a historical source. And those three lessons are, what is the projection and the perspective of the map? Who made the map, and what were the aims of the individual or the group who produce this piece of cartographic history?
In week 1, we discussed language and written texts. This week, we will look at visual sources for research, in particular photographs and maps. In this video, Phil Hatfield, of the British Library, talks about a map produced in the 18th century, which aimed to promote exploration of Northern Canada and the Arctic. By examining this map, Phil explains how we might interpret maps and map making to help our understanding of a research question.

The map shown in this film was published as part of Arthur Dobbs’s An Account of the Countries Adjoining to Hudson’s Bay (1744). The Account was created to influence Parliamentary debate in the UK on financial support for further exploration of a trading route across the north of Canada and the Arctic (the Northwest Passage).

The map used in this account looks very different to modern maps of Canada, and also when compared to maps being produced by contemporaries of Dobbs. Understanding those differences, and what motivated them, provides rich information about the economic and political context of Arctic exploration in the 18th century.

Two-dimensional maps always show a perspective of the world in their representation of a curved space. The way in which the space is represented is described as the map’s projection. Even maps which contain a large amount of detail are being highly selective in the information that they choose to show and how they represent that information. Finally, in producing a map as an objective statement of knowledge, the map-maker may be concealing areas where there is less knowledge or certainty.

As with photographs, we need to know the context within which a map was created in order to analyse and understand the information that it contains. Phil suggests three questions that we should ask about the maps that we use in our research:

  • What is the projection of the map, and how does this represent the perspective of the map maker?
  • Who made the map?
  • What were the aims of the map maker?

Comparison of a map with others produced at the same time and of the same area can help to uncover areas of contested knowledge or interpretation.

In this video, Phil explains how the Dobbs map can be used by researchers today to understand the political context for exploration of North America in the 18th century. Now think about how you might do research ABOUT a map. What information would you look for to answer the questions Phil has posed? In our discussion of photographs this week, we will consider the possibility of reading them “against the grain”, in ways that may be different from the intentions of the photographer. Can we do the same with maps?

Further reading:

Philip J Hatfield. 2016. Lines in the Ice: Exploring the Roof of the World. London: The British Library.

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