Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Map, Some History and an Octopus

Today we have a guest post from Asher Kohn about an 1877 satirical map of Europe. For the full map, excerpted above, click here, or for more on the map octopus check out the incomparable Strange Maps.

            San Francisco did not only become the home to journalistic innovation in the 20th century, and Russia did not only became the bete noire of the Western World after World War II. These two maps -- the former from the San Francisco Newsletter of 1877, the latter from Fred W. Rose of London in 1900 -- share some obvious similarities in their anthropomorphic renderings of countries, fashionable ┼čalvar worn by Turkey, and belief in Russia as an evil octopus bent on dominating the world. But these two maps can tell us a lot about both technological advancements in newspapers and how Turkey was perceived for late 19th-century audiences. The maps cannot tell us where to get such snazzy pants.
            Anthropomorphic maps of Europe date back to the 16th century, according to Rebecca Maxwell, which coincides roughly with the beginning of a conception of “Europe” as a Catholic entity. Anthropomorphic cartography has made its name in the US by Rand & McNally’s “Man of Commerce” in 1889, but the Newsletter’s map predates this by 12 years.
By the time the 1877 map was created, California had been a state for 27 years but William Randolph Hearst was a decade away from buying the San Francisco Examiner and turning America’s “Yellow Journalism” era into full gear. The Californian public was interested in foreign affairs, and creative journalists were able to assemble wire reports into graphical depictions, similar to current-day fads of “graphic” or “explainer” journalism. The map even calls itself “serio-comic,” perhaps a precursor to the “serious-casual” style of writing that is popular today. It’s depth-of-color comes from simple color blocks printed onto a cross-hatched lithograph.
In the map, Turkey is dealing with a veritable meze platter of enemies. The crab of Greece pinches the Ottoman Empire’s elbow while the golden-haired Turk tussles with the Russian octopus. The deaths-head labeled “Bulgaria” is supposed to represent the brutally-suppressed April Uprising, while the partially-detached Crimean tentacle portrays the Russian Empire’s losses in the Crimean War of the 1850s. Russian dominance of the Caucasus is hinted at by the octopus’ stranglehold of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, and the complicated story of the Balkans’ tangle is represented by a militaristic man held back by his sister.
Turkey looks strangely like American general George Custer, who died in pitched battle against a Plains Indian alliance the year before. His fight with Russia is clearly the focus point of the map as the traditional European powers of Britain, France, and Germany watch the struggle warily. The San Francisco cartoon portrays a world of perilous balance and neutrality that can be overturned with a shift of the Turk’s feet. Read more and see more maps after the jump...

By 1900, advances in color printing meant that multiple colors could be printed on a single lithograph, allowing for greater depth of color. This, along with the popularization of halftone, allowed for more portraiture, which Fred Rose took advantage of for his own serio-comic map. As a Britisher, his caption reads a bit like, well, the sort of person who would draw a be-sideburned John Bull with an Irish woman bedeviling him. Every anthropomorphized European looking up at him either hopefully or jealously also gives the plot away a bit.
Russia’s tentacles have become more targeted than exuberant, reaching into a (queasy to 2014, perhaps) personification of Asia as well as into Afghanistan as we have entered the high Great Game. That said, the Crimean tentacle has seemingly been chopped off at the nub, which may symbolize British-enforced Black Sea neutrality or may simply be an artistic decision. As for the collapsing Ottoman Empire, the baby states of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania are represented, and Greece -- no longer just a crustacean -- is represented by the terrified and luxuriantly-mustachioed visage of the Copenhagen-born King George I. The Empire is now simply “Turkey” to Rose, and is represented by a reclining Abdul Hamid II recognizable more by his fez and frock coat than by his visage. The Qajari Muzaffer ed-Din Shah has been decapitated, but his headware has upgraded to a fine papakhi. Austria has undergone a gender change, and that empire’s brothers have turned their anger westwards.
These historical documents may appear more “comic” than “serio” today as they try to mash together complicated geopolitics into an almost Gilbert-and-Sullivan style of exaggerated emotional registers and tangled social relationships. However in the late 19th century, lay people were for the first time getting involved in foreign affairs and were for the first time receptive to newspaper discussion (and manipulation) of such. Much like the explainers and oversimplifiers that are ridiculed by regional experts -- self-styled or not -- today, these anthropomorphic maps were a way for individuals who couldn’t locate Bulgaria on a map to obtain at least a passing understanding of the state-of-play in Europe.
The advances in technology could paint a prettier picture of the region, but the true depth of the reporting lies in the caption. The facts underlying these maps could be manipulated to bring out the desired emotions and politics of its audience. Colorful and simplified imagery is a means towards journalistic understanding, not an end. Remember that when your eyes are drawn to the recent journalistic trends. Or the next time you see an octopus representing Russia.

Asher Kohn currently lives in provincial Turkey and is a co-editor at Ajam Media Collective.