‘Squaring the Circle’ and Shaping Global Perceptions: Gerard Mercator’s World Map of 1569

Gerard Mercator’s world map of 1569. Dimensions:  2m by 1.3m, made of 18 overlapping sheets. Photocopy of image reproduced in The Maritime Museum of Rotterdam, Atlas of the World: Gerard Mercator’s Map of the World (1569, Walburg Pers Zutphen; Maritime Museum of Rotterdam)

Gerard Mercator’s world map of 1569. Dimensions: 2m by 1.3m, made of 18 overlapping sheets. Photocopy of image reproduced in The Maritime Museum of Rotterdam, Atlas of the World: Gerard Mercator’s Map of the World (1569, Walburg Pers Zutphen; Maritime Museum of Rotterdam)

Maps codify existence. Societies across time and space have attempted to create maps; maps of the heavens,[1] of topographical features[2] and, since the 5th century BC, maps of the world.[3] All are incredibly different in design, some are dots, others detailed pictorial depictions, yet we name them all ‘map’. Thus, the overwhelming tendency in scholarship to treat ‘the map’ as a self-evident category, which is constant across cultures, is ultimately flawed.


All maps are substitutions for the physical space they aim to show, organising the earth into a series of abstract marks representing reality, thus mapmakers do not reproduce the world, they construct it. Consequently, the concept of what ‘a map’ is, its very construction, has sparked controversy. Why do cartographers design maps? Is their underlying aim empirical accuracy, politics or religion?


Maps are therefore certainly designed objects, for their creation involves a significant number of choices. Consequently, maps must be seen as more than just the sum of technical processes and craftsmanship. The term ‘map’ has changing and elusive qualities, as does the concept of ‘the world’.


‘The World’ is often taken as a geographical or empirical statement, when in fact it is emphatically social and man made. The problem then arises: is a worldview individual, or does it present the cultural contexts of a whole society? Maps, and particularly world maps, have been the subjects of debate since their very conception.


One of the most controversial map designs is Gerard Mercator’s world map of 1569 (Fig.1). Rectangular in shape, engraved by copper plate and orientated north, with Europe in the centre, this map has sparked intense academic and political debate. Judith Tyner refers to Mercator’s map as ‘the most controversial map’.[4] In fact, so controversial is this map, that people have been writing about the work and life of Mercator since before he died; they are still writing and arguing about his work today.[5]


The map is made up of 18 sheets, is 2 metres in length and 1.3 metres high. It shows 180 degrees in height and 360 degrees in width. The titles reads: ‘A new and improved description of the lands of the world, amended and intended for the use of seafarers’.[6]


The most (in)famous design element of this map is its projection. Projection is a vitally important concept, which has considerable impact upon the way people think about the world and their country’s place in it. The projection you choose is seen to be emblematic of your priorities and worldview.[7] ‘Mercator’s Projection’ solved the ultimate problem in map design, a problem which had plagued cartographers for centuries: how can the three-dimensional earth be reduced to a two-dimensional surface? This issue was so problematic that Ptolemy had even decided such a design was impossible.[8]


Mercator’s solution was to straighten the meridians and progressively separate the parallels. By solving the problem, Mercator’s map allowed ships to accurately navigate long distances. The projection’s drawback is that it increasingly distorts land size the further the land is from the equator. As such, the map has been castigated as the ultimate symbol of Euro-centric imperial domination.[9] The decoration of the map ideologically reinforced the Euro-centric racism of the period; foreigners are drawn as bizarre looking, almost sub-human.[10] Marshall Hodgson even goes so far as to call ‘Mercator’s Projection’, ‘the Jim Crow projection’.[11]


In choosing to place the equator in the southern half of his map, Mercator depicts two thirds of the world as taken up by the northern hemisphere. Mercator’s increasing separation of the parallels means that land further away from the equator is distorted in size; the most common distortion pointed out by anthropologists is that Greenland is shown to be the same size as Africa, when in reality Africa is fourteen times larger.[12]


As a consequence, writers have recommended the removal of Mercator’s design from public spaces, for fear that it might popularise injurious conceptions of the world.[13] Arno Peters has done more than anyone else to redefine Mercator’s design. In the 1960s Peters started a campaign to rebrand the map as ‘inherently evil’.[14] His main criticism again fell upon the map’s projection, which he criticised as being ‘colonial’.[15] Peters’ projection (fig 2) is seen as an attempt to address the size distortion of Mercator’s projection.



Fig 2. Arno Peters Projection https://temple3.wordpress.com/2009/04/16/a-question-of-cartography/


Despite the many issues with the Mercator projection, ‘Mercator maps’  are still in use today and continue to shape the way we view our world. The usefulness of the projection made its entire map design an authority; most modern maps are also rectangular, orientated north and Europe centred, yet there is no reason why these design aspects should also have prevailed. It is convention, generated by the popularity of one design element, which has shaped our current beliefs on what ‘the world’ should look like.


Stephanie Aspin




[1] The first known map of the heavens and stars is a series of dots dating to 16,500 BC and found on the walls of the Lascaux Caves, France.

[2] Cave paintings in Anatolia, Turkey, from around the 7th century BC are believed to be the first ‘maps’ depicting geographical surroundings.

[3] The earliest extant world map is the Babylonian Map of the World, usually dated to the 5th century BC.

[4] Tyner, Judith A.,‘Interactions of Culture and Cartography,’ The History Teacher, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Aug., 1987), pp. 455-464, p.459.

[5] Mercator’s biographer Walter Ghim began writing about Mercator before he died. Ghim first published part of his biography in Mercator’s 1695 World Atlas. Information from; Taylor, Andrew, The World of Gerard Mercator: The Mapmaker who Revolutionised Geography (London; Harper Collins, 2012), p.4.

[6] Maritime Museum, Rotterdam, Atlas of the World: Gerard Mercator’s Map of the World (1569), (Walburg Pers Zutphen; Maritime Museum of Rotterdam, 1991)

[7] The National Geographic website contains videos about which sort of projection should be used in different circumstances and what meanings they convey. See: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/media/selecting-map-projection/?ar_a=1. [Accessed 10/4/14] [8] Brotton, Jerry, A History of the World in Twelve Maps (London; Penguin Books, 2013), p.10.

[9] Harley in Cosgrove, Iconography of the Landscape, p.290.

[10] Harley in Cosgrove, Iconography of the Landscape, p.299.

[11] Hodgson, ‘Interrelations of Societies in History’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol.5, Issue 2 (1963), pp.227-250, p. 230.

[12] So famous is this criticism that it has even been named; it is referred to as ‘The Greenland Problem’ in many publications.

[13] In 1922 The National Geographic Society first replaced all of their maps using Mercator’s projection. See: Cosgrove, ‘Epistemology, Geography and cartography’, p.206.

[14] Peters, The New Cartography, p.2.

[15] Peters, The New Cartography, p.3.

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