I have to confess that my inner geek came out with this podcast. I’m a total map nerd. I can stare at maps, especially historical maps, the way some people stare at their phones.
Maps are documents that visualize people’s hopes and fears. They tell stories about both the people who inhabit the lands represented and the people who set the ink to the paper.
And many times, the people who set the ink to the paper aren’t telling the same story as the people who are living in the lands represented. Take the Georgia coast, for instance.
In this podcast, historic cartography expert Max Edelson of the University of Virginia talks about British maps of the Georgia coast before, during and after James Oglethorpe.
The earliest maps seem to will Georgia into existence. Georgia was literally drawn into a hostile part of the world, with Spanish, French and Native American threats all around.
“Before a contested space could be claimed it had to be visualized,” he says. “[Early British maps of the area] erased political boundaries between South Carolina, Georgia and East Florida to picture this space as a natural zone for settlement and commerce.”
Once Oglethorpe arrives, we see maps showing his utopian vision. His orderly grids are seemingly unconcerned with reality. These maps are more promotional than factual.
“Oglethorpe and the Trustees of Georgia used maps to visualize their ideal colony,” he says, talking in detail about the famous Gordon map, laughably idealist. “The careful planning of the town of Savannah was the most important symbol of this mission.”
Then in the 1750’s, James Oglethrope leaves and his “crazy ideas” leave with him. Our founder envisioned a colony of working class people tending farms without slavery.
The maps after his departure show the hard, cold business of making money the Southern way. They show slave plantations, soil types for cash crops and ownership boundaries.
“Those who viewed America from London could map these distant shores,” he says. “By doing so, they hoped to form and direct the kinds of societies that would take shape.”
But Georgia didn’t go as they planned. They didn’t get as far south into Florida as they hoped militarily. And James Oglethorpe’s economic experiments were a colossal failure.
“The forces of settler colonialism that determine settlement in fact on the ground could not be so formed or directed as lines, words and colors on paper maps,” he concludes.
Edelson made this presentation at the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium, a remarkable gathering of minds brought together by the Ossabaw Island Foundation.
Held back in February, the symposium united academics from all over the country who presented new research into the interaction between our coastal history and landscape.
This talk about maps fits within that context very well and will delight map geeks and anyone else who loves history. You can find many of the maps he talks about online.
Just go to his website MapScholar.org. And find more information about the Ossabaw Island Foundation by clicking the sponsorship link above. Thanks for listening!