Natural Histories: Some Notes on Maps

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Power comes from the map and it traverses the way maps are made. The key to this internal power is thus cartographic process. By this I mean the way maps are compiled and the categories of information selected; the way they are generalized, a set of rules for the abstraction of the landscape; the way the elements in the landscape are formed into hierarchies; and the way various rhetorical styles that also reproduce power are employed to represent the landscape. To catalogue the world is to appropriate it, so that all these technical processes represent acts of control over its image which extend beyond the professed uses of cartography.

J.B. Harley (1989)

The NGJ holds a fine collection of fourteen historical maps of Jamaica and the Caribbean region, which are part of the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection. One of these maps the 1786 Carte de l’Ile de la Jamaïque, which was based on an English survey and published by the Dépôt de la Marine in France, a publisher of nautical maps, is currently featured in the Natural Histories exhibition. Several others, including the earliest known, 1528 map of Jamaica by the Venetian Benedetto Bordone, can be viewed in our permanent galleries, where they invite interesting ideological and aesthetic comparisons with the topographical art of the colonial period, the estate and city views. While not usually intended as “art” and more obviously significant as historical documents, the historical maps in our collection possess a peculiar visual poetry, as diagrammatic representations of a changing vision of the world, and in this case, of the island of Jamaica.

The earliest Jamaican maps in our collection only vaguely resemble the now-familiar contours of the island and were the products of relayed anecdote and the imaginary, much more so than of directly observed and measured reality. A chronological review of the maps in our collection illustrates how the maps of Jamaica progressed towards greater accuracy, based on the development of new cartographic technologies and more precise and confident economies of knowledge. I deliberately used the ideologically charged words “progress” and “accuracy” here because these are consistent with the Cartesian assertions of objectivity that inform modern map-making, by which maps have been normalized as a natural and accurate way of representing and seeing the world.

Since the mid-20th century, there has however been significant critical debate about the presumed objectivity of maps and their propagandist implications, for instance the significant distortions in the conventional Mercator projection, which places Europe and North America at its centre and makes these areas look proportionally larger than they actually are and geographically dominant over the other global landmasses. As Nicholas Dunlop puts it, “the map not only reflects the world but also plays a fundamental role in shaping it” (Imperial Archive n.d.) and, as is well illustrated by the early maps of Jamaica, the history of mapmaking is fundamentally associated with the history of colonial conquest and colonialism. The processes of surveying and mapping represent acts of taking possession, of marking and defining territory, of identifying and classifying its resources, and, ultimately, of ordering the world. Maps can thus be viewed as diagrams of power and cartography’s latest tools – the satellite image, Geographical Information Systems, and GPS tracking devices – arguably provide the ultimate panoptic view of the world.

Maps are also essential to the definition of the modern nation-state and Benedict Anderson argues that national maps often serve as a national logo: “In this shape, the map entered an infinitely reproducible series, available for transfer to posters, official seals, letterheads, magazine and textbook covers, tablecloths, and hotel walls. Instantly recognizable, everywhere visible, the logo-map penetrated deep into the popular imagination, forming a powerful emblem for the anticolonial nationalisms being born.” (1991, p179) This is how the colonial, appropriative mapping of Jamaica evolved to support postcolonial assertions of nationhood and because Jamaica is an island, with distinctive, clear and permanent borders, its outline map particularly lends itself to such “logo-ization.”

The Jamaican logo-map certainly serves as a national symbol: it is for instance used, along with the national colours, in the logos of various government organizations and the striking outline of “Yard” has become a common marker of identity throughout the popular culture of Jamaica and its Diaspora. The Jamaican logo-map is also used in commerce, as part of the logos of several local companies, and even more frequently in the branding of Jamaica a tourist destination, for instance in the form of souvenir maps, on postcards, and in various tourist art and craft items. And since the tourism industry in many ways perpetuates the dynamics of colonialism, the use of the Jamaican map in this context exists in uneasy tension between its colonial and present-day associations – a subject that warrants further exploration.

The powerful symbolism of maps can indeed be appropriated and redirected, reclaimed and subverted, for all sorts of purposes, to consolidate power or to question it. It has been used as a critical device, as is quite commonly seen in postcolonial art, very poignantly the Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres Garcia’s 1943 upside-down map of Latin America, which literally turned the prevailing world order on its head. Maps and their historical and political allusions have also featured in the map paintings of the late 1960s of the Guyanese artist Frank Bowling. And perhaps the most powerful and prevalent example of the reclamation of map symbolism is the use of the map of Africa in the context of Garveyism, Rastafari and other forms of Pan-Africanism – common presences in Jamaica’s visual culture.

As is well illustrated by this brief reflection, which was inspired by a single map in the Natural Histories exhibition, maps are rich cultural and historical resources and we hope to explore these further in future exhibitions, including an exhibition on the map theme in our new (and in this regard rather ironically named) Explorations series, of which Natural Histories was the inaugural edition.

Veerle Poupeye


  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991 (1983).
  • Boxer, David, Rosalie Smith-McCrea, and Veerle Poupeye. Gifts for the Nation: The Donations of Aaron and Marjorie Matalon. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1999.
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Vintage, 1995 (1975).
  • Harley, J.B. “Deconstructing the Map.” Cartographica Volume 26, no. 2 (1992): 1-20.
  • The Imperial Archive. “Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies: Cartography.” Queens University, .
  • Poupeye, Veerle. Caribbean Art, World of Art. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
  • Walbert, David. “Map-Skills and Higher Order Thinking: Projections and Propaganda.” University of North Carolina,

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