Cartophiles and book lovers found themselves at the Hungerford Book Shop’s latest author event at the Town Hall in Hungerford on Tuesday night for a talk by Edward Brooke-Hitching on The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps.
Brooke-Hitching’s latest work is a beautiful-looking tome incorporating stunning antique maps displaying various “phantoms” – islands that can be found on maps but not in real life, plus other geographical misnomers such as the Kong mountain range across Africa and ghostly seas in Australia.
With an obvious passion for his subject, Brooke-Hitching guided the audience on a whistle-stop tour through some of the jaw-dropping stories of how these mistakes came to be and an insight into their longevity.
When you consider that each squiggle on the map reveals an adventure by an intrepid explorer, these mistakes can arise in a variety of ways from mirages spotted by sailors, to traps created by map makers to help catch counterfeiters. Some were just “whimsy” such as the entry of The Painter’s Wife’s island in the Strait of Magellan just drawn in so she “in her imagination might have an island of her own”.
There were tales of breathtaking fraud too including various conmen whose discovery of fictitious islands aided them in securing future funding. There was the sad story of Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish explorer who returned to London to sell shares in a land called Poyais that he claimed he had discovered in South America. He was never brought to justice for sending a boatful of poor unfortunates there, many of whom died of tropical diseases in Honduras.
In an uncertain world, maps are an authoritative source material that we tend to rely on without question, which makes these mistakes seem so unlikely. And they’re not a thing of the past; the island of Bermaja in the Gulf of Mexico was ‘discovered’ in 1539 and stayed there for nearly 500 years. It was 2009 – just seven years ago – when meticulous scientific searches revealed it was a fiction.
First appeared in the Newbury Weekly News Thu 15th December 2016