First published in 1997, Jerry Brotton’s Trading Territories is a history not just of how the first truly global maps were made but how they were conceptualised, and how they shaped as well as described the early-modern world. Brotton set out to challenge a consensus in historiography that looked insistently westward, intent on preserving a pickled-in-spirits ‘European’ Renaissance. Instead he presents early-modern geography as globalised, status-driven and vigorously mercantile, enriched by the scholars and patrons of the Ottoman and Islamic spheres. It’s not characterised by high-minded ‘Renaissance’ ideals but embodied, rather, by the seafarers of the Portuguese empire and ‘their messy, hybrid histories of commercial, cultural and sexual exchanges with different cultures’.
The consensus is less cosy now than it was 22 years ago, but Brotton’s book remains a powerful read. A handful of key texts unlock a sprawling history. In 1464 the Florentine geographer Francesco Berlinghieri dedicates a treatise on Ptolemy not a European prince but to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II.
From here, Brotton goes on to emphasise instead the extent to which the Islamic Ottomans were diplomatically and culturally enmeshed with Europe. The Spheres tapestry, commissioned in 1525 by João III, depicts a globe on which Portugal’s overseas territories are mapped in detail, the act of map-making serving as a forceful claim to imperial authority. Profit motives drive the 16th century pursuit of a route to the spice-rich Moluccas, which results in the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigating the globe under a Castilian flag (only 18 of a crew of 240 arrived home, but they still had with them a large complement of charts, quadrants, planispheres and astrolabes). As the rapacious East India trading empires of the British and Dutch loom into view in the 1600s, map-making as a discipline is diminished, the geographer – once ‘also a traveller, merchant, mathematician and globemaker’ – reduced ‘to the role of a skilled administrator’.
Brotton’s rebuttalist approach results in some passages that are more ‘tell’ than ‘show’ – one sometimes wishes for more storytelling and less historiographical commentary – and he is not always the most elegant of writers, but Trading Territories covers a wide sweep of shifting territory with verve and authority.
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