28 May 2020
After recently completing a pilot course in Computing for Information Professionals at Birkbeck University, I have just released a new dataset containing the text extracted from almost 2,000 colonial-era maps and documents covering eastern Africa. The resource is available now from the Shared Research Repository, and provides access to thousands of names of historical settlements and regions, descriptions of historical land use, topography and vegetation, and notes of ethnographic, military or administrative context.
The resource consists of a downloadable spreadsheet, which lets users browse or search the extracted text. I hope it will be of particular use in identifying and locating place names in eastern Africa during the colonial period, for which there is a gap in current research resources. I’m also hopeful it will facilitate the contribution of these maps to studies of the history of the environment.
The text was harvested from maps and documents that are held at the British Library in the War Office Archive, a collection of over 14,000 mostly unique, hand-drawn items originally kept by the British War Office between c.1880 and 1940 and used to compile printed maps over large parts of the world. They came from a variety of sources, including military surveyors, explorers, missionaries and spies. Generous funding from Indigo Trust recently allowed us to digitise those items relating to eastern Africa.
Automated extraction of the text was carried out using the Google Vision API, which found a total of 633,451 pieces of ‘text’ on the maps. However, after the majority of erroneous results or results that were not useful had been cleaned out, the final dataset was reduced to 317,133 transcriptions. These are sorted alphabetically and displayed in an Excel spreadsheet, shown in the following screenshot:
The order in which the pieces of text were transcribed from the maps was retained in the second column of the spreadsheet so that, if the spreadsheet is re-ordered by that column, each word can also be seen in its original context – for example, the text in the screenshot below can be read from top to bottom (‘The topography has been supplied...’):
The spreadsheet enables a user to identify the image in which any piece of text appears, and links to a geographical search interface for the archive, shown below, which in turn provides links to high-res versions of the images and their catalogue records on the BL website. The combination of these resources lets users identify each piece of text and see it in context on the face of the map.
The maps are drawn in a wide variety of different hands, and the text often overlaps or is written over background features, making automated transcription tricky. Some errors do remain - for example, where individual characters have been incorrectly transcribed within words, though the words themselves should still be identifiable. In addition, not all words appearing on the maps were captured.
The resource came about after I was fortunate enough to join a cohort of colleagues from the British Library and the National Archives attending the pilot postgraduate course at Birkbeck. After speed-learning Python and SQL coding languages in the first term, I then focussed on the development of a software tool that enlists the Google Vision API to auto-transcribe text found on maps. Once made, I set it to work harvesting words found on the eastern Africa maps.
I am very grateful to BL Digital Curator Nora McGregor, who set up and coordinated the initial pilot (now launching this autumn as an Applied Data Science Postgraduate Certificate), to the Institute of Coding, who funded it, and to BL managers for allocating study time during work. This project would also not have been possible without Indigo Trust, whose generous funding to conserve, catalogue and digitise War Office maps over the last five years has made them accessible to the world online, and enabled further initiatives such as this.
23 April 2020
Here at the British Library we’ve been digitising our maps and making them available for over two decades now. Consequently, there’s a wealth of fantastic and inspiring free-to-view historic maps on the web. In addition to ever-increasing quantities of maps on our own platforms, our digitised maps are also hosted by other cultural institutions, organisations and individuals with whom we’ve been pleased to collaborate.
This seemed like as good a time as any to pull a load of them together and let you know about them.
So, in this first of two posts, here are a few of the places on the British Library’s site where you can find digitised maps, and upon finding them, use them escape to the ends of the earth (or the end of your street) from the comfort of your own home. Enjoy.
3D virtual globes
We just did this, and we hope you like it. 3D virtual models of 10 of our historic globes from the 17th - 19th centuries with thanks to our Digitisation Services and digitisation company Cyreal. Another 20 will be added over the coming months.
The British Library’s Georeferencer isn’t strictly a collection of maps, since it draws its 56,000-odd maps from a variety of places (including the below sources). But you can definitely search for maps in it, for example by using this crazy map with all of the georeferenced maps located on it. Zoom in for it to make more sense, and find the area you’re interested in.
900 or so images, many of them maps from the King’s Topographical Collection, illustrating a series of new and repurposed articles on the subject of illustrating place. The project was generously funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The Finnis Scott Foundation, Marc Fitch Fund and Coles-Medlock Foundation.
20th century maps
Here are round a hundred maps from articles produced as part of our 'Mapping the twentieth century: drawing the line' exhibition.
The British Library’s Online Gallery was set up through the Library’s ‘Collect Britain’ project in the early noughties. There are thousands of maps on here, and although the Zoomify and browse facilities are no longer functioning (we’re in the process of migrating this stuff onto a new platform) there are still some great maps here, such as
The Crace collection of maps of London
One of the finest collections of historic maps of London anywhere, collected by a commissioner of London’s sewers and George IV’s interior decorator. Around 1200 maps from between around 1550-1850, digitisation generously funded in part by the London Topographical Society. Crace’s collection of London views are held by the British Museum.
All the maps from the Online Gallery are also available (in higher resolution) alongside maps from other collections via the Old Maps Online portal (with its fun geographical search tool). https://www.oldmapsonline.org/
Turning the Pages
This is another older British Library resource but it has a couple of really choice atlases in it. Are there any more choice atlases than Gerhard Mercator’s hand-made Atlas of Europe of 1570 (which contains the only two surviving maps drawn by the man himself)? Or one of the volumes from the famous multi-volume Beudeker Atlas containing maps and views of Dutch stately homes from the 17th and 18th centuries.
A number of maps and atlases held in the Western Manuscript collection have been digitised and found their way onto the Digitised manuscripts page. If you know what you're looking for you can search by pressmark. Or you can search by keyword (i.e. maps, plans etc.) if you're just browsing.
Many highlights reside here, including the late 16th century Burghley-Saxton atlas (containing the first printed county maps of England and Wales in proof) at Royal MS 18.DIII http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_18_d_iii
Explore the British Library
The British Library's principal online catalogue does include thumbnail images for a tiny number of maps, but coverage is extremely uneven and the resolution of images is variable (to get a larger image for non commercial use, click on the map's title included in the right hand part of the details section). You may be lucky - for example if you're interested in Jacques Callot's map of the 1627 siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré.
In a later blog I'll be listing non-British Library platforms and sites where you can find free-to-access British Library digitised maps. But in the meantime, I hope this keeps you busy.
21 April 2019
Today’s commercial pilots are well equipped to detect and fly over or around meteorological obstacles such as thunderstorms that lie in their path, so that as passengers behind we are rarely troubled by them. But imagine if you were flying in an airship of the 1920s instead. We recently added to the BL Collection a map designed for just that – Map showing the frequency of thunderstorms during the month of June on the England-Egypt section of the England-India airship route.
The map was made at the British War Office in 1926 and is a product of the Imperial Airship Scheme, a Government initiative of the 1920s to create a commercial airship route between Britain and the furthest parts of the Empire. The sheet shows three alternative routes for comparison, concluding that the most western and southerly of the three is the least likely to encounter difficulty.
The thought of negotiating thunderstorms at all in an England-India airship is frankly terrifying, and despite the careful planning evidenced by this sheet, the initiative came to a tragic end when one of the airships designed to fly the route crashed in France on its maiden voyage overseas in 1930.
Far more re-assuring is this recent donation to the BL. The Pilots’ Free Flight Atlas - Eastern Hemisphere, is a colourful collection of topographical mapping of Europe, South-East Asia and the Middle East overlaid with aeronautical information – radio beacons, airspace reservations, waypoints, airfields and runway lengths…
A number of thematic pages include political maps, a star chart and a sheet entitled Climate/Winds in Europe, North Africa, Middle East showing the main wind directions and strengths in January and in July alongside bar charts giving precipitation and temperature data for selected locations throughout the year.
Detail of ‘Climate/Winds in Europe, North Africa, Middle East’ Maps 2019.a.24. page 8
Not being an aviation expert I don’t know the frequency with which commercial pilots might turn to this volume in-flight, but as a layman I am re-assured by the detailed information it provides, and the calm and efficient manner in which it is conveyed on backgrounds of natural greens and blues. Not to mention the section on Dos and Don’ts during Thunderstorm Avoidance – ‘Avoiding thunderstorms is the best policy’ remains as true as ever.
Project Manager, Modern Maps
19 April 2019
Around the turn of the 20th century the British War Office in London maintained a library of original, mostly hand-drawn mapping that covered large parts of the world where detailed and reliable surveys were not otherwise available. The maps were gathered from a rich variety of sources including military expeditions, boundary commissions, explorers, travellers, missionaries and spies, and they were used by the War Office for making and revising official printed products.
The maps are now held at the British Library in the 'War Office Archive', and generous funding from Indigo Trust has allowed us to continue cataloguing, conserving and digitising portions relating to Africa, where the archive provides unique details of settlements, populations, communications and land-use immediately before and during the period of European settlement.
Most recently we have digitised maps relating to the former Transvaal Colony, including sheets made during the South African War, also called the Second Boer War. 'Survey of Position Held by Enemy near Belfast. August 1900’ was made in the days following the Battle of Bergendal, the last pitched battle and a turning point in the war. The map is hand-drawn to a high standard, perhaps in anticipation of reproduction and publication, but this appears to be a unique copy.
Detail of 'Survey of Position Held by Enemy near Belfast. August 1900’ WOMAT/AFR/TRA/23
Gun emplacements and rifle pits are shown in red, alongside detailed contour work and rock drawings. Plans and profiles of enemy gun positions are provided around the sides of the map.
Details of WOMAT/AFR/TRA/23
In a less finished style, but with no less detail, is the following ‘Road Sketch’ from 1906, which shows a 200-mile stretch of the boundary between present-day South Africa and Mozambique. It too is made with an eye on military logistics, and provides details of terrain and road conditions, availability of food and water, and the characteristics and numbers of personnel at forts along the route. All of which provides rich data for present-day researchers.
Detail of ‘Road Sketch From Komati Poort To Messangire’ WOMAT/AFR/TRA/47
There are now a total of 1,840 map images from the archive available to view on the BL website or to download from Wikimedia, covering large parts of eastern and southern Africa. The catalogue records and images can also be browsed from the geographical search page, shown below.
Project Manager, Modern Maps
16 March 2018
We are pleased to introduce this guest blog post by Dr Dorothea McEwan.
Ethiopia is the product of a long historical process, from the Aksumite empire 2000 years ago, then the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century, the political expansion of various ethnicities, the centuries-long artistic development of rock churches, followed by Portuguese military and Roman Catholic religious intervention in the 16th and 17th centuries, and finally the unification of the country under emperor Tewodros ll (reigned 1855-1868).
Europeans have travelled in the country and written about their experiences adding to this geographical knowledge by drawing maps of the routes of their travels, like the Scotsman James Bruce, who published his account in 1790. In 19th century Europe the growing importance of geography as an academic discipline led many travellers to create maps, which they sometimes complemented with potted histories of the lands, the turbulent political times and customs and mores of the populations.
Map of Axum und Adoa. Add ms 28506, f. 17. This is the Aksum and Adwa Region in Tigre, concentrating particularly on how far the clay plateau extends and on its configuration (shown here in red which is also more or less its natural colour ‘).
One such traveller was the German botanist Georg Wilhelm Schimper (1804-1878), who lived and worked in Ethiopia from 1838 to his death in 1878. He witnessed upheavals and wars, the coronation of Emperor Tewodros II in 1855, married and had children with Ethiopian women, but most notably, he criss-crossed the country to research the flora of the country. He sent the dried botanical specimens back to Germany and France and made a living out of it courtesy of travel associations like the Esslingen Reiseverein which advanced money to Schimper and recouped it from the sale of his dried plant specimens to European herbaria.
When this income dried up, he was lucky enough to be appointed as regional administrator in Enticho, Northern Ethiopia, until 1855. In the 1860s he was engaged in something totally new: because of his detailed knowledge of the plant life in various regions, dependent as this was on the differing soils and rock formations, he proceeded to integrate geological information onto maps that he drew himself, accompanying the maps with plentiful and detailed botanical, geological and geographical observations.
He produced four manuscript maps, held by the British Library at Add. MS 28506. The maps and accompanying commentaries by Andreas Gestrich, Dorothea McEwan and Stefan Hanß have been published by the German Historical Institute London, and are online here. The database presents 221 folios of the original German pages, transliterated in modern German and translated into English, with a fully annotated bibliography and biography of Schimper.
(BL Add ms 28505, f. 86r) This folio is wonderfully illustrated with little sketches of parasols and rain ‘coats’ worn by local people together with the following explanation:
'The Scirpus and Juncus, known as Saddi, usually growing on the banks of brooks or otherwise in quite marshy places, and some slender Cyperus, called Gadima, which grow there too, are used for parasols and shepherds’ cloaks. The parasols are made from the stems of these plants in the following manner: A few inches below the thicker end of a normally three to three and a half ft. long stick or reed, four thin rods are first attached as spokes. Their thickness and length are more or less the same as the whalebone of the parasols of European ladies. Then the stems of these plants are used to weave a small flat disk around these four spokes lying right up against the stick. Next a number of other spokes are woven into this disk, which, in the gaps, gets double stem reinforcement. Now the whole framework is tightly interwoven, snake-like with these stalks.
These stalks are first stripped of their green outer skin, making the whole thing look like a white shade. These parasols are called Zelal here, meaning ‘shade’, and are very much in use by women as well as by men. As these parasols cannot be folded they have to be carried around even when it is cloudy or in the evening at dusk. These parasols are the same size as the parasols carried by European ladies, but they are not slightly curved. They have an almost completely flat, horizontal parasol top.
Typha, and the larger Cyperus (Doguale) are also used, just like the Scirpus and Juncus stalks, for this purpose and for making shepherds’ cloaks. It would be impossible to find a better or simpler coat to protect you from the rain. The green outer casing of the stalks of these reed-like plants are left on, and then they are woven into a shape like the guardhouses of European soldiers on individual sentry duty. This kind of reed coat, like a roof, reaching to the knees and repelling rain quite well, is called Gassa, and is only used by shepherd boys. In the cold highlands of Semien, shepherds often wear sheepskins, like other adult country folk.'
You can access George Wilhelm Schimper in Abyssinia: Observations on Tigre, go to http://exist.ghil.ac.uk:8079/Schimper/biography.html
17 February 2017
In this exclusive guest post, map historian John Davies introduces one of the most enigmatic of 20th century map genres.
'The story of Soviet military mapping is the story of a massive secret project, spanning the fifty years of the Cold War period – from the 1940s to the 1990s – and involving thousands of people. It’s the story of the world’s largest mapping endeavour and, arguably, the world’s most intriguing maps.
The story of this amazing enterprise has never been told in full in print and the maps themselves have rarely been publicly displayed. One of them, however, the city plan of Brighton on England’s south coast is on show in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line.
The full extent of the project will probably never be known, but it is safe to say that almost the entire land surface of the globe was captured on topographic maps at scales of 1:1 million and 1:500,000. Huge areas of the Americas, Europe and Asia were mapped at 1:200,000 and 1:100,000, whilst maps at scale of 1:50,000 (the same as the familiar Ordnance Survey Landrangers) cover much of Britain and continental Europe. On top of that, the vast territory of USSR itself was mapped at 1:25,000 (the scale of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps) and much even at 1:10,000.
The topographic maps have sheet boundaries corresponding to lines of latitude and longitude. This means they are non-rectangular, the two sides narrowing towards the top in the northern hemisphere. The sheets are non-overlapping and are identified by a reference number that uniquely identifies the global location and scale of every sheet.
It works like this: each 1:1 million map is a quadrangle which covers an area of the globe four degrees of latitude deep and six degrees of longitude wide. The latitudinal bands are alphabetic, starting with A at the equator and increasing as you head north; the longitudinal zones are numbered 1 to 60. The Greenwich meridian (longitude 0) defines the boundary between zone 30 and 31; London, at latitude 51, lies in band M (the 13th band, spanning latitudes 48 to 52). London west of Greenwich, therefore lies in quadrangle M-30 and east of Greenwich in M-31.
International Map of the World nomenclature adopted by Soviet Union, with lettered bands of 4° latitude and numbered zones of 6° longitude
This convention, known as IMW – the International Map of the World – nomenclature was devised originally by Albrecht Penck at the end of the 19th century and was adopted in 1913 for a proposed international cooperative mapping project. Although that project fizzled out, the USSR made use of the same convention and did succeed in mapping the whole world by the mid-20th century.
As you zoom in on a 1:1 million sheet, you get 4 sheets at the larger scale of 1:500,000 (numbered 1-4); 36 sheets at scale 1:200,000 in a 6 by 6 grid (numbered 01-36), and 144 sheets at 1:100,000, in a 12 by 12 grid, (001-144). Zooming further in, for each of these you get 4 sheets at 1:50,000 (numbered 1-4).
Part of sheet M-31, scale 1:1 million, compiled 1969, printed 1975, showing the non-rectangular edges, aligned to lines of latitude and longitude.
Part of sheet M-31-1, scale 1:500,000, compiled 1978, printed 1985.
Part of sheet M-31-01, scale 1:200,000, compiled 1982, printed 1986. Road distances in km are overprinted in purple.
The reverse side of the 1:200,000 series sheets has a comprehensive essay describing the physical, social, economic and industrial importance of the locality, together with a geological sketch map.
Part of sheet M-31-013, scale 1:100,000, compiled 1976, printed 1982. Note the M25 under construction.
Part of sheet M-31-013-3, scale 1:50,000, compiled 1974, printed 1981. This is the SW quarter of M-31-013. Note the A2 road is also labelled E107 (upper left), a European road number that did not appear on British maps.
The projection used is the Gauss-Krüger (G-K) projection, based on a regular system of Universal Transverse Mercator projections that each cover a zone 6 degrees wide, with central meridians (axial lines of longitude) at 3 degree intervals. The advantage of this is that it simplifies the depiction of the globe as a flat surface for relatively small areas and allows the use of a rectangular grid within each zone. The grid provides accurate geographic co-ordinates to facilitate precise artillery targeting.
The security classification depended on the map scale; small-scale maps (1:1 million and 1:500,000) were unclassified; 1:200,000 maps were classified as ‘For Official Use’, as were 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 maps of non-USSR territory. Maps of USSR territory larger than 1:200,000 were classified ‘Secret’.
Even more remarkable than the topographic maps are the city plans. These are known to exist for about two thousand cities worldwide, and there may have been many more. City plans are to a large scale, either 1:25,000 (two-and-a-half inches to the mile) or 1:10,000 (about six inches to the mile), and show an altogether much greater level of detail, including street names and listings of factories and their products, public buildings and transport facilities – even relatively unimportant (certainly non-military) objects such as bus stations and post offices. They are classified ‘Secret’.
City plans are rectangular, being based on G-K projection with a central meridian near to the city. The sheets themselves vary in size, but are typically about 1,000 mm by 800 mm, and may be oriented as portrait or landscape layout to suit the terrain to be covered. Many cities require several sheets (in Britain, typically two or four; in USA, Los Angeles requires 12 sheets and New York 8). Unlike the topographic maps, in which the coverage is continuous and non-overlapping, city plans are individual, specific sheets, centred on a particular city; in some cases, such as the conurbation of West Yorkshire, the plans of several cities overlap.
About 100 British and Irish cities are known to have been mapped in this way, several of them more than once. Halifax, Luton, Cambridge and Cardiff are just some of the places for which maps of the 1970s and again of the 1980s exist. The later editions are entirely new productions, rather than revisions of the originals.
The coverage of British cities includes not only the major industrial and commercial centres and important seaports and naval bases, but relatively rural and less strategically significant places such as Gainsborough and Dunfermline (although Rosyth Royal Naval dockyard is not far from Dunfermline, it is not included in the map coverage).
The information depicted on city plans is derived from a wide variety of sources and includes detail not normally seen on local street atlases. For example, the 1990 Brighton 1:10,000 plan seen in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line shows signals alongside the railway line, annotates the shoreline as having a mean tidal range of 4 metres, differentiates the vegetation types in parks and open spaces and identifies the ownership of facilities such as motor repair depots.
City plans have a street index, a descriptive essay and a list of ‘important objects’. numbered and colour-coded on the map – purple for administrative buildings. black for industrial and green for items of military importance.
Part of 1:25,000 plan of London (sheet 1 of 4, compiled 1980, printed 1985) showing colour-code and numbered ‘important objects’. These are listed in the index as:
- State Archives [actually Public Records Office]
- Foreign Office
- Ministry of Defence
- Government offices
- Courts of Justice
- Police – Scotland Yard
- General Post Office
- Radio station BBC
- Residence of the Queen and Prime Minister [actually Her Majesty’s Theatre]
- Greater London Council
- University of London
- HQ of the US Navy in Europe [actually American Embassy]
- HQ General Staff
Note also the depiction of tube stations (symbol M), arrows showing direction of flow of the Thames and direction of tides, Kingsway tunnel and symbols indicating lawns in Hyde Park. The river name is in upper case lettering, denoting that the river is navigable. None of this information appears on contemporary Ordnance Survey maps]
Part of 1:10,000 plan of Thurrock (compiled 1974, printed 1977) showing Tilbury docks and the Dartford tunnel
All the maps described above, the topographic maps and the city plans, were produced by VTU, the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army and are headed ‘General Staff’. They carry in the bottom right-hand corner a print code, defining the map type, when it was printed and at which of the twelve print factories spread across the USSR.
How and Why
Two obvious questions spring to mind when looking at these maps. How did they do it? And why did they do it?
Neither has a simple answer.
Copying from Ordnance Survey maps, for example, is an obvious possibility. However, the wealth of information shown far exceeds what could be derived from these. Analysis of the information shown on Soviet maps and plans proves that the compilers and cartographers had access to a huge range of published maps and guides. They include commercial street atlases, geological maps, transport maps and timetables, trade directories, tourist guides Admiralty charts and many other sources. Although these would have been freely available in Western cities, it is surprising to see just how wide the net was cast and intriguing to consider the process by which material was gathered and transmitted to USSR.
Even more surprisingly, the sources include items which had been published many years previously, resulting, for example, in the maps depicting ferries alongside the bridges that superseded them and long-disused railway lines being shown as operational.
After the launch of Zenit satellites in 1962, aerial imagery became a significant component in the data sources and can be seen in many cases where new roads and housing estates, for example, which had not yet appeared on Ordnance Survey maps, are shown on Soviet maps. Often these have the street names omitted, indicating that the cartographer had only the aerial image to hand and not the latest street directory.
As to why so much time, effort and money was expended on this gigantic project for over fifty years, we can only speculate. The concentration on depicting civil rather than military information suggests that these were intended not as invasion maps, but as necessary tools to manage and control the economic and industrial activity of Western cities after their eventual peaceful conversion to communism. But who can say?
Wasn’t the West doing the same thing during the Cold War?
Of course, mapping the territory of a potential enemy was nothing new and not restricted to the Soviet Union. But during the Cold War, the West, generally, was far more selective about where they mapped and what they showed. Whereas the Soviet Union produced huge numbers of city plans, each of which shows minute detail of all aspects of a city (regardless of military significance), the West tended to focus on places of particular interest – and included on their maps only what was relevant to the purpose.
Two views of Maribor, Former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia).
Top, A typical Soviet military city plan, showing as much information as possible (1:10,000, 1975). Below, A greatly simplified plan, produced by USA military, concentrating on the major features. (1:20,000, 1993).]
John Davies is editor of Sheetlines, the journal of Charles Close Society for the Study of Ordnance Survey Maps (www.CharlesCloseSociety.org) and is co-author with Dr Alex Kent of The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World, to be published by University of Chicago Press in September 2017 (http://redatlasbook.com/)
03 August 2016
Above: Portolan chart of the North-West coast of Europe, including all of France, the British Isles and Ireland, Grazioso Benincasa [1473, Egerton MS 2855, f.8r]. File at Wiki Commons.
Over the past few years the British Library has been working with the Pelagios project, making innovative use of historic manuscript maps. Meaning ‘of the sea’ the name Pelagios is used as the seas were the highways of the ancient world, much like the Web provides a highway for communication today. A web-based project that facilitates the online linking of data about ancients sites mentioned, for example, in texts, local histories or where archaeological remains have been found. The current phase of Pelagios (in which the Library was involved) will soon be drawing to a close as the next phase, 'Pelagios Commons', begins and runs to December 2017. The Library has contributed digitised materials to phase 3 of this project, predominantly in the form of mappae mundi, itineraries and portolan charts, and these have been digitally annotated to open up the enclosed geographical information to the Pelagios database.
Above: A map of England, Northern France, Scotland and Wales from Insularium Illustratum, Henricus Martellus Germanus [1495, Additional MS 15760, f.53v]. File at Wiki Commons.
As you can see, the material provided to Pelagios is something of a treasure trove of manuscript views of the world and the project as a whole is composed of various wonderful resources detailed at Pelagios Commons. Now that our involvement with phase 3 of the Pelagios project is drawing to a close the Library is making the material it contributed to the project available on Wikimedia Commons and (soon) via data.bl.uk. The main root for material held on Commons can be found on the British Library Map Collections category page on Wikimedia Commons, which provides links to the various groups of British Library manuscript materials used in the Pelagios project (although I should note this is a general collections page - so you will not find Ordnance Survey Drawings in Pelagios!).
Above: General chart of the coasts of Europe, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the western coast of Africa, Cornaro Atlas [1492, Egerton MS 73, f.36r]. File at Wiki Commons.
One health warning about these manuscripts, due to UK copyright law they are technically in copyright until 2039. However, given the age of the manuscripts and their place of production the Library believes it highly unlikely a public domain release will offend anyone; more information can be found here. Copyright notices aside, this is a fantastic resource which we hope you enjoy. If you do dive make sure you clear your diary and sit down with some food to see you through, it's a fascinating collection of material. If you want to know more about Pelagios generally - and perhaps join in - head over to their Commons site. Here you can access online resources that are being developed (using open data methods) to link and explore historical place, as well as participate in various community forums. You can also find more at the Digital Classicist Wiki.
19 February 2015
With generous funding from the Indigo Trust, the British Library has started to catalogue and digitise a unique archive of military intelligence maps of British East Africa - a region encompassing modern-day Kenya, Uganda and neighbouring parts of South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The maps are held in the War Office Archive and were created by British intelligence officers, surveyors and cartographers between the years 1890 and 1940.
During this period the requirement to administer newly-created British protectorates in Africa brought with it the need for mapping of a new order in terms of volume, scale and subject matter. As a result, the archive represents both a milestone in the history of the cartography of Africa and a goldmine of historical information for the modern-day researcher.
The example below is finely executed in watercolours and coloured inks, and shows a region to the north and east of the Nile River in north-western Uganda. It was drawn in 1901, at a time when the area was under British administration within the Uganda Protectorate, and represents the first systematic survey of the area.
Sketch to Illustrate Report on the Lango-Mutineer Expedition, 1901 (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/55)
The map provides a wealth of local historical information, showing the flow of water through the region, approximate altitudes of high points and limits of vegetation, the names and locations of tribal regions and settlements, and the names of local tribal chiefs.
Detail of (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/55)
The sheet also documents the Lango Expedition, bringing new detail to reports written at the time. This punitive military expedition was sent against a force of around 100 Sudanese mutineers, who had retreated to the area after encounters with the British military to the south. Once settled, they had entered into blood-brotherhood with members of the resident Lango tribe, and were now said to be promoting unrest by provoking raids on neighbouring tribes. On the map the rebels’ stronghold is labelled ‘Mutineer’s Village’, identifiable today as a settlement called Oromo.
Detail of (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/55)
Contemporary accounts relate how the British quickly overran the stronghold at the start of the campaign, but the mutineers dispersed through the surrounding country, a region of swampland inundated by early rains and choked with elephant grass up to nine feet high. In terrible conditions constant patrols were maintained throughout the area for a period of four months until all but seven of the mutineers had been captured or killed. The movements of the British columns during this period are meticulously recorded on the sheet in pale red ink.
Subsequently the Lango tribesmen wished to renounce their blood-brotherhood with the mutineers, for which the British devised a de-oathing ceremony. The following extract is taken from the official despatches
‘Dr. Bagshawe, with due formalities, injected a dose of apomorphia into the cicatrix of the incision made in the ‘blood-brotherhood’ rites. This made the patient violently sick in about five minutes. A few nauseous draughts afterwards completed the operation, and the subject’s satisfaction in the breaking of the spell.’
Sir H. Johnston, 'Major Delmé Radcliffe's Map of the Nile Province of the Uganda Protectorate', The Geographical Journal, 21-2 (1903), pp. 162-4.
The London Gazette, September 12, 1902, pp. 5875-8
Harry H. Johnston, The Uganda Protectorate (1902), vol. i, p. 244.
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