For the past 450 years (since 1569), the dominant educational maps used to teach students and mariners where global land masses are in relation to each other, are the Mercator maps. Pioneered in Europe by the early German-Flemish cartographer and map-maker Geert de Kremer (now known as Gerardus Mercator), this standard map projection has helped to enshrine the idea that the biggest, most centrally-located countries, were the best countries. It is a known and accepted principle in international politics that ‘the representation of power and the power of representation’ more often count more than power itself.

Thus the size disproportionalities on the Mercator map taught to virtually every American school child since the 1900s has consistently verified the “rightness” of the Western civilization version of the nation-state system, empire and colonialism. The Mercator map (a European-made map for European purposes) is a highly useful map projection that helped sea captains and mariners traverse the oceans between land masses. The biggest problem with the Mercator projection has always been the distorted proportionalities of those land masses.

Greenland, for example, typically looks as large as Africa on the Mercator map. In actuality, Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland. In fact, all of the USA, China, India, Japan and virtually all of Europe could fit comfortably inside the land contours of Africa. But the typical Mercator map diminishes the size of Africa, and expands the size of the USA and Europe. Even Canada looks to be as big as Africa on the map, while all of North America, including Canada, could actually fit into Africa twice, with room to spare.

The Mercator map’s disproportionalities in the land mass sizes were not accidental. Indeed, the type of map Mercator produced from using parallel lines and right angles to show longitudes and latitudes on flat paper, when put onto a global base, heavily distorted the extremities, particularly at the poles. It created large gaps and confusing spaces. Correcting for that on a spherical globe meant distorting several of the land masses for the map to work. Those distortions were also great for propaganda purposes.

The arrangement on the map introduced the caveat that American and European domination of the world, from the British empire onwards, is right and proper. The best countries look the biggest and the most dominant on the map. The map is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy—those countries in charge of the world should be in charge. The world should revolve around them. The Mercator projection map’s enlargement of Canada, Russia, the USA and Europe, among others, and the diminution of Africa, make those first areas and countries seem more important, powerful and valuable than the diminished areas of the map—the principle of representation.

In many USA schools, since the 1970s, a more modern map has been used in order to correct this educational anomaly. The map is called the Gall-Peters or Peters projection map. It is much more accurate in terms of the comparative sizes of countries and continents, but still distorts the shapes of the land masses. If a student wants to flummox a public school teacher, ask about the Gall-Peters map.

Creating a perfectly proportionate map is probably an impossibility, since the earth is not a ball-shape entity, but is rather a spherical-potato shape. But the Peters map at least makes a major shift in the distorted proportionalities of the land mass sizes. Africa is the world’s second largest continent (behind Asia). It should not look to be the size of Canada or the USA. It should not appear to be a diminished and diminishing presence in the world. Africa is rising, but pictures are still powerful.

By the way, the Mercator map is still the basis for Google maps, Open Street Maps and Bing maps.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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