27 February 2020

How to Lose a Country, or The Atlas Game

by Eve Fisher

Sometimes it takes a while to catch on to what you're seeing.  I am a map freak.  I love them.  I have a few treasured old atlases, including one from 1918, which came with a pamphlet about the League of Nations tucked away in it.  I also have a world map shower curtain, with all the countries, their capitals, and the occasional other city or natural wonder on it.  It was made in China, so there are a lot of other Chinese cities and of course the Great Wall.  Take a look at it.  Of course there is no Tibet on it - God only knows when that got taken off of Chinese maps, and you won't find it on regular atlases as an independent nation anymore, either.  Sorry, Dalai Lama - China has absorbed it and has no intention of ever reversing the process.

But - something else is missing.

Two countries, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan:

Apparently, they've been absorbed into China, too - they no longer exist, according to this Chinese world map.  Now, you might say, "Hey, it's a shower curtain.  They couldn't include everything."  No.  They've pretty much got everything else, including every country in Africa, even the tiniest ones.  So... makes me wonder, does China have plans?

Let's face facts:  maps are generally the heralds, and always the finales of war, whether waged through words or weapons.  Countries come and go all the time.  They are conquered, absorbed, enlarged, reduced, and sometimes break apart all on their own.   Remember Czechoslovakia?  Yugoslavia?

Location of Poland
OCHA - Locator map of Poland.
In Europe, the most notorious example of this is Poland, which was partitioned up between Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1772.  For the next 123 years, Poland and Lithuania pretty much ceased to exist as sovereign nations.  In 1898, a map of Europe was published in Poland that had no Poland on it.  (See Here)  Finally, in 1918, Poland returned as a country!.  In 1939, it was occupied by Germany, which divided it up with the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union set up a People's Republic of Poland, under the U.S.S.R., from 1945-1989.  Poland, as a sovereign nation, returned in 1989, and is still here.  So far.

Notice its neighbors.  Putin has been indicating that Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania all still belong within the Russian embrace.  The map may change again...

And sometimes countries "just get left off" of maps.  New Zealand has a running quarrel with a number of atlases, which keep leaving them off.  Apparently many mapmakers (including one of New Zealand's own) don't find it that important, which is sad, considering that it's Middle Earth.  (Atlas Obscura)  

Map of the United States with Michigan highlighted
(Wikipedia Link)
In 1989, the latest Rand McNally atlas left out South Dakota, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. ″It was an editorial decision,″ said Con Erickson, a public relations representative in Rand McNally’s Skokie, Ill., office.  Oh, well...

We managed to find South Dakota without them when we moved here in 1990.  (AP)  And all three states got back in the next year.  I think.  Maybe I should go check.

We should probably also check for the Upper Peninsula, which also seems to get lost on atlases.  Oh, it may be there in the big USA map up front (see above), but is there always a detailed map of the UP?  Apparently not.  (NPR)  Which might lead some people to think that you just can't get there from here.  Wherever you are.  Especially if you're in South Dakota or Oklahoma.  

Maps change.  Atlases change.  The world changes.  

Here's the history of Europe showing the borders and populations of each country in Europe, for every year since 400 BC:

Here's one for the Middle East from the dawn of time until the current day:

Here's the history of Africa:

And Asia:

And the shortest one of all, North America:

"All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means."
- Zhou Enlai

And, apparently, cartography as well.


  1. Interesting. I've always been fascinated with maps ever since I started studying maps in junior high and high school classes during boring lessons in classes I could not pay attention in - Spanish, Geometry and any other math class. We studied geography in school when I was young but not today. Mant young people have no idea where countries are located and cannot locate them on a map. Many don't know the difference between a country and a city. Africa is not a county.

    Nice posting.

  2. A fresh and enlightening look at maps. Who knew they could be so prophetic!

  3. I find maps interesting, too. And use them a lot while researching things I'm writing. But I have to wonder if it was on purpose or not that most of those places you mentioned were left off. Tibet for sure was on purpose. I wonder about the others.

  4. Fascinating! I too love maps, always have. Great column, Eve.

  5. O'Neil, I took geography in school, too. I remember the fateful year (sometime in the 60s) when we'd just learned all the countries and capitals in Africa - and then a handful changed. We were so mad... but we were snotty jr. high, so what else is new?
    Thanks Janice, John, Paul.
    One other thing I noticed, just now - China also swallowed up a big chunk of Kazakhstan! Something is definitely brewing...

  6. As a recovering map librarian I love this. I lso want to boost this hilarious sketch which is mentioned in one of the articles you link to: https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2018/may/02/off-the-map-new-zealand-tourism-ad-takes-on-conspiracy-video

  7. Wow. I also love looking at maps. Once, when I lived somewhere I hated, I used to look at the map of the state, of all the roads leading out of there to my future, somewhere out there.

  8. A terrific read. I love maps too, Eve. I especially like old maps of LA. Before the internet took over you had to have a Thomas Guide if you didn’t want to get lost in the great LA sprawl. The TG was a Brittanica sized book of LA street maps, and they made driving kinda fun. Miss em!

  9. Wow. I'm glad someone's paying attention.

    I can offer two other bits of map trivia. Some map publishers add in anomalies such as a bogus street name. They do this deliberately in case a completing cartographer plagiarizes their work.

    If a local area suddenly sprouts a new name, Google might be responsible. When they can't identify a neighborhood, they might ask the first person they see for a name or they might pull a name from a street sign. That happened to a nearby neighborhood here. Not knowing what to call it, Google apparently named it Fairview Shores after the shortest street in the area, a street just a few feet long.

  10. Rob, great sketch.
    Barb, that may be some of my fascination with maps, too - how do I get out of here? Or, how did I get here?
    Lawrence, I used to be navigator for my father, who had the worst sense of direction ever. He used Triple AAA maps, the ones with the green highlighted route, and he would STILL get lost. So I learned my way around local, state, and national maps early.
    Leigh, thanks for the info about Google. And bogus street names... Wow.


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