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Cartographica Helvetica


Theme: Missionary cartography

Cartographica Helvetica 58 (2019)


Missionary societies emerged as a reaction by engaged Christians in the orient to reports of the existence of non-occidental, non-Christian cultures. Based on the Great Commission by Jesus (Matthew 28, 18–20), the movement was created with the purpose of educating and sending out missionaries. Thus, it was possible to promote and spread Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Originally, the Mission of Basel was founded in 1815 with the aim of training missionaries in a seminary, who would then work for other organizations overseas. The conception and development of geographic knowledge was essential for the goals, the activities and the voyages of the missionaries, particularly when they began traveling into the back countries. The creation, distribution and use of maps depict that the last third of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th centuries can be considered as the prime of missionary cartography.

For a number of ethnic groups and belief systems, maps serve not only as an orientation aid in a clearly defined physical space. This is also true for the Ngaju people of the Dayak nation in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. Their representation of the 'superior world' and the 'inferior world' is characterized by cosmographic relationships and moral principles. The shown example (approx. 1930) includes a wide variety of symbolism which – considering the viewpoint of the Ngaju – illustrate and explain humanity in a physical and spiritual form.

The Historical Museum in Lucerne is in possession of a mysterious Jesuit cartographic representation. The world map by Johann Baptist Cysat is a hand-colored, inverse copper engraving mounted on canvas and attached to a wooden disc, whereby the two buttons for operating the disc are missing. It consists of six sheets, cut in a circular manner and assembled to a disc with a diameter of 100 cm. Two sets of numbers from I to XII encircle the map in a counterclockwise direction. The map itself is mounted in a square wooden shrine, each side measuring 130 cm. A polar, stereographic azimuthal map projection was chosen to represent the map. The center of projection is the north pole, from which the map is projected onto the tangential plane of the south pole. The center of the map is the south pole; the observer is fictionally positioned inside the globe. The map was not intended to indicate geographic longitudes and latitudes but to show the time of day of the different peoples and the locations of where the Society of Jesus was present. The names of the Jesuit martyrs are noted on the edges of the map and provided with a letter of the alphabet indicating the place where the missionaries had died.

The geographic expansion of the world in the 19th century is usually associated with celebrated explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt, Heinrich Barth or Gerhard Rohlfs who disclosed their geographic findings and discoveries through various publishing houses. Little is known, however, that the wide range of products from the geographic publishing house Justus Perthes not only included individual maps, the atlases by Stieler and Berghaus as well as notable journals but also cartographic works from the mission environment. Besides Reinhold Grundemann's Allgemeiner Missionsatlas which was probably the most encompassing work of this nature, these were primarily reports and maps from the Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes' Geographischer Anstalt. It can be said that the cartographic works created by missionaries represented a not-to-be-underestimated contribution to the last great geographic discoveries of the world. As the 19th century – along with the 'age of discoveries' and the 'century of missionaries' – came to a close, missionary cartography slowly lost its significance. Over time, it also vanished from view of scientific research.

Beginning in the 1830s, the protestant missionary societies pioneered in editing special atlases, both internationally as well as in the German-speaking regions. It was not until the last quarter of the 19th century that catholic-oriented cartography started to appear. The beginnings are related to the edition of the magazine Die katholischen Missionen by the Jesuits. For the volumes 1881 and 1882, Alexander Baumgartner SJ, drafted four maps of the missions in East Asia. He was a talented topographer himself, but since his main interest was set in literary studies, he delegated this growing project to Oscar Werner SJ. From 1884 to 1886, Werner published the first catholic missionary atlas in several German and French editions. In 1888, he combined the non-missionary countries of the universal church in a complimentary Catholic Church Atlas.

The 'Society of the Divine Word' (Societas Verbi Divini SVD), also known as 'Steyl missionaries', was founded in 1875 by Arnold Janssen and is the oldest and largest German catholic missionary society. The members of the society were particularly renowned for their scientific studies in ethnology and linguistics of non-European countries. The Steyl fathers played a major part in clerical-catholic cartography for over a century, which has up to now received little attention. The first milestone was a wall map of the Africa Mission (1903) by Hubert Hansen SVD. Karl Streit SVD became its central figure. His Katholischer Missionsatlas was published in 1906 as a bilingual edition in German and French. Streit also published the Atlas hierarchicus which gained a semi-official character as the 'atlas of the universal church'. After having been in exile in Switzerland during World War II, the Steyl cartographers of the SVD gained renewed prominence and published several atlases under Heinrich Emmerich. He was considered as the 'Vatican's ultimate cartographer'. The 6th edition of the Atlas hierarchicus from 2011 concludes a century-old tradition.

Translation by Christine Studer

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