Before Franz Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss there was . . . William Channing Woodbridge!?!?
Historians credit both Boas and Lévi-Strauss, among others, as having developed the field of social anthropology into a modern academic discipline, one established on empirical research and sound reasoning. Prior to their revolutionary work, however, social anthropology in the West consisted of a jumble of enlightenment concepts, arcane ideas, scientific mismeasurements and misconstructions, and admixtures of natural history and moral philosophy. Those trends, sometimes disparate but often confluent, betrayed larger currents of imperial hubris, racial and moral condescension, intellectual ambiguity, and academic puerility. Their drift, on the other hand, influenced virtually every contemporaneous thinker and creator in the West, including an obscure geographic educator of young women and the deaf from Connecticut named William Channing Woodbridge (1794-1854).
In September 1821 Woodbridge prepared and entered for copyright two somewhat similar maps, one of which was a Moral and Political Chart of the Inhabited World. That map was included in Woodbridge’s School Atlas, a companion for his textbook, Rudiments of Geography, co-authored with another geographic educator, Emma Willard. With the map, Woodbridge attempted to pull off a novel feat of cartographic pedagogy, one that classified the earth’s inhabitants by cultural hierarchies, i.e., religion, form of government, degree of civilization, and national population.
In looking at the map above, which is from the 1831 edition of the School Atlas, we initially are struck by the obvious tonal varieties and symbol shapes that spread across the globe. The world’s countries and regions appear to the eye as a variegated amalgam of black, greys, and whites, as well a curious combination of textures that apparently underlie some sort of code.
A closer inspection reveals that Woodbridge’s symbolism indeed is coded, as it equates ethnicity with levels of civilization and religion. His map divides the world into ethno-religious regions in which groups of people are identified as being in various stages of moral and political development. Although the symbolic structure is logical, the thinking behind it was scientifically unsound.
The cartographer’s methodology is revealed in the “Key to the Emblems,” which denotes the prevailing social features of each nation. A hierarchical scale, ranging across five degrees of qualification, categorizes people as savage, barbarous, half-civilized, civilized, and enlightened. The tonality of the emblem keys, and to a lesser extent their shapes, are also informative: the five scales decrease in tonal value as the level of civilization ostensibly increases, whereas the shapes of the symbols change with each degree. Savages are represented by densely crossed horizontal and vertical lines as black; barbarians as densely spaced horizontal lines as grey; the half civilized are given a brick pattern to achieve a lighter shade of grey; the civilized are depicted with dense stippling to present a lower percentage of black than the half civilized; while the enlightened are represented as having a white center surrounded by loose stippling. One can only imagine the French cartographic theorist, Jacques Bertin, appreciating this primeval symbolic scheme but blanching at its application.
Furthermore, forms of government and religion are symbolized according to scale, as well, with monarchical or imperial systems being rewarded with the highest form of rule and colonists the lowest, whereas Christians occupy the upper levels of spiritual fulfillment and pagans inhabit the depths.
Accordingly, the segment above illustrates seventy percent of North America as being decidedly savage, except for the South and the East, whose 13 million Americans and Europeans, in addition to 2 million African slaves, enjoy a Christian Republican status.
We are informed that South America, likewise, contains “chiefly Indians, half-civilized or barbarous, with some Spaniards or Portuguese,” with fields of Republican Catholics surrounding dark pockets of Patagonian and Amazonian savages.
Our murky understanding of Africans, whose population and territorial figures are also conjectured, ostensibly clarifies as Woodbridge reports them to be “chiefly Pagans & Mahometans,” while the African continent is shaded as being mostly in a barbarous state.
Asia, which is supposed to consist of “300 to 600 millions of inhabitants,” is a land of “Pagans & Mohometans in a half civilized or barbarous state,” whose level of civilization decreases, disproportionately to the rising of the latitudes, from half-civilized to savage.
Two southern corner insets depict Central Europe as glowing with enlightenment and the Pacific Rim as predominately barbarous and savage.
In light of these assertions and symbols, the map essentially presents the viewer with a fixed set of cultural features on the assumption that they are static, localized phenomena which respond to a geographic value system aligned with some rational agenda. The cartographer clearly has no truck with shifting interests, mixed ancestry, or those of wavering faith.
To our modern sensibilities, Woodbridge’s classification scheme and moralizing are patently absurd. Yet, they were wholly pertinent within the intellectual and political climate of Europe and America in the nineteenth century. Incipient anthropologists misinterpreted data to conclude that the races were static rather than evolutionary, from which they further deduced that the races had emerged as discrete species. Natural scientists, like Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, essentially endowed races with different attributes and classified them on the basis of climate zones. Under his system, the races were of separate origin, and lent themselves naturally to classification by assessments of moral, social, and cultural character, which were further grounded in biology. Even humanists, such as historian Francis Parkman, credited by many weighty authorities as the doyenne of American “scientific history,” invented a moral universe of civilized colonials waged in battle with natives, mere innocents of the wilderness, who inexorably crumbled beneath the progress of western civilization.
It behooves us to remember that Woodbridge, though not a scientist, was also not entirely without the virtue of foresight. His work with the disabled and hearing-impaired enabled him to discover maps as an ideal vehicle for delivering information visually.
He was also willing to include the latest geographical ideas in his textbooks and atlases, having adopted the style of isomorphic mapping devised by the great German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt. In 1823 he published the first world isothermal chart (seen above), based upon Humboldt’s research, which had established a definite relationship between mean annual temperature and place.
Woodbridge was also a lifelong evangelical Christian, invoking scripture in his belief that “all races are brethren of the same family,” and attributed their differences to climate, food, dress, modes of living, and impartially understood causes, as reported in his Rudiments of Geography . . . In the case of his Moral and Political Chart, however, his intellectual rigor was no match for his religious sensibilities, while he seemed susceptible to the effects of environmental determinism reverberating from the previous century.
If nothing else, the Moral & Political Chart, with its overriding flaws, is a relic of an earlier era and reflects its prejudices. It drew upon the prevailing social and cultural milieu for its ideas concerning humankind, which predated anthropology’s transformation into a science. Woodbridge had surely demonstrated an interest in making the latest scientific research available by incorporating another’s findings into his own work (we hope with Humboldt’s approval, of course). But his notions of race, though repugnant, regurgitate dogma then prevalent in the West. For whatever reason, he possessed little interest in challenging the existing western ideas of political and cultural geography.
Woodbridge produced his chart to both instruct school children and inform a general adult audience. The Moral and Political Chart of the World appeared in several states within multiple editions of both his School Atlas and his Modern Atlas between 1821 and 1843. Their publication run suggests a commercial appeal to educators and a semi-literate public in the eastern United States. In all editions of those atlases The Moral and Political Chart of the Inhabited World is, of course, only one of several world, continental, regional, thematic maps that are included.
If we really need to assess blame for the map’s shortcomings, it may be prudent to cast a wider net, in which case we would likely capture broader systems of western scientific and political institutions that served to diminish human rights and negate cultural pluralism. In many ways those systems remain the legacy of our intellectual forebears, even those who designed maps. And, like bad genes, they have been passed down us, and continue to inform some of our current thinking about places and peoples.