Getting Lost: The Controversy over Andrew Duminy’s Mapping South Africa

  • Posted on October 19, 2012

The book makes a modest promise: it will be in wide-ranging survey of maps and charts published in and about South Africa. We are primed to expect, as in all surveys, gaps, biases, disappointments, discoveries and surprises. The author too makes modest promises: Prof. Andrew Duminy, Emeritus Professor of History at UKZN, told the North Coast Courier that he is an “interested amateur” writing for other “interested amateurs,” and that he wanted to “‘tell the story’ behind the maps in order to explain the changes that took place as far as accuracy and detail are concerned.” He wanted, the Courier continues, to write a book that was “easily understandable to the layman.” (1) And the layman, or at least the lay book reviewer was delighted: critics called it “exquisitely presented” and “well-researched,” and praised its “many delights.”(2)

But laymen and women are not the only readers that Duminy anticipates. In the preface, he acknowledges the dangers involved in embarking on his project, mapping out in advance for the explorer of its pages the many potential hazards of the journey for both author and reader: “It has been necessary for me to enter such specialised fields as cartography, nautical navigation, astro-navigation, photogrammetry, land and marine survey, geology, botany, printing, and microwave and radio technology. The possibilities for error are endless. The mistakes I have made will I hope be forgiven by experts in these fields.”(3)

They have not been forgiven—the publication of the book unleashed a firestorm of criticism from experts, who berated the author for what were seen as the book’s many errors. In a scathing conclusion to his review of the book for the trade magazine, Geomatics World, Jim Smith writes that “books on technical topics should be left to those knowledgeable in the subject and not dabbled in by authors more proficient in writing fiction.” The book, he continues “cannot be recommended.”(4) Roger Stewart, a Cape Town map collector, concurs, concluding that he “cannot recommend Mapping South Africa to map collectors or anyone else interested in the title,” and attaching a preliminary list of errors in the book. The only way to redeem Duminy’s book, Stewart insists, is through an “extensive rewrite and then peer review.” (5)  The lack of peer review, common in academic books but not in popular books, is a point of contention for Prof. Elri Liebenberg too. Liebenberg, who is the Chair of the Commission on the History of Cartography of the International Cartographic Association, told the readers of Position IT, a technical journal for surveyors and allied professionals, that the book was “spoiled” by its mistakes. “Many of the sinkholes he fell into,” she writes,  “could have been filled up beforehand if the manuscript had been given to knowledgeable people to read and make recommendations before publication. With this not done, the value of the book has been seriously compromised.” The result of these errors and the lack of expert review is that while “laypeople disinterested in the validity of scientific and historical facts might find the book a worthwhile acquisition, serious students of the history of astronomy, geodesy, surveying and cartography should be warned to treat with the utmost circumspection.”(6) Of course, neither Duminy nor Jacana appears to have intended this as a book for “serious students” of these fields, rather as an entertaining and informative read for laypeople, who probably care about the “validity of scientific and historical facts” a great deal more than Liebenberg imagines. They too will be dismayed to find approximately 150 errors in just 134 pages. (7)

Duminy and Russell Martin of Jacana Media immediately responded to the criticisms leveled at the book by the experts. In a letter to the Pretoria News they wrote, “as author and publisher of this book, we’d like to make it clear that the criticisms have emanated not from a number of individuals but from a small group of professional associates acting in concert…The provisional list [of errors] is an exercise in hair-splitting, nit-picking and the manufacture of error: it turns differences of opinions into mistakes on the author’s part (the book asserts that Thomas Baines was a great Victorian cartographer; they disagree, therefore this is a ‘mistake’).”(8) The point is well taken—a difference of opinion does not an error make. The author and publisher are, however, being somewhat disingenuous in singling out this particular “error,” as there are many, less ambiguous mistakes. But some are indeed minor. Liebenberg points out that “Sir David Gill was Her Majesty’s Astronomer and not the Royal Astronomer.”(9) Although the distinction would probably have mattered a great deal to Sir David, it seems now quite slight and probably unimportant. I won’t rehearse any more of the actual and imagined errors in the book beyond noting the fact that this “interested amateur,” a student of the history of cartography in another part of the colonised world, noticed some glaring errors in the first few pages, which coloured my reading of the rest of the book.

As a student of literature, however, I am sympathetic to a response that Duminy made to Liebenberg’s review in Position IT, in which he argued that a book “is not a mere sequence of facts or details, and does not stand or fall solely by their accuracy. This is not to deny the importance of factual correctness, but I’d argue that a book is as much about argument, insight, understanding, interpretation, historical imagination, and many more things as about facts.”(10) This is just as true of a work of non-fiction as of fiction—it is the writer’s task to craft a compelling narrative that will provoke thought, criticism, reaction and further scholarship. The apologia, or defence, in the preface as much as acknowledges this task, inviting even while it appeals against the attacks of the experts. Duminy’s argument and his response to Liebenberg bears traces of the philosophical interventions of post-structuralists into the practice of history writing, echoing Hayden White’s and Dominic La Capra’s insights about the importance of narrative to historical writing, and the complex interweaving of story-telling with fact-finding that defines the discipline of History in which Duminy was formed.

But the terms of Duminy’s defence of his book came as a surprise to me, after having read Mapping South Africa. The book, I read in the preface, aims to document “the quest to create accurate two-dimensional drawings of the earth’s surface.”(11) In this one sentence Duminy aligns his argument with a very particular strain of work in the field of the history of cartography, and indeed the history of science—the implication of this approach is that the history of mapmaking is teleological, and that the science of cartography moves inexorably, though perhaps haltingly, from a benighted past to an enlightened present. The telos, or goal, is the accurate or scientific map, which emerges in the late nineteenth century, and is gloriously confirmed in the age of satellite mapping techniques that can prove beyond doubt the actual position of every square centimetre on the face of the earth. Cartography leaps from one discovery to the next, leading inevitably to the modern map.

This is an appealing narrative, and not without its reasons and merit. But it is not the only way to write the history of cartography. Recent trends in the field, set in motion by the post-structuralist-inspired work of J.B. Harley in the 1980s and 1990s, and significantly refined by the excellent work of scholars like Matthew Edney, have recognised and celebrated the social aspects of the science of cartography, introducing semiotics, hermeneutics and interpretation as new methodologies in the field. Recognising that early (and indeed current) maps may tell us a lot more about the world view of the cartographer and his or her society than about the physical landscape, many historians of cartography have found that the more compelling story of maps relates to their social formation rather than their contribution to science. Thus, we learn about the place of maps as agents, not descriptors, of colonisation, or as imaginative documents expressed in scientific terms. Duminy nods to this kind of history in the first couple of chapters of the book, which gives a breathless account of the intersecting histories of exploration and mapmaking, but by chapter 3 he settles into a blow by blow account of “advances” in mapmaking in southern Africa.

I don’t mean to suggest that Duminy has somehow failed to grasp new trends in the discipline, or that it is wrong to document mapmaking as a scientific and not a social practice, but to point out that Duminy’s insistence in his defence of the book on the power of narrative allies him with a post-structuralist approach to cartographic history that is not echoed in Mapping South Africa. As much as the controversy over the book is partially the story of a misfit between the book and its actual audience (not “interested amateurs,” it appears), there is a tension within the book itself between spinning a good yarn and writing an accurate book about scientific accuracy. Much of the confusion that has arisen about this book can be attributed to the fact that it is a coffee table book for a popular audience, yet it contains a great deal of technical information. It is filled with information that the layperson will find difficult to understand and yet it is not sufficiently technical, nor accurate, to pass as a book that will offer new information to the field. Falling between two stools, it offers little for either reader. Recent books like Dava Sobel’s Longitude or Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation have translated extremely technical detail into readable language for readers. It seems that Duminy may have been trying to do the same.

This question of accuracy bedevils this book. It is ironic that Duminy is accused of inaccuracies, for his entire story is about the quest for accuracy. We get some inkling of the magnetic power of the idea of “modern science” and its accomplishments early on in the book, when Duminy writes that a 1719 map of the Cape by Peter Kolbe “falls very short…of the standards required by modern science.”(12) Of course it does. Anything produced before the era of modern science (whenever that began) will fall short when measured against an as-yet undefined goal—every mile run before Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mark fell short of the standards of the modern mile. But that’s not to say that the only story to be told about running miles is a story of how we got to Bannister. The end-point for Duminy (as for many others, including his most trenchant critics) is modern science, and everything before that is doomed to be relegated to a realm called the pre-modern. Rather than judging Kolbe on the cultural norms and scientific standards of the day, which might yield a nuanced and compelling reading of his maps, Duminy breezes past his map as just one more obstacle to be overcome on the road to progress.

And things did indeed progress, as inevitably they must if the goal is to describe how we got to where we are today. We learn that “the first reasonably accurate map of Natal was drawn in 1855 by J. Alfred Watts.” It is, on the face of it, an unremarkable statement, and it is backed up by the sentence that follows, which provides some definition of what Duminy means by “accurate”: “Many positions…were located by their geodetic coordinates.” This concept of accuracy is rather thin. I was grateful for the definition, as I felt that the meaning of the word had, until this point, been taken as a given. But what, precisely, does it mean? Accuracy in mapmaking may mean fidelity to cultural norms (placing Mecca at the centre of the map, if you are an Islamic mapmaker, for example) or it may mean fidelity to perceived notions of space (representing Europe as proportionately larger on a world map, as we often see today). It may mean colouring the countries of the British empire red, or indicating rivers by blue lines that are out of proportion to the width of the river. All of these practices are accurate in that they faithfully follow a list of conventions that are no more or less ridiculous than any conventions—they are the conventions of mapmaking, and it is these conventions that allow map readers to interpret and act upon the information that they receive from the map. If the map does not conform to conventions it can be read as inaccurate.

But Duminy appears to mean something quite different by “accuracy”—his approach is almost exclusively linked to what is called “planimetric accuracy.”(13) Planimetric accuracy is determined by the difference between the positioning of features on a map and their “true” position, as determined using modern surveying methods like the Global Positioning System. In this conception, there is no recognition of the artistic nature of mapping, or the fundamental differences between map and landscape. What we have, then, is a book that cleaves to a very narrow, scientific definition of accuracy, that doesn’t take social forces into account, and yet the author, when faced with accusations of inaccuracy, professes a much more expansive and capacious understanding of the concept of “truth.” Duminy is not dissembling when he speaks about the importance of historical imagination, but he appears to allow the subjects of his book, the cartographers, little leeway when it comes to imagination. Instead of interrogating why their maps deviate from today’s norms, and making this book a story of the cultural history of mapmaking in South Africa, Duminy holds them to one standard of accuracy and himself to another.

Duminy’s book has unleashed a storm of criticism that, on the one hand, correctly points out historical errors, but in another way points to a policing of the boundaries of what is, and is not, the field of the history of cartography. The book itself straddles several theoretical approaches and genres, not fully inhabiting either. I don’t want to place too much weight on Mapping South Africa, but there is a way in which it is a parable for South African scholarship, and an indicator of what makes the academy in South Africa (errors of fact notwithstanding) so exciting, for the tensions we see not just in the book but also and more particularly in the subsequent controversy, are indicators of a country and an academy on the cusp, teetering between devotion to Euro-American models of scholarship and a new, emerging theory from the Global South. Duminy’s book doesn’t claim to be emerging, nor does it make any claims about theory from the South, but its production of an anxiety about the sources, method, evidence, questions and audience for scholarly writing is a compelling index of the tensions of the South African academy. Maybe the real story that needs to be told about mapping South Africa and other corners of the Global South should emerge from an entirely new archive and in entirely new forms unrecognisable to today’s scholars of the history of cartography. This controversy might be asking us to re-evaluate the stories we tell, how we tell them, and to whom we tell them.

Duminy, Andrew. Mapping South Africa: A Historical Survey of South African Maps and Charts. Johannesburg: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd. 134 pages. ISBN 978-1-4314-0221-2. R295.

Cóilín Parsons, Georgetown University .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  (1) http://www.northcoastcourier.co.za/2012/01/18/the-story-behind-the-maps/
See also http://jacana.bookslive.co.za/blog/2012/01/31/andrew-duminy-wrote-mapping-south-africa-for-interested-amateurs/
  (2) Business Day, 1 February 2012, p. 35; Weekend Post, 31 March 2012, p. 11; Sunday Times, 26 February 2012, p. 15.
For these and other reviews see http://www.jacana.co.za/media/media-reviews/1067-mapping-south-africa-by-andrew-duminy
  (3) Mapping South Africa, p. 7
  (4) Geomatics World. March/April 2012, pp. 34-37.
  (5) Position IT, March 2012. http://eepublishers.co.za/article/andrew-duminy-183.html 
  (6) Position IT, March 2012. http://eepublishers.co.za/article/andrew-duminy-183.html
  (7) Liebenberg’s estimate of the number of errors appears in email correspondence between Prof. Elri Liebenberg and Mr. Russell Martin.
  (8) Pretoria News, 30 March 2012, p. 18. http://www.gate5.co.za/qv/pr/15860249/18379488/0/p
  (9) http://eepublishers.co.za/article/andrew-duminy-183.html
  (10) Position IT, March 2012. http://eepublishers.co.za/article/authors-response-to-book-review-by-prof.html
  (11) Mapping South Africa, p. 5
  (12) Mapping South Africa, p. 25. Liebenberg questions whether the map in question was actually originally produced by Kolbe: http://eepublishers.co.za/article/andrew-duminy-183.html
  (13) Email correspondence between Prof. Elri Liebenberg and Mr. Russell Martin.
  (14) For a discussion and illustration of this concept see http://www.e-perimetron.org/Vol_1_3/Jenny.pdf



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