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Tracing Sea Routes on Maps: A conversation on the European and Asian contexts with Sara Caputo and Elke Papelitzky

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Two leading experts will discuss the appearance and function of sea routes on European and East Asian maps, showing the interconnections of the early modern global maritime world.

We have all seen tracks marching across the oceans of a map. Have you ever wondered where they came from and why they are there? In this online event, Sara Caputo (Cambridge) and Elke Papelitzky (KU Leuven) will share their ongoing research on route lines on European and East Asian maps, respectively. They will each give a brief presentation, followed by a conversation moderated by Katherine Parker (BLR Antique Maps).


Trailblazers’ wakes: Ship tracks in Western imperial mapping
Sara Caputo, University of Cambridge (UK)

In the ancient and medieval European world, the seas on maps were trackless. The few extant itinerary maps never seem to extend their lines onto the water. In the sixteenth century, however, European mapmakers began to include route lines on their representations of the oceans. These lines were closely linked to the navigational practice of pricking a course on portolan charts. They may have also drawn inspiration from the routes that had long featured in East Asian maritime mapping. However, in a Western context, tracks became a powerful tool to recount individual journeys and establish imperial claims, in relation to developing notions of ‘discovery’. This half of the talk will include some material from Caputo’s forthcoming book, Tracks on the Ocean (under contract with Profile Books).


Red lines in the ocean: Sea routes on early modern East Asian maps
Elke Papelitzky, KU Leuven
Many early modern Chinese, Japanese, and Korean maps draw lines in ocean areas that represent sea routes. These lines appear on maps of a single country, of a larger region, or on maps of the globe. They serve a range of different functions from providing information about (imagined) travel to visually integrating East Asia into global networks, reflecting a perception of East Asian mapmakers of their countries being integrated in these networks. Setting East Asian maps in conversations with European ones shows that when map images shift context between Western Europe and East Asia, the function of the route-lines changes. In the case of East Asian maps, these changes further promote the mapmakers’ narrative of early modern East Asia not being isolated but being a part of the global, maritime world.