This week’s readings couldn’t be more dissimilar on the surface. The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester and Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall are very different stories. As I pondered to find commonality – I realized it is the difference between them that I found merit and will explore. I will briefly highlight a few significant differences between the two books and then jump to a related topic that is very much related to the research I’ve been doing all week for my NPO.
First, let’s review the differences between the two books. In Winchester’s work, The Map, we read the story of a man, William Smith, from humble beginnings who spent his entire life chasing his vision. In Prisoners of Geography, it is implied that the men are from means or ultimately amassed great wealth. Based on the story of Smith in The Map, he was cheated, copied by competitors, imprisoned, and humbled beyond anything I could ever imagine; I suspect that the type of men in Prisoners would probably have been the sort to cheat Smith. More on the men in Marshall’s book later.
The second significant difference is the type of visionaries these men were. Prisoners doesn’t have any main characters. We are provided high-level stories about how the ten significant maps of the world have been drawn. So I have to use my imagination based on the outcomes of their collective actions. So, back to the types of visionaries. In The Map, Smith was such a visionary that it’s almost as though he had a virtual reality thing going on in his mind that he could “see” the geological strata. His passion was to bring that 3D image in his mind’s eye to reality, and he did it at a tremendous personal sacrifice. The men in Prisoners also had a vision – but I suspect it had more to do with envisioning dollar signs being carried all the way to the bank. These two types of main characters couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
What resonated with me, though, was the Prisoners of Geography book. I read several chapters, but the United States and Africa chapters were maddening. Let me explain. I just finished researching the physical, psychological, and spiritual impact of racism on people of color, particularly in this country. The research had quite a bit of historical data because it detailed the long-term generational impact of traumatic fear based racism. Prisoners of Geography also has a historical aspect that unconscionably boasts of nations stealing other countries and brutalizing any and all who stand in the way.
Hence, another title for Prisoners of Geography could be Nation Building 101. The historical account of how America spread from coast to coast was impressive. Yet simultaneously, it completely glossed over the atrocities committed to building a nation. Of course, that wasn’t in the author’s purview to provide an in-depth analysis of what happened. But at some point, just like how we learned, one could use statistics to say something entirely different, so it is with words when you leave things out. For example, on page 75 of Prisoners, Marshall writes, “their descendants (Europeans) would go on to deny the native inhabitants their freedom, but that was not the intention from the first settlers.” I guess that was a way of apologizing or acknowledging that something had happened to the native inhabitants. In truth, before Europeans started arriving in 1492, there were 150 million native inhabitants. By the 1900s, there were only 250,000. And today, Native Americans have suffered the most historical genocide ever committed in the world, and as a people group, they are still reeling from the effects. Then there is the reference to the Homestead Act on page 76 – where European immigrants were offered 160 acres of federally owned farmland to continue building up the country. The Homestead Act was in 1862, just three years shy of the end of the Civil War – which meant that Blacks were still in slavery and were utterly disenfranchised from the free land.
One final point on nation-building as I move to the continent of Africa. Marshall writes on page 116 how unsuccessful Africa was overall in terms of progress. And, he ties the lack of progress to Africa’s isolation. I mentally understand that the purpose of this book is not to discuss colonialism but rather maps. Still, implying Africa was not as far along as other countries was not entirely accurate. That is potentially an irrational justification. In her book, Trauma of Racism, Alisha Moreland-Capuia, writes Europeans nations divided up lands (in Africa) that were not theirs. It had deleterious political, economic, social, and cultural implications for the entire continent…it has contributed to the unnecessary trauma, loss, and disruption of sacred beliefs and practices.
While nation-building is suitable for drawing maps, it completely glosses over and, sometimes, whitewashes the profound effects on the people left in its wake.
 Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, (New York, Harper Collins, 2001), 192 – 193.
 Ibid., 193.
 A. Mike Aragon, “A Clinical Understanding of Urban American Indians,” In T. M. Witko (Ed.), Mental health care for urban Indians: Clinical insights from Native practitioners (pp. 19–31). American Psychological Association: 19, https://doi.org/10.1037/11422-001
 Alisha Moreland-Capuia, The Trauma of Racism: Exploring the Systems and People Fear Built, (Cham: Springer, 2021), 153.