Satirical maps

Satirical maps of the world

Objective geographical representation isn’t always the intention of maps – they can also provide social, economic or political commentary on a region, as British Library maps curator, Tom Harper discusses.

What is a satirical map?

All maps contain some sort of message about the world. Satirical maps, however, are a particularly opinionated genre of cartography. A satirical map is an illustration with a cartographic element that has been produced specifically to make a comment upon the social, economic or political state of things.

The ‘map’ element of these illustrations might include the shape of a country or continent, a feature such as a forest or city, or even a physical object such as a wall map or a globe.

'The Plumb-pudding in danger – or – State Epicures taking un Petit Souper' by Gillray

The Plumb-pudding in danger - or - State Epicures taking un Petit Souper' by Gillray [page: facing p. 56]

A Napoleonic wars satire featuring a globe

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Until relatively recently, these satirical maps, with their exaggerated pictorial appearance, were excluded from the cartographic canon because they lacked the requisite scientific and mathematically objective qualities it was felt essential for a map to possess.

The changing needs of a modern-day map

Over the past quarter of a century however, the way we define maps has widened to the point that maps need only be 'graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world' (Harley, 1987: xvi). Many acknowledge today that although satirical maps may not describe a place with scientific precision, their symbolic and artistic methods of capturing truths about the world are just as valid.

In this article, we will look at a selection of satirical maps of the 20th century, and discover why they look the way they do and what messages they were trying to convey. We will pay particular attention to a group of satirical maps known as metamorphosed maps. In these maps, the shapes of nations or landmasses have changed (metamorphosed) into people, animals or objects which capture the characteristics of a person, nation or group.

We will examine the range of their messages, from criticising national governments and religious authorities to lampooning current trends or fashions. If these functions sound all too familiar, then it is because we occasionally see their descendants – political cartoons which often incorporate maps – within the pages of current newspapers and magazines. This is the story of where they came from.

Early examples of satirical maps from 7th century onwards

Meanings have been embedded within maps for a very long time. For example, the allegorical and symbolic meanings of world maps or mappaemundi from the Middle Ages were far more important than any mathematical accuracy.

With the exceptions of the 13th-century Opicinus de Canistris and even older representations of the constellations, the earliest metamorphic maps were printed maps included in literary and satirical works in Northern Europe during the 16th century. These were part of a literary tradition which used satire and metaphor to comment on morality and religion during the turbulent Reformation period.

One of the most famous is the map by Ambrosius Holbein included in the 1518 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia.

Thomas More's Utopia

Utopia Insulae Tabula

In this map the island of Utopia is drawn in the shape of a human skull as a memento mori device (picture the side of the ship as the skull’s teeth)

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A map by Johannes Putsch published in 1537 showed Europe in the form of a queen or maiden. The map was supposed to represent European superiority and unity under the Habsburg monarchy, with Spain – the foremost power – housing the head and crown of the queen.

The map was reprinted in a variety of publications, including by Heinrich Bunting in 1581 and later.

Europe in the form of a queen or maiden

Map of Europe in the shape of a man

Europe in the form of a queen or maiden

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From the final quarter of the 16th century, another genre of metaphorical map emerged in Northern Europe. The first Leo Belgicus (or 'Lion of Belgium') map was published in Cologne by Michael von Aitzing in 1583. It presented the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands (today’s Belgium and Netherlands) in the form of a lion, with its curved back conforming to the smooth North Sea coastline of the provinces.

The choice was pertinent and political. The lion symbol was included in the heraldry of most of the Netherlands provinces, representing the struggle for independence of the Seven Northern Provinces against the imperial rule of the Catholic Spanish (Habsburg) Netherlands (1568–1648).

A variety of Leo Belgicus maps were published up to the 19th century, including this example by the Amsterdam mapmaker Claesz Janszoon Visscher.

The Lion of the Low Countries

The Lion of the Low Countries, by Johannes van Deutecum Jr.

The lion became a popular and enduring symbol of the Low Countries in the late 16th century, a time of great unrest for the XVII Provinces.

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In Britain during the second half of the 18th century, a widening popular market developed for printed illustrations and guides, games, devices and objects which included maps and views. These included the first cartographic jigsaw published in 1766, and map board games with counters and tokens. Their descendants – Risk and Monopoly amongst them – continue to delight and frustrate families to this day.

Amongst these popular products were entertaining satirical and metamorphic maps published in books, as atlases and even as separate paper ‘broadsheets.’ In them, countries were drawn as if to have morphed into people, animals and other attributes. England was quite often turned into its personification John Bull, for example. 

Some of the best examples of this genre of map are the whimsical and droll maps of Robert Dighton (1793), and William Harvey’s Geographical Fun maps of 1869. The sources of Harvey’s maps were the illustrations of a 15-year old girl called Lilian Lancaster, who had reportedly drawn them as entertainment for her sick brother (Dillon, 2007: 332). Lancaster, later Lilian Tennant, became a famous actor and stage star, but continued to draw satirical maps such as this one of Belgium.

Map of Belgium

Map of Belgium

Europe in the form of a queen or maiden

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Satirical maps of world politics

The satirical maps we have looked at so far have all featured light-hearted intent. But concurrent with Lancaster and Harvey’s whimsies, other satirical metamorphic maps became steadily more political in their content.

From around the mid-19th century up to and including World War I (1914–1918), a new type of ‘Comic’ and ‘Serio-comic’ map provided increasingly political and prejudicial visual summaries of the European political situation. They were a perfect vehicle for explaining the increasingly complex system of treaties and rivalries which maintained a balance of European peace.

Serio-comic maps

Maps such as Fred Rose’s ‘Serio-comic’ maps (his first was published in 1877) illustrated each state, as before, in the form of a national stereotype, an animal, an object, or even a political figure. But it was the interaction between these forms which enabled the maps to properly describe what was happening, translating a military manoeuvre into a thrusting arm, for example. The result was a riotous soap opera of octopuses and bears fighting peasants and princesses.

John Bull and his friends. A serio-comic map of Europe

John Bull and his friends

National stereotypes on a map

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The wide influence of the Serio-comic map is illustrated by the fact that in 1904, a Humorous Diplomatic atlas of Europe and Asia was published in Tokyo. It used the same language – specifically the portrayal of Russia as an octopus, to characterise Russian aggression during the Russo-Japanese war (1904–1905).

A humorous diplomatic atlas of Europe and Asia

A humorous diplomatic atlas of Europe and Asia

Russia is depicted as an octopus in this map produced during the Russo-Japanese War

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The various causes of the outbreak of hostilities in July 1914 made highly suitable subject matter for satirical maps, and in the situation of war they made ideal propaganda pieces, particularly where they were able to identify the aggressor for their audiences. 

These two comic maps from 1914 contain different perspectives.

The first, a British map of Europe entitled Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark! is a positive and aggressive image from the war’s early weeks and months. Each of the key protagonists is shown as a dog. A German dachshund is tethered to a mongrel (Austro-Hungary, representing its ethnically-mixed population) and provoked into action by its numerous troubles, which include having its tail driven over by a Russian steamroller. The British bulldog delivers a bite to the nose, signifying the battles of Mons and Marne.

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark!

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark!

European nations represented by different breeds of dog

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The tone of this cartoon stands in contrast to a Portuguese cartoon of the same time. Portugal remained neutral in World War I, though it remained concerned for its overseas colonies and any potential threat to it caused by the turbulence of war. 

As a result the cartoon is more passive, though no less harsh in its language. Here again, Russia – this time a polar bear – provokes Austro-Hungary into action, while a Portuguese donkey looks worriedly on.

Mappa humoristico da Europa, a Portuguese satirical map

Mappa humoristico da Europa

Portuguese satirical map produced in 1914

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The octopus and its Russian connotations

Whilst the choice of some animals in these maps is less clear (badgers do not have very obvious attributes), others such as snakes, tortoises and crocodiles strongly denote traits such as evil, avoidance and deceit.

Few creatures, however, have been so heavily used in comic maps as the octopus. Applied most commonly to Russia (along with the Russian bear) the octopus’ unpleasant and amorphous nature provided the ideal device for representing two key features of the political and social world: territorial ambition and financial greed. In the following two maps we can see the octopus used in a British context.

In 1925 the octopus was used in a satirical postcard map of London which was protesting against the problem of ‘landlordism’. Landlordism was a problem involving wealthy absentee property owners who, according to the map, were interested only in accruing rent but not in maintaining, investing in or improving their properties.

Octopium Landlordicuss

Map of London in the shape of an octopus

A satirical postcard map of London

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The octopus was also used extensively in comic maps during World War II. This Nazi poster was published in around 1942 in Paris for a French audience. Attempting to weaken support for the British and French alliance, it shows the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as a ‘bloated bilious octopus’ (Bryars & Harper, 2014: 100–1) with his tentacles representing imperial ambitions. One such tentacle is labelled 'Mers el Kebir', the site of the British destruction of the French Naval fleet in July 1942. In severing many of these tentacles, however, the poster suggests that Churchill will be defeated.

Confiance... ses amputations se poursuivent méthodiquement

Poster with a map and an octopus over it

Winston Churchill as an octopus

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Serio-comic maps in 20th-century Europe

The Serio-comic map had its heyday during the first half of the 20th century. However, one final such map presents a fine, enigmatic view of the European continent at the beginning of another political era. The Mappa humoristico de Europa was published in Lisbon in 1953, and shows Europe as a circus separated by an iron railing which casts a shadow over the East. The railing has severed the leg of Germany and the rail of Austria (denoting their division into zones).

Humorous map of Europe

Mapa Humoristico da Europa en 1953

Europe as a circus

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On the east side of the railing, Eastern bloc states perform to the whip of the Soviet polar bear ringmaster. To the left of the map an impressive balcony is filled with spectators from the Americas.

If many of the motifs used in these maps are familiar, that is because they continue to be recycled by today’s political cartoonists. The lessons of yesterday continue to be valid in new contexts, as do the means – in this case the satirical maps – which contain them. The rehabilitation of this form of cartographic genre has enabled us to form a richer perspective on the past and the role of maps within it.

Find out more

Ashley Baynton-Williams, The curious map book (London: The British Library, 2015).

Tim Bryars and Tom Harper, A history of the 20th century in 100 maps (London: The British Library, 2014).

Diane Dillon, ‘Consuming maps’ in James R. Ackerman and Robert W. Karrow Jr. (eds.), Maps: Finding our Place in the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

J.B. Harley and David Woodward (eds.), The History of Cartography volume one: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Tom Harper
  • Tom Harper
  • Tom is a lead curator of antiquarian mapping at the British Library. He co-curated (with Peter Barber) the 2010 exhibition ‘Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art’, and (with Philip Hatfield) ‘Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’ in 2014-15. He also curated the 2016-2017 exhibition on ‘Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line’. 

    Twitter: @BLMaps