"The True Size" map lets you move countries around the globe, to show how big they really are

The US, China and India combined: still not quite as big as Africa. Image: The True Size.

The problem, you see, is that the earth isn't flat. This is generally considered to be a good thing: it means you can travel east from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, for example, without falling over the edge – but it's a right pain in the bum for cartographers.

That’s because the surface of a sphere cannot be turned into a flat sheet without some major distortions around the edges. The Mercator Projection is a case in point. Invented by a Flemish geographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the 16th century, it re-imagines the earth as the surface of a cylinder.


When laid out flat, it’s pleasingly rectangular, and its eastern and western edges line up neatly. This projection is pretty useful if you're, say, trying to steer a ship across an ocean, so in its 446 years of life it's become one of the standard maps of the world.

But it's also done some odd things to our idea of how the world looks. In reality, lines of longitude converge at the poles; on the map, they're parallel. As a result, the closer you get to the poles, the more distorted the map becomes, and the bigger things look relative to their actual size.

Thus it is that we’ve all got stuck with maps of the world which show Africa (30.4mkm2) as basically the same size as Greenland (2.2mkm2), rather than a whole order of magnitude bigger.

Until now.

The True Size is a website that lets you compare the size of any nation or US state to other land masses, by allowing you to move them around to anywhere else on the map. So, when left right up in the north of the map, Greenland does indeed look huge:

Place it next to Africa though, and you can see it really isn't all that:

You can see how vast India is, next to uppity islands that conquered it:

Or how small even a big European nation like France would be in Africa:

Some US states are actually pretty big...

...but even the US looks tiny next to Africa. Africa is huge:

The site is the work of James Talmage and Damon Maneice, who were inspired by (what else) an episode of The West Wing. It’s worth quoting an entire speech from the episode in question, in which a guest character argues that cartography can warp how we view the world:

When Third World countries are misrepresented they're likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Or, to put it another way, Africa is much, much bigger than you think it is – and Europe much, much smaller.

You can play with The True Size map here.

Like this sort of thing, do you? Why not like us on Facebook, too. 

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.