Jason Nguyen, an assistant professor at the Daniels Faculty who specializes in architectural history, has published an essay in the fall 2020 edition of Journal 18, a journal of 18th-century art and culture. Nguyen's topic is the surprisingly numerous connections between early modern British cartography, colonialism, and the emergence of the British commercial class.
Early in his essay, Nguyen identifies a particular object that, he argues, embodies these intersecting trends: a "pocket globe," produced by the British cartographer Herman Moll in 1719. The papier-mâché and plaster globe, seven centimetres in diameter, depicts the world as Britons understood it at the time — complete with inaccuracies (California is drawn as an island, and half of Australia is missing) and a bright red line that charts the travels of William Dampier, an English explorer and pirate who was famous for having circumnavigated the world three times.
The cost of an average pocket globe placed it out of reach for the everyday laborer but within the budgets of London’s emergent middling classes. During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, England witnessed extraordinary growth in luxury consumption by individuals from different social and economic backgrounds. The amount and variety of goods found in the average home increased dramatically, specifically in the case of small decorative objects. The composition and compactness of Moll’s pocket globes speak to the profound transformations in global finance and domestic consumerism at the turn of the eighteenth century. As miniaturizations of the world, replete with Dampier’s nautical journeys, they depicted the maritime infrastructure that generated European wealth. At the same time, their size presumed a portability and conspicuousness that catered to a population fascinated by the novelty of small decorative commodities. As such, they are unique lenses through which to examine the relationship between cartography, consumerism, and the burgeoning structures of global capitalism — along with their attendant connections to colonialism, the stock exchange, and slavery.
Journal 18 is open access, meaning the full text of Nguyen's essay is free to read online.
Top image: A map from Herman Moll's The World Described. Image from the British Museum.