Maps and Mapmakers of the Napoleonic Wars: Introduction

By: Richard Tennant


There’s a tendency in most of us to view history in modern terms with which we are familiar. For instance, we think of a nation state in something like its present boundaries and with relatively coherent political, cultural and social systems. But Europe was, until relatively recently, an area in which there was considerable diversity in many of these aspects. In fact, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, not only would the majority of the population not have understood the concept of ‘their country’, in most lands they did not even speak the same version of ‘their language’. Against this background, it slowly became apparent that maps were necessary both in order to improve knowledge of the State as well as for military purposes.

In the late 1660’s King Louis XIV began the process of administrative reform, economic consolidation and reorganisation necessary for managing France. The first general maps of the territory using a measuring apparatus were made by the Cassini family during the 18th century. They were the first maps based on geodetic triangulation and took more than fifty years to complete; four generations of the Cassini family were involved in their production.

Peter the Great of Russia reigned from 1682 until 1725. The economic reforms he scheduled involved the task of geographically studying and mapping the entire country which required domestically trained geodesists and cartographers.

At the end of the 18th century, Empress Maria-Theresa ruling the Habsburg Empire from Vienna, commissioned a large-scale map of the Austrian Netherlands, one of her dominions that coincided more or less with the current territory of Belgium. With its sprawling empire, Vienna became a major consumer for maps, even though theirs were not based on triangulation.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the King of Spain commissioned a large survey among all municipalities in the country in order to overcome the lack of mapping of the kingdom. This was not a success story.

In the United Kingdom, King George II commissioned a military survey of the Scottish Highlands to facilitate the subjugation of the clans following the Jacobite rebellion in 1745. It was only in 1790 that the Board of Ordnance began a national military survey which was finally completed in 1853.

Within the larger context of European mapmaking, cartography was not merely something that different nations were involved with individually in the 18th century, but a cross-national affair. There was the alternation of competition and cooperation between states which could impact the production and transfer of cartographic knowledge in the Age of Enlightenment (1715 – 1789). This would set the backdrop for the period of the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) which was to follow.

This series of articles looks at the history of map making in the 17th and 18th Centuries.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2019 - January 2020


© Copyright 1995-2020, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.