Caricaturist Fred W. Rose’s 1877 map published in the midst of the Russo-Turkish War shows Russia creeping like an octopus across the globe, its tentacles grasping at land on all sides. While the other countries are illustrated as people, Russia is depicted as something alien and monstrous. The arresting visual began a trend of cartographic cephalopods, many of which feature in the PJ Mode Collection at Cornell University Library.
As previously covered on Hyperallergic, the PJ Mode Collection, donated to Cornell in 2014, focuses on “persuasive cartography,” or cartographic propaganda. These maps from the 15th century to the present were designed to convey a certain point of view rather than an accurate geography. Last month, around 500 maps were added to the online collection, doubling the number of available images and descriptions. Rose’s map is among these additions, along with other graphics that employ the octopus.
Ashley Baynton-Williams in 2015’s The Curious Map Book, writes that Rose’s map is “the earliest known cartoon map of Russia to portray the country as an octopus” and that the “prevalence of the octopus motif in later maps suggests that the octopus also spoke to humanity’s primeval fears, evoking a terrifying and mysterious creature from the depths.” Later uses include a September 7, 1904, cartoon map in Puck magazine that shows the Standard Oil company strangling American state capitals and Congress, and a 1940s propaganda poster from German-occupied France with Winston Churchill as a grotesque octopus smoking a cigar, his bleeding appendages symbolizing British advances and defeats. Sometimes the map octopus is blubbery, such as on a 1904 anti-Russian map from Japan, where its arms seem to slowly and steadily grow; other times it is thin and agile, like the “red octopus” representing the Soviet Union on a 1980 pamphlet from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. In all cases, its shape exudes a hungry grasp for power, and some dark, unnatural force that threatens to cover the Earth.
In an article on the “Cartographic Land Octopus” at the Big Think, Frank Jacobs writes that the underwater animal is “a perfect emblem of evil spreading across a map: its ugly head is the centre of a malevolent intelligence, which is manipulating its obscene appendages to bring death and destruction to its surroundings.” In last year’s War Map exhibition at London’s Map House, a copy of a 1944 map that features in the PJ Mode Collection was included. It shows a rising sun transformed into a ravenous octopus emerging from the Japanese flag, its tentacles reaching around the East Indies to cling to the former Dutch Colonies. The image was printed about 10,0000 times for the London-based Netherlands government in exile, the repetition reinforcing the trope as a symbol of threatening invasion.
The octopus actually appeared on maps long before the 19th century, but as the ominous kraken, a sea monster signaling the dangers of the uncharted oceans. Emerged from the waters and dragging its many-armed body over the land, it retains that sense of unease and foreboding.
While the announcement might be a step in the right direction, it inadvertently reinforces even more gender stereotypes, limiting nonbinary individuals to greyish androgynous figures defined primarily by their haircuts.