But how did that map come into being? At its heart, a map is the distillation of the experience of travellers – those who have journeyed in the past, and recorded their memories in the form of its pictures and symbols. The map represents the cumulative wisdom of generations of travellers, put together for the benefit of those now wishing to make that same journey.
To undertake a journey with a map is therefore to rely on the wisdom of the past. It is to benefit from the hard-won knowledge of those who have explored the unknown and braved danger in order to serve those who will follow in their footsteps. Behind the lines and symbols of the map lie countless personal stories – stories which the map itself can never tell. Let’s explore this by looking at one particular kind of map – the ‘rutter’. This strange word, which has now fallen out of use, comes from the French word routier, and refers to the records of those who undertook great and often hazardous journeys of exploration.
The sixteenth century was an era of exploration on an unprecedented scale. Following the discovery of the
A rutter was basically a book which recorded every small detail of the voyage, so that it could be retraced in safety. The location of dangerous shoals, the bearings of landmarks such as headlands, the depths of channels, the location of safe harbours – all were meticulously recorded. Anyone getting hold of these rutters would be able to retrace the steps of those who had been there before, and gain access to the riches that lay ahead.
It is no wonder that the rutters for the trade routes to Asia from
The rutter did not aim to offer a complete chart of the oceans of the world. It was written down simply to ensure that one specific route could be travelled safely. Those who followed their author could do so in the knowledge that he had been there before them, and passed his hard-won knowledge down to them. The voyage ahead would be long and difficult. Yet it helped those making it enormously to know that someone had successfully completed it before them and that he had passed on to them a detailed notebook of how he achieved it. A rutter is thus more than a map. It mingles geography with personal experience, explaining how the journey was made so that others can do the same.