This essay demonstrates that the political efficacy of the first New World maps was paradoxically contingent upon their empirical indeterminacy. Pilots, cosmographers, and monarchs struggled to formulate and monopolize still-unstable cartographic conventions—the problem of longitude was not solved until the late eighteenth century—even while they capitalized on the absence of empirically verifiable data.
By telling the story of sixteenth-century Iberian cartography in terms of scientific limitation, it is possible to understand how maps and the discourses surrounding them could have been at once authoritative and recognizably inaccurate. This fresh account of scientific change, which emerges from the early modern record of institutional and imperial conflict, unsettles the contemporary scholarly use of cartographic history as an explanatory mechanism for reading Renaissance literature, colonial history, and humanist prose.
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