Quantitative easing, bubbles, and a fool's cap map
I’ve had a run of luck unearthing cartoon and satirical maps lately, which is why they have dominated the last couple of posts, and I might as well round off the old year with one more. As financial crises (well, one enormous financial crisis really) have dominated the headlines all year this Dutch map seems especially appropriate. Here’s how economic meltdown was handled three centuries ago:
This anonymously engraved map of the ‘famous fool’s head island’ (Afbeeldinge van’t zeer vermaarde Eiland Geks-Kop) was published in Amsterdam in 1720. It’s a Dutch take on the folly of their French neighbours, satirising the Louisiana Bubble. Not that anyone on this side of the Channel had anything to be smug about as the South Sea Bubble burst in the same year. There’s a bit more to quantitative easing than ‘printing money’, but the tale of John Law and the Louisiana Bubble is still a cautionary one. Law was a colourful Scottish financier who inveigled his way into the confidence of the Duke of Orleans (then Regent of France), and was permitted to set up the Mississippi Company, which controlled all trade with France’s vast and largely unexplored American possessions - believed to be rich in gold and silver. He established the Royal Bank and issued paper money based on the supposed value of shares in the company. Eventually he was minting French coinage, collecting taxes and controlling the French economy to an extraordinary extent. The value of the shares soared, the French economy boomed, more paper notes were issued and after a period of wild speculation confidence collapsed, ruining investors throughout Europe. This map is rather different from any of the satirical maps covered in my earlier posts. Instead of working with an existing outline (coastline, political boundaries etc) our engraver has created a wholly imaginary ‘mad-head’ or ‘fool’s-head’ island resembling a human head with ass’s ears and wearing a fool’s cap, set in a sea of shares and inhabited by shareholders (discovered by Mr Law-rens). Cartographic features are given punning names such as the River Bubble, the Island of Despair and the town of ‘Madmandam’. Any resemblance to actual geography (Louisiana, the Mississippi …) is purely coincidental. As such it’s in the tradition of maps of Utopia, matrimony or even gastronomy, which use the power of cartography to express abstract concepts. Here’s a modern take on the idea, a map of the ‘Meaning of Physics’ which my friend Jeremy Wood made with author Mark Vernon: Happy New Year everyone …
Edited to add (21/02/12): Frank Jacobs has just covered this map in his entertaining and deservedly popular ‘Strange Maps’ blog and a). he says very nice things about me and b). he emphasises - quite correctly - that the satire is general, despite the specific invocation of John Law in the title. The four rivers flowing from the island are the Seine, Thames, Meuse and ‘Bubbel’, representing France, England and the Netherlands … and folly in general.