Prisoners of Geography

Tim Marshall’s book Prisoners of Geography: ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics has sat on my bookshelf for a number of years.   Originally written in 2015 (though the version I read had been updated since), it deals with issues relating to one of my favourite topics  – Geopolitics.


The wikipedia entry on the book describes the book in one sentence.

Prisoners of Geography describes the impact geography can have on international affairs, offering an explanation for such geopolitical events as Russia’s annexation of Crimea based on Russia’s need to retain access to warm-water ports and China’s actions in Tibet to enforce its border with India.[3]

Firstly, a confession.  Although I am a Geographer and a geography teacher by profession, and have written 10 geography text books/ revision guides.   I have recently found it difficult to read books about geography.   I have read every other genre of book – novels, history, religious books but every time that I go to read a book related to geography I just could not get into it.   Through the COVID lockdown I found it really difficult to read (or concentrate on) anything.   However, I managed to force my way through one of my favourite books by Stephen Ambrose on D-Day and this helped get me back into a habit for reading.

I quite enjoyed a review that a fellow geographer had left on the site

As a geographer in education, I was intrigued by the title of this book. It seemed to suggest some form of geographical determinism on political events. Indeed in some ways the author indicates that in many ways the policies of those in power in various governments are, if not determined, at least circumscribed by geography. By geography the author means physical features, geology, climate, and the general disposition of land and sea. Although he recognises the role that technological development plays in humans’ attempt to overcome the limitations imposed by geography, he is ambivalent as to how far this is successful.
Much of the book, however, is a description and interpretation of world political events, especially in the post World-War II period, providing a useful reminder of events which may have slipped from our memory. This description in my view, shows the importance of political ideology and nationalism, rather than geography in influencing these events.

I had bought Marshall’s book a few years ago and I had tried starting it a couple of times before but I kept getting about 15 pages in and then giving up.   The title bothered me.   Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know  . . .  My issue was that he spent little time actually talking about the maps.  He just used the maps as a means to an end – to be able to devote a chapter for each geographical world region and then talk about the geopolitical linkages that either worked historically or politically to create conflict or peace among the nations.

Prisoners of geography?  Maybe.

Is it the physical geography that determines how geopolitics works in an area?  Sometime this is true.   I have often struggled to teach some 12 year old students in geography why Europe came to dominate so much of the world. In the future I am sure that the current wave of revisionist geography and history will edit the impact of colonisation in such a way that is racially explosive and devastating to the growth of less advanced areas.  Which it was.   Marshall argues that the advantages of geography played their part.   Or maybe it was just that these were the first people to harness fossil fuels for industry.

Prisoners of geography?  Maybe not.

The story told in Marshall’s book is one of connections.   The book is about how one country works with or does not work with other countries (and sometimes about the divisions that exist within the country) and how they have been able to come to terms with these divisons.   How then can people (and nations) be prisoners, constrained by their geography, if they are looking to connect for trade, or to conquer other areas?  I think the reality is that sometimes nations slip these shackles easily in the search for what they might see as ‘the greater good’.

I maybe expected more about projections, areas and well mapping.  I felt this is what was suggested by the title and it took me a while to swallow hard and get over this.

But I am glad that I did.   Finally, I started again and tried to look at the book differently – as the commentary on globally politick that it was.   I also found that some of my A Level geography students were also trying to read through it too – so it was good to be able to try and help them see some of the big picture stuff that will form part of their A Level course when we return to school in September.

I like the way that Marshall writes.   It is concise, yet informative.   It is informed yet not overly academic.  It can be balanced, witty and there is odd sentence where you are left in no doubt about the personal inclinations of the author.   I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more of Marshall’s work (these are sitting on my bookcase already – though maybe I wont wait as long next time  . . . .

I suppose in some ways I was hoping for a few 2 page -spread that I could use with my A Level geography students – but that’s not really what I got.  Instead – I see a book that I will likely dip in and out of consistently as I try to explain the basics of conflict around the world.   However, I liked the reminder that often the boundaries that we see on globes and atlases are only temporal. They are often drawn on the whim of a map maker – a straight line drawn with a ruler but ignoring both the physical, human and cultural dimensions that might have bent those lines just a bit.


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