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  • Writer's picturePaul


The new Google Maps update was next to useless. (Pixabay)

Here’s a quick trivia question to kick things off: what do Russia, Turkey and Egypt all have in common? Have a think. I’ll wait.

If you know your world geography then you’ll doubtless have worked out that these are the world’s three “transcontinental” countries—nations that straddle the traditional boundaries between the continents. So with the Ural Mountains taken as the boundary between Europe and Asia, Russia falls either side of the line, and so straddles the two. The far northwest of Turkey, on the Balkan side of the Bosphorus, is geographically in Europe not Asia, while Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is technically part of the Asian rather than African landmass.

You could also arguably add France to that list, as its overseas territories—like Martinique, French Polynesia, and French Guiana on the coast of South America—are politically considered parts of the country proper, making France the only country in the world to span twenty-two different timezones. Spain too controls territories that lie far outside of Europe, as do Portugal, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, of course. The USA could be added to this list too; indeed Hawaii is remote enough to be classed as part of Australasia not North America.

And, according to nineteenth century inventor and geographer Terrance Powell at least, so too could—er, the lost land of Atlantis.

The delegate for Atlantis made quite an impact at the UN.

Born in Bath in 1801, Powell trained as a cartographer and geographer before making his name in 1827 with the invention of the “cartomimeograph”—a portable mechanical device for duplicating maps and navigators’ charts. Sales of Powell’s device soon made him a wealthy man by early Victorian standards, and when he sold the rights to his map-making machine to his former Cambridge University tutor (and future Member of Parliament) Robert Quillham in 1834, he was essentially able to retire on the profits at the grand old age of 33.

So what to do with the rest of your life if you’re able to retire in your early thirties? Learn a language? Cross-stitch? Take up square dancing? Or how about descending into an ever more madcap search for a vast continental landmass that never actually existed? Alas, Powell opted for the latter.

From the mid 1830s onwards, Powell took it upon himself to dedicate the remainder of his life to proving that the island of Atlantis had indeed (and perhaps still to this day) existed. Based on limited meteorological data and early descriptions of sea currents—as well as sailors’ anecdotes and passing references to unidentified islands in old naval logbooks—in 1841 Powell published On Atlantis, a rambling 500-page thesis in which he outlined his theory that Atlantis was a vast, perfectly circular island occupying the very centre of the Atlantic Ocean:

Washed and worn in this way [by encircling ocean currents], Atlantis must surely be as near to a perfect circle of land as any land on the surface of the Earth ... To the cartographer, such a sight would be as grand a marvel as, doubtless, the island itself would be to the explorer or traveller.

Powell believed Atlantis was located directly on the equator, positioned equally between the tropics. So how, then, did he account for the fact that the island had escaped detection for so long?

This geography would, under any ordinary circumstances, make for a land furnished with fertile soils [and] lush vegetation ... But I know of storms and waves in this region grand enough to submerge the very tallest of trees; thus it is my belief that the island is both marvel and curse, for surely the land is deluged, perhaps daily and perhaps for long periods, by the roughest Atlantic waters; and only when these waters calm does the island and what remains of its ecology reveal itself.

So to Powell, then, Atlantis was basically a gigantic circular causeway, only visible when the waters surrounding it were calm.

Regardless of its apparent uselessness as a habitable mass of land, however, over the years that followed Powell took his theories about Atlantis to ever more extraordinary limits.

He used his skills as a cartographer to publish revised maps of the Earth and its oceans, taking into account where he supposed Atlantis to be located. In later essays and letters he wildly imagined what the flora, fauna, and geology of the region might be; how any great civilisation who might once have inhabited it could have perished; what treasures such a race may have left behind; and, significantly, how the island should be divided up between the superpowers of the day.

Sensing that in the fraught political climate of the nineteenth century Atlantis could become the unwilling subject of a landrace, or even a vicious global conflict as warring nations attempted to stake their claims to its territory, Powell offered a relatively straightforward solution. Given that he believed the island to be all but perfectly circular—and, moreover, positioned directly in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean—he advised that Atlantis should be divided into four equal quarters, with the resulting northeastern, southeastern, southwestern and northwestern segments assigned to Europe, Africa, South America and North America respectively.

Those quarters could in turn then be divided equally between the nations of those continents, or, as Powell explained:

... a wiser solution would be for each continent to come together and assemble a co-operative delegation of representatives, regardless of nation, border, or loyalty, who could in perfect unanimity and harmony administer their respective quarter of the island.

Atlantis, ultimately, would straddle the four Atlantic continents, and be ruled over by a peaceful international coalition of statesmen and stateswomen from each one.

It’s a lovely thought. It’s just a shame it doesn’t exist.

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