Aug 072018

Today is the birthday (1779) of Carl Ritter, who, along with Alexander von Humboldt, is considered one of the founders of modern geography. It is also the birthday of Sir Robert Dudley (1574), an English explorer and cartographer who published the first world atlas of maritime maps. I am going to focus on Ritter mainly, but adding Dudley makes today Geography Day, and not just Ritter’s birthday.

Ritter was born in Quedlinburg (130 km northwest of Leipzig) in northern Germany, one of six children of Dr. F. W. Ritter. Ritter’s father died when he was 2. At the age of 5, he was enrolled in the Schnepfenthal Salzmann School, a school focused on the study of nature (apparently influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings on children’s education). This experience influenced Ritter throughout his life, and he retained an interest in new educational modes, including those of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. In fact, much of Ritter’s writing was based on Pestalozzi’s three stages in teaching: the acquisition of the material, the evaluation of material, and the establishment of a general system.

After completion of his schooling, Ritter was introduced to Bethmann Hollweg, a banker in Frankfurt. Hollweg hired Ritter to tutor his children, and arranged for him to study at the University of Halle at Hollweg’s expense. His duties as tutor began in 1798 and continued for 15 years. In the years 1814–1819, when he was continuing to tutor, he began to concentrate on the study of geography, and wrote and published the first two volumes of his Erdkunde.

In 1819 he became professor of history in Frankfurt, and in 1820 he received a teaching appointment in history at the University of Berlin. Ritter received his doctorate there in 1821, and was appointed professor in 1825. He also lectured at a nearby military college. He was particularly interested in the exploration of Africa and kept in constant contact with British scholars and with scientific circles such as the Royal Geographical Society. He was one of the academic teachers of the explorer Heinrich Barth, who traveled in Northern and Western Africa on behalf of the British government to negotiate treaties that were to stop the trans-Saharan slave trade. Carl Ritter himself was a dedicated anti-slavery propagandist in Germany.

Ritter’s impact on geography was especially notable because he brought forth a new conception of the subject. H wrote:

Geography is a kind of physiology and comparative anatomy of the earth: rivers, mountains, glaciers, &c., were so many distinct organs, each with its own appropriate functions; and, as his physical frame is the basis of the man, determinative to a large extent of his life, so the structure of each country is a leading element in the historic progress of the nation. The earth is a cosmic individual with a particular sui generis organization, with a progressive development: the exploration of this individuality of the earth is the task of geography.

In 1822 Ritter was elected to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and in 1824 he became a corresponding member of the Société Asiatique de Paris. In 1828, he established the Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin (Berlin Geographical Society). He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1849. In 1856, he was appointed curator of the Royal Cartographic Institute of Prussia. He died in Berlin in 1859.

Carl Ritter’s 19 part (21 volume) masterwork, Erdkunde im Verhältnis zur Natur und zur Geschichte des Menschen oder allgemeine, vergleichende Geographie, als sichere Grundlage des Studiums und Unterricts in physicalischen und historischen Wissenschaften,( Geography in relation to nature and the history of man or in general, comparative geography, as a secure basis of study and instruction in physical and historical sciences), is one of the most extensive works of geographical literature written by a single author. The first two volumes were published by G. Reimer in 1817 and 1818 respectively, after which the third would not be published until 1922. He also wrote and published Vorhalle der europäischen Völkergeschichte vor Herodotus um den Kaukasus und um die Gestade des Pontus, eine Abhandlung zur Altertumskunde (Vestibule of the European history of nations before Herodotus around the Caucasus and around the shores of the Pontus, a treatise on antiquity), which marked Ritter’s interest in India. It also served as a transition to a third volume of Erdkunde appearing first in 1835.

In total, Ritter intended to write an all-encompassing geography spanning the entire globe. His work was to consist of three parts:

  1. The solid form or the continents
  2. The fluid form or the elements
  3. The bodies of the three realms of nature

Part one was to undertake the continents of the globe beginning with the “Old World” and work to the “New World”. The dynamic of old and new proposed here does not correspond to contemporary notions, rather refers to the evolution of human activity on the planet as Ritter understood it. Due to the colossal scale of his project, Ritter was never able to complete it.

Part two was to deal with the fluid forms; by this he meant water, air, and fire. These elements correspond approximately to the studies of Hydrography, Meteorology, Climatology, as well as Volcanology. This part, too, was to be examined within the framework of the whole system.

The final part of the proposed work was to be dedicated to the interrelationships of organic life with geography and history. Ritter’s approach to geography was to identify the relationship between the variables at stake. He was particularly interested in the development of these relationships over time and how their constituent components (animals and the earth) contributed to this evolution. Borrowing the concept of “organic unity” used by Alexander von Humboldt, Ritter went further saying a geography is simply not possible without it.

Ritter had produced an astonishing amount of geographical literature contained in his Erdkunde alone. It amounts to 21 volumes comprising 19 parts which can be roughly divided into 6 sections:

  1. Africa (I) 1822
  2. East Asia (II-VI) 1818-1836
  3. West Asia (VII-XI) 1837-1844
  4. Arabia (XII-XIII) 1846-1847
  5. Sinai Peninsula (XIV-XVII) 1847-1848
  6. Asia Minor (XVIII-XIX) 1850-1852

Ritter established the treatment of geography as a study and a science. His treatment was endorsed and adopted by all geographers.

By comparison to Ritter, explorers and cartographers such as Sir Robert Dudley (1574 – 1649) were piecemeal geographers, who were, of course, data gatherers and not theoreticians. But Ritter’s work could not have existed without them as forerunners. Dudley was the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, who was treated very well by his father. He inherited the bulk of the Earl’s estate in accordance with his father’s will, including Kenilworth Castle. He also inherited titles from his uncle. In 1603–1605, he tried unsuccessfully to establish his legitimacy in Elizabeth’s court. After that he left England forever, finding a new life in the service of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. There, he worked as an engineer and shipbuilder, and designed and published Dell’Arcano del Mare (1645-1646), the first maritime atlas to cover the whole world. He was also a skilled navigator and mathematician. In Italy, he styled himself Earl of Warwick and Leicester, as well as Duke of Northumberland, titles recognized by Ferdinand II, grand duke of Tuscany.

In 1594, Dudley assembled a fleet of ships, including his flagship, the galleon Beare, as well as the Beare’s Whelpe, and the pinnaces Earwig and Frisking. He intended to use them to harass the Spaniards in the Atlantic, although the queen did not approve because of his youth and inexperience. He did, however, engage in multiple trips across and around the Atlantic.

The most important of Dudley’s works was Dell’Arcano del Mare (Secrets of the Sea). It includes a comprehensive treatise on navigation and shipbuilding and it has become renowned as the first atlas of sea charts of the world. Dell’Arcano del Mare consists of six known volumes that illustrate Dudley’s knowledge of navigation, shipbuilding and astronomy and it includes 130 original maps, all his own creations and not copied from existing maps, which was unusual for the period. Dell’Arcano del Mare was originally published in Florence in 1645 in Italian. It represents a collection of all contemporary naval knowledge. The atlas also includes a proposal for the construction of a fleet of five rates (sizes) of ships, which Dudley had designed and described. Dell’Arcano del Mare was reprinted in Florence in 1661 without the charts of the first edition. The distinctive character of Dudley’s charts was influenced by the Italian baroque engraver Antonio Francesco Lucini. Later mapmakers chose not to copy Dudley’s style and so it became a unique and rare relic in the history of cartography. Lucini recorded that he had spent 12 years and 5,000 pounds of copper to produce the plates.

Leipzig hodgepodge would be a good recipe for today, coming from Ritter’s home region, and taking in all kinds of ingredients. But I have already given it here: .  Here instead is Kartoffelsuppe mit Krabben, potato soup with shrimp, a Saxon recipe from the major Baltic port of Lübeck. The city was the capital of the Hanseatic League, a powerful medieval trade association of cities and merchants. They needed geographers.

Kartoffelsuppe mit Krabben


6 oz very small raw shrimp, unshelled
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 shallot, peeled and finely minced
1 leek, cleaned, trimmed, and chopped
1 medium russet potato, peeled and diced
1 medium red potato, peeled and diced
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
2 cups chicken broth
salt and pepper
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp dried tarragon
¼ cup light cream


Cook the shrimp in boiling water until just pink (2 to 3 minutes). Shell and devein them and reserve. Simmer the shells with 2 cups of water for 15 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Sauté the shallot until translucent. Add the leek and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the potatoes, carrot, and chicken broth.

Strain the shrimp stock, add it to the soup and stir. Reduce the heat and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Pulse the soup in a blender or food processor a few times so that some of the vegetables are blended and some remain in chunks.

Add the shrimp and reheat the soup thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste, ginger, and tarragon. Stir in the cream and serve at once.