Compagnie and Gamaland: Gold and Silver Islands East of Japan

Jansson's 1658 Map of Japan, Korea, and Compagnie following the discoveries of Vries and Coen.

Jansson’s 1658 Map of Japan, Korea, and Compagnie following the discoveries of Vries and Coen.

Zoom of 1658 Hokkaido (Yeso), Kunashir (Staten Is.) and Iturup (Compagnie).

Zoom of 1658 Hokkaido (Yeso), Kunashir (Staten Is.) and Iturup (Compagnie).

Terre du Compagnie or Compagnies Land is a sometimes vast landmass that appears to the northwest of Japan on countless maps issued between 1658 and the 1790s. The first map to include Compagnies Land is Jansson’s 1658 map Nova et Accurata Japoniae Terrae Esonis ac Insularum adjacentium, which was drawn following the 1643 explorations of Dutchmen Maerten de Vries and Cornelis Jansz Coen.

In 1643 Vries and Coen were sent by the director of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Batavia to search for supposed islands of gold and silver to the northeast of Japan. They were not the first expedition to do so. A fruitless Spanish expedition is known to have sailed in 1620. In 1639 the Dutch sent their first expedition, led by none other than Abel Tasman and Mattias Quast. Like the Spanish explorers before them, Tasman and Quast found nothing. The Dutch however were not about to surrender and financed a third expedition, this time under Vries and Coen, was launched in 1643.

Satellite view Kunashir (Staten) and Iturup (Compagnie).

Satellite view Kunashir (Staten) and Iturup (Compagnie).

Legends of gold and silver to the northeast of Japan circulated, primarily in Spanish and Portuguese circles, from at least the mid-16th century. The legends most likely were derived from the exceptional wealth of Japan as encountered by the earliest Portuguese explorers to the region. The historian Kaempfer noted that in some years “two and a half millions of gold” were exported. What shocked the Portuguese was how, despite the vast quantities of gold and silver, there seemed to be very little in terms of attainable new deposits. In fact, as closed economy, Japan’s relatively modest reserves of precious metals had accumulated for centuries. Moreover, Japan has much higher counts of gold than silver, consequently, when the Portuguese arrived they found a surplus of accumulated gold held in somewhat low regard. Without any clear rich gold deposits in Japan proper, legends arose of lands to the unexplored north harboring even greater riches. These took the form of a legend telling of a Portuguese trading ship piloted by one Juan de Gama that had blown off course en route from the Philippines to Mexico. De Gama supposedly discovered by accident a land rich in gold and silver which was subsequently named after him.

Sanson's c. 1691 Map of Compagnie.

Sanson’s c. 1691 Map of Compagnie.

While Vries and Coen did not discover an Asiatic Ophir, they were the first European expedition to make contact with the Aniu and discover the Kuril Islands. These they named Staten Island after the States General back in Holland and Compagnies Land, after the VOC, or Dutch East India Company. The smaller of the two islands, Staten Island or today’s Kunashir, they sailed around and mapped with a fair approximation of accuracy. The larger island, Compagnie or modern day Iturup, they landed on but barely penetrated. For whatever reason they did not fully explore Iturup and subsequent maps left its eastern shores unmapped. Having failed to discover gold or silver, no new expeditions followed Vries /Coen for nearly 100 years. This region thus did not see significant subsequent exploration until the mid to late 18th century voyages of Vitus Bering, James Cook, and the Comte de Laperouse.

P. Buache's 1772 vision separating Gamaland and Compagine.

P. Buache’s 1772 vision separating Gamaland and Compagine.

Where navigators failed, cartographers took up the challenge, in particular the positivist or speculative cartographers rising in France. Armed with political and professional ambition, French speculative cartographers filled in the blanks, at times associating Compagnie with Gammaland and sometimes with the Americas. There were numerous different takes on Compagnie. Phillipe Buache for example, separated Compagnie from Gamaland to make it a vast separate island extending eastward towards the Americas. Sanson, associated Compagine with modern day Hokkaido (Yesso) and extending almost as far east as California. By the end of the 18th century, on the eve of Cook’s seminal explorations, Compagnie/Gama had evolved into Muller’s Peninsula, a kind of speculative proto-Alaska that foreshadowed the discovery of the Aleutian Islands. Only in the wake of Bering and Cook’s voyages did maps finally abandon Compagnie in exchange for a more modern, scientifically mapped, coastline.

1787 Laperouse map sowing little advancement over the 1648 Janson map above.

1787 Laperouse map sowing little advancement over the 1648 Janson map above.

Related Maps:
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/JapanKorea-jansson-1690
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/JapanHokkaidoCompagnie-perouse-1787
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/Asia-janvier-1762
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/World-TajimaRyukei-1840
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/World-buache-1808
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/NorthernHemisphere-buache-1781
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/World-lattre-1762
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/NouvellesDecouvertsArctic-delisle-1730

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