Posts Tagged ‘Antarctica’

Speculative Polar Cartography – Then and Now

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Co-published with http://www.realclimate.org.

The curious mismapping of Greenland’s ice sheet cover by the venerable Times Atlas recently has excited a lot of outraged commentary. But few people noted that this follows an old tradition of speculative cartography of the polar regions. ‘Modern’ mapmakers as early as the 16th century combined real facts and scientific knowledge with fundamental misinterpretations of that knowledge to create speculative mapping of the world’s unknown shores – and nowhere was this more prevalent than at the poles.

Mercator's 1606 Map of the North Pole

Mercator's 1606 Map of the North Pole


Early cartographers had a particularly difficult time mapping the Polar Regions. Factually, they based their maps on reports from mariners who dared sail the dangerous waters. This was supplemented by information from earlier maps, speculations based upon their personal theories of geography, religious beliefs, and the fiscal and political ambitions of their patrons.

The earliest specific map of the North Pole is Gerard Mercator’s 1595 Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio (‘Northern Lands Described’, shown here is the 1606 edition). Mercator interprets a lost work known as the Inventio Fortunata (“The Fortunate Discovery”), which, though we don’t know for certain, supposedly refers to early journeys to Iceland and the Faeroes in the 14th century. Complementing and interpreting the Inventio, Mercator added real geographic knowledge collected by explorers Martin Frobisher (1535-1594) and John Davis (1550-1605) (amongst others). Mercator used the Inventio description of lands and peoples, Frobisher and Davis’s reports on currents, ice extent, and other elements, to compose this masterpiece of cartographic speculation.

At the North Pole Mercator placed a great mountain, the Rupes Nigra (“Black Rock”) around which flows a mighty whirlpool (hence the strong currents recorded by Davis and Frobisher). From here four powerful rivers flow inward dividing a supposed Arctic continent into four distinct lands. Mercator referenced the Inventio to populate these lands with pygmies, Amazons, and other anomalies. Between Asia and America Mercator added another great sea mountain to which he ascribes magnetic properties. This mountain evolved from a pet theory devised by Mercator to explain magnetic variation. It is also noteworthy that the seas all around the poles are open and navigable – it is very likely Mercator had in mind the interests of royal patrons eager for a Northwest or Northeast Passage.

Buache's 1763 Map of the Antarctic

Buache's 1763 Map of the Antarctic


Two hundred and fifty years later, in 1763, the French geographer Phillipe Buache (1700-1773), issued another wonderful attempt to address the problematic Polar Regions. Buache drew this map to expound upon his own theory of water basins wherein he hypothesized that the Antarctic contained two distinct land masses separated by a frozen sea. From the frequency of icebergs seen by early explorers such as Halley and Bouvet, Buache presumed that there must be a semi-frozen sea at the South Pole. This sea, which he argued (correctly) could only be fed by mountains in the surrounding polar lands, disgorged ice into the southern seas. He thus maps “Land yet undiscovered” and “Frozen Sea as Supposed”, “Supposed Chain of Mountains” as well as other speculations. In order to conform not only to his own theories but to accepted mappings of this region by venerable cartographers of the 16th and 17th centuries such as Kaerius and Orteilus, Buache also joins New Zealand to the Antarctic mainland and adds an expansive reservoir he names “Siberia”. Buache was highly influential in his time and aspects of his geographical speculation found their way into numerous maps of the period.

Maps such as these abound in early cartography and most, no matter how misguided, are genuine attempts to rectify the known and unknown. Some, like the maps above and the more contemporary Times Atlas’ map of Greenland, are derived from real scientific knowledge, but exhibit either a misunderstanding of geography or an erroneous hypothesis. These often lead to fictitious interpretations of factual data. Such errors do have ramifications. In the early days of polar exploration such maps often inspired to ill-fated nautical expeditions in search of pygmies, polar seas, and new lands. In modern times, such speculative mappings, both early and contemporary, have been used by some to disprove global warming, advocate for the continent of Atlantis, and prove that space aliens mapped the earth in antiquity.

It should therefore probably be always borne in mind that cartography has always been a blend of art and science – which of course is one of the reasons why it so fascinates us.

Terra Australis, Terre de Quir, and the Great Southern Continent

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

1691 Map of World by N. Sanson showing Southern Continent

1691 Map of World by N. Sanson showing Southern Continent

One common feature of 15th to 18th century maps of the world and particularly of the South Pacific, is the land known as Terra Australis, the Southern Continent, or Magellanica. The great southern continent was supposed to cover much of the Southern Hemisphere extending north well into the Tropics and including today’s Australia, Antarctica, and many of the Polynesian Islands.

The earliest inkling of Terra Australis emerged more as a philosophical construct than a geographical one. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that all of creation was in balance maintained an essential symmetry. Hence, the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere, called Arktos referencing the Greek term for the constellation Ursa Major, must inevitably be balanced by a southern continent, Anti-Arktos. Later the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy included the Terra Australis in his own work though he did specifically note that it was inaccessible due to an interstitial “torrid zone” occupied by “monstrosities”.

Ambrosius Macrobius' View of the World

Ambrosius Macrobius' View of the World

By the late Roman times and in the Middle Ages, the concept of Terra Australis evolved into both a religious and scientific construct. From a religious perspective it was associated with the Biblical lands of Ophir and Tarshish, from whence Solomon acquired the gold with which he built the Temple. From a scientific perspective, the influential 5th century Roman philosopher Ambrosius Macrobius includes what is possibly the first representation of the southern continent in his work In Somnium Scipionis Expositio. Macrobius divided the world into various “zones” and embraced Aristotelian and Ptolemaic theories that the mass of Asia and Europe had to be counter-balanced by a similar mass in the Southern Hemisphere.

Kircher's 1665 Map of the World Showing Terra Australis

Kircher's 1665 Map of the World Showing Terra Australis

Terra Australis next appears in the journals of Marco Polo – which were widely read throughout 14th and 15th century Europe. Polo describes two islands some 700 miles southwest of Java which themselves lead to a rich mainland abundant in gold, brezil wood, elephants, birds and dogs. European scholars immediately associated the islands and lands mentioned by Polo with the Biblical land of Ophir and Tarshish. While it is difficult to say what specific lands Polo was actually referring to (some argue Madagascar, others Australia, and still others that Polo’s geographical descriptions were fabricated), many 15th and 16th century navigators, including Columbus and Magellan, were inspired by his text.

When Magellan began his voyage, the goal was not to circumnavigate the world, but rather to discover a southwestern route to India and the Moluccas. Nonetheless, one must image that the gold of Tarshish, Ophir, and the associated southern continent must have been on his mind. When Magellan navigated the Straits of Magellan between Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia he fully believed that he had discovered the northernmost headlands of Terra Australis. Many early maps subsequently labeled this land, and the southern continent attached to it Magellanica. Frances Drake’s 1577 circumnavigation of the globe a few years later proved conclusively that Tierra del Fuego was not in fact attached to a southern continent, but the search of this land would go on.

The next major exploration in the region was accomplished by the Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana. Mendana set sail from Callao, Peru in 1567 with the intention of discovering both the rich lands of the southern continent and the Biblical islands of gold, Ophir and Tarshish. Nearly a year later Mendana chanced upon a significant Polynesian Island group. These islands were subsequently identified with Ophir and Tarshish and named after King Solomon. Perplexingly, when Mendana attempted to return to the Solomon Islands, in 1595, this time with Pedro de Quiros as his pilot, he was unable to find the islands he once discovered. Mendana contracted malaria and died shortly thereafter leaving the fleet in the hands of his wife, Isabel Barreto who, becoming the world’s first female admiral, eventually returned it to Peru.

Terre de Quir from Sanson's 1691 Map of the World

Terre de Quir from Sanson's 1691 Map of the World

Perhaps the most significant proponent of the southern continent theory was the late 16th and early 17th century Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quir, or as he is more commonly known Quiros. Quiros was a religious zealot and passionate advocate of the southern continent theory. After serving as a pilot on Mendana’s second expedition, Quiros petitioned the Spanish crown for his own commission to explore and convert the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands. He set out in 1567 and, though he roughly followed Mendana’s path, was unable to locate the Solomon Islands. He did however land on Vanuatu’s Sanma Island which, believing himself to have discovered the Southern Continent, he named Australis de Espiritu Santo. Not long afterward Quiros returned to Europe where he published his voyages, proclaiming to the world that he had, indeed, discovered Terra Australis. Unfortunately, Quiros died shortly after returning to Peru and was never able to return to the Pacific Islands.

1747 Bowen Map of the Western Hemisphere showing Quiros' Land

1747 Bowen Map of the Western Hemisphere showing Quiros' Land

Nonetheless, Quiros’ claims and fame had a significant impact on the mapping of the region. Numerous early maps depict the “Terra de Quiros,” “Quir Land,” or “Terre de Quir” with indefinite southern and western borders thus suggesting that it could indeed be part of the Terra Australis mainland. Later many early maps depicting the tentative borders of Australia refer to it as “St. Espiritu” or some variation, again alluding to Quiros’ discovery of Vanuatu. Some, well in to the 20th century, claimed that Quiros had discovered Australia, but this was merely a confusion of the term “Australis” originally applied to Vanuatu. In nearly 200 subsequent years, no other European would encounter Samna.

1741 Covens & Mortier Map of Bouvet's Island or Cap de la Circoncision

1741 Covens & Mortier Map of Bouvet's Island or Cap de la Circoncision

As for the southern continent, or Terra Australis, others would continue to search for it well into the 18th century. The French explorer, Lozier Bouvet was heavily influenced by the work of Quiros. When he spotted the remote Antarctic island, which he named Cap de la Circoncision and which is now named Bouvet Island in 1739, he believed that he had at last rediscovered Terra Australis Espirtu Santo and the southern continent. Numerous maps published Europe following Bouvet’s voyage support this claim.

It fell to Cook’s voyages at the end of the 18th century to finally disprove the notion of a great southern continent. Cook was also first to correctly identify Quiros’ land of Terra Australis Espirtu Santo as Vanuatu’s Sanma Island. Nearly 60 years following Cook findings in the area, the first confirmed sightings of the Antarctic mainland were accomplished in 1819 and 1829 by William Smith and James Bransfield, respectively. Of course, though they both occupy the same geographic space, Antarctica and Terra Australis are in fact two very different places.

RELATED MAPS:
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/GeoHydro-kircher-1665
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/World-sanson-1691
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/World-lattre-1775
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/SouthPole-covensmortier-1741
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/America-bowen-1747

REFERENCES:
Camino, M. M., Producing the Pacific: Maps and Narratives of Spanish Exploration (1567-1606), New York, 2005.
Suarez, T., Early Mapping of the Pacific, 2004.