Posts Tagged ‘currents’

Speculative Polar Cartography – Then and Now

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Co-published with

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.

Fou-Sang or Fusang, a 5th Century Chinese Colony in Western America?

Friday, June 5th, 2009

1776 Zatta Map of the Pacific Northwest Showing Fusang

1776 Zatta Map of the Pacific Northwest Showing Fusang

East of the Eastern Ocean lie
The shores of the Land of Fusang.
If, after landing there, you travel
East for 10,000 li
You will come to another ocean, blue,
Vast, huge, boundless.

This ancient poem, written by a 3rd century Chinese poet, describes a place that is often referred to in Chinese folklore as the “Birthplace of the Sun”. It was a place well known in ancient China. It appears frequently in poetry and around the 2nd century BC, one Han emperor is said to have sent an expedition to colonize this land. Where was the legendary land of Fusang? Eighteenth century mapmakers placed it in North America, usually near what is today Washington or Vancouver. These cartographers, most notably De L’Isle and Zatta, mapped Fusang based on a popular essay written by the French orientalist historian Josepth de Guignes in his 1761 article “Le Fou-Sang des Chinois est-il l’Amérique? ” De Guignes was a dubious historian at best, but with this he may have been on to something. Fusang is most fully described on by the 6th century itinerant monk Hui Shen.

Hui Shen is said to have been a mendicant Gondaran monk and to have appeared in the court of the Emperor Wu Ti at Jingzhou in Southern Qi in 499 AD. His adventures, which are described by Yao Sialian in the 7th century Book of Liang, describes his voyage in both known and unknown lands. Starting around 455 AD, he traveled to the coast of China, to Japan, Korea, to the Kamchatka Peninsula, then to Fusang. Fusang, he reports is some 20,000 Chinese Li (about 9,000 km) east of Kamchatka. This would place it somewhere around what is today British Columbia, roughly where Zatta and De L’Isle map the colony of Fusang.

While it is a subject of ferocious debate, numerous scholars and historians have embraced the idea that the Chinese not only visited the New World but maintained regular contact with it. We have long known that, given the advanced stated of shipbuilding and navigation in ancient China, the Chinese were capable of launching expeditions across the Pacific. The real question is, did they? The story of Hui Shen is one of the few actual documents that describe such an voyage. Hui Shen’s tale, which offers anthropological and geographic commentary consistent with Pacific Coast of America, describes Fusang in considerable detail. Over the past 200 years numerous scholars, both eastern and western, have broken down the Hui Shen text. Some have declared it a fabrication, but most have embraced the idea that the Chinese did in fact not only visit America, but maintained a minor but active back and forth communication.

1772 Vaugondy Map of the Pacific Northwest showing Fou-Sang

1772 Vaugondy Map of the Pacific Northwest showing Fou-Sang

Though many scholars agree that the Fusang tale does have some element of truth, few agree on where it may have been. Some point to Peru (Hui Shen describes the leader of Fusang as the “Inki”), others to Mexico (Fusang = Maguey), and still others to British Columbia (most likely arrival point sailing east from Kamchatka with the easterly North Pacific Current). The name Fusang itself is derived from Chinese mythology where it is a land or tree in the east from which the Sun is born. This kind of plant, or something similar, is described as common in the Land of Fusang. Fusang is billed as a kind of all purpose plant which can be eaten, made into clothing and made into paper, etc. There is considerable debate as to what Fusang may have been, with some identifying it with the Maguay of Mexico, others with various types of Cactus, and still others ancient varieties of corn (which were common along the Pacific Coast of North America).

There is some, but not significant, historical evidence to support the idea that the Chinese were active in Ancient America. Ancient Chinese coins, ship anchors (James R. Moriarty of the University of San Diego), and other relics have been discovered along the American coast – some dating back as much as 2,000 years! Also, Hui Shen’s descriptions do correspond somewhat with what we know of the New World around 450 AD. It is far too much for this short blog post to breakdown the details of Hui Shen’s narrative, especially when it has been done so well and so well by others, however, our list of references below can offer significant further reading.


San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 1979.
Guignes, Jospeh, de, “Le Fou-Sang des Chinois est-il l’Amérique?”, Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, tome 28, Paris, 1761
Mertz, Henriette, Columbus Was Last, Hyperion 1992.
Wei Chu-Hsien, China and America -Volume One, Shuo Wen Shu Dian Bookstore, 1982.

Antique Map of the Week – Kircher’s 1665 Map of the World

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

1665 Kircher Map of the World

1665 Kircher Map of the World

Entitled Tabula Geographico-Hydrographica Motus Oceani, Currentes, Abyssos, Montes Igniuomus in Universo Orbe Indicans Notat Haec Fig. Abyssos Montes Vulcanios, this is an exceptionally interesting map of the world by the scholar Athanasius Kircher. This is most likely the first world map to depict the oceans currents. Shows the entire world in accordance with Kircher’s hydro-geographic theory that tides and currents are caused by water moving to and from a massive subterranean ocean. Kircher postulated that water entered and exited the subterranean ocean via a number of great abysses situated around the globe. This map expounds on Kircher’s theories by noting the abysses and the currents they create as well as the locations of the world’s known volcanoes. Between the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Persian Gulf, Kircher theorized massive tunnels and a complex interchange of water flows. These tunnels are noted most particularly between the Black and Caspian Sea and between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

Other areas of interest – Antarctica is shown along the southern part of the map. In the North a great open northwest passage is depicted running all the way across the map. Shows New Guinea and a suggestion of Australia attached to the “Australsis Incognita” mainland. Africa is shown with considerably greater accuracy than many maps drawn hundreds of years later – particularly with regard to Niger and Nile River Systems. North America and South America are both wildly malformed, indicating a relatively sketchy knowledge of the continent. Korea is shown as an Island and Japan appears as only a single island.

For more information: