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Many early modern maps include a vast continent that fills the southernmost latitudes of the world. Some of these constructions are entirely fantastic; others are based on careful compilation work that included the latest expeditions and observations. Geographers would cobble together reports and sightings, often suggesting that singular islands and massive cloud formations indicated the presence of a large continent that counter-balanced the heavy northern continents. This theory of continental balance has ancient origins but continued to be popular into the early modern period.

Some of the most common toponyms used to populate this southern landmass were Beach, Lucach, and Maletur. These would be familiar to anyone who has read Marco Polo’s Travels. These three places were originally regions in Java. The conflation of Java with the southern continent stemmed from an error. Initially, Polo used the Arabic usage of Java Major for Java and Java Minor for Sumatra. After a printing mistake made Java Minor seem the largest island in the world in the 1532 edition of Polo’s Travels (Paris and Basel), mapmakers started to accommodate Java Minor, Beach, Lucach, and Maletur in a southern landmass.

Another commonly seen toponym is Psitacorum regio, which refers to an area densely populated with parrots. This place name appeared on Mercator’s 1541 globe and his 1569 world map. It was supposed to have been sighted by Portuguese sailors but was never verified in terms of size or location. Wytfliet’s map of the South Pole, with Terra Australis, has both Psitacorum regio and the Polo toponyms.

By the seventeenth century, some mapmakers began to doubt the enormous size of the southern continent, or even its existence at all. In 1639, Henricus Hondius published a map that showed an absence of land at the South Pole. It was surrounded by supposed coast lines, but there was no confident outline of a continent.

Seventy-five years later, in 1714, the theoretical geographer Guillaume Delisle produced a map that showed the routes of navigators that had traveled far south; however, he did not include a southern continent. By the early-eighteenth century, blank space rather than guesswork was preferred by mapmakers, but discussion still raged as to what land lay near the South Pole.

In 1739, Delisle’s son-in-law, Philippe Buache, took Delisle’s 1714 map and added more recent expeditions, most significantly, Lozier de Bouvet’s discovery of Cap de la Circoncision surrounded by icebergs. He also produced another map that included his conjecture as to what a southern land would look like, based on his theory of watersheds that stemmed from the world’s interlocked mountain ranges and river basins. This map shows a two-part southern continent, separated by a nearly landlocked sea. Buache is clear, however, that this is nothing more than an intellectual exercise.

The understanding of Antarctica shifted from the hypothetical to the practical with the second voyage of James Cook (1772-1775). In the Resolution, he passed the Antarctic Circle three times, the first ship to do so, drastically limiting the area which could be covered by a southern continent. Mainland Antarctica would only by sighted for the first time on January 27, 1820, by members of the Russian expedition under Bellinghausen.

Amsterdam / 1650
22 x 17.5 inches