Eye-catching Seventeenth-Century Carte-à-Figure Map of the Americas—An English Rarity
Rare, separately-issued English map of the Americas, published in London by Robert Walton.
This remarkable map is Walton's version the carte-à-figures style of maps first produced by Pieter Van Den Keere in 1614 and popularized by Willem Blaeu, Jodocus Hondius and Claes Jans. Visscher.
The decorative panels and figures on Walton's map closely follow those of Van Den Keere's 1614 map. They show, at left and right, portrayals of native peoples of the Americas, including Virginians, Magellanics (Patagonian), and Brasilians, to use Walton’s terms. At top and bottom are views of ports and cities (Havana, Mexico City, Cusco, Pomeiooc (Virginia), a French fort in Carolina, Santo Domingo (Hispaniola), Pernambuco, Potosi, Cartagena, and St. Jacob’s Island), interspersed with European navigators of note (Amerigo Vespucci, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish, and Oliver de Noort).
Cartographically, the map is generally based upon the work of Van den Keere, as revised by Visscher in 1652, with a number of corrections which first appeared on Johannes Blaeu's wall maps of 1645, 1646 and 1648. This is why both Visscher and Blaeu are cited in the descriptive title.
The map features North and South America, with the British Isles and part of Spain visible to the East. Of particular interest are the mythical islands of Frisland and Brasile in the North Atlantic. The former of these is tied to the fascinating story of the Zeno map, while Brasile, or Hy Brasil, is a wandering specter of an island that appeared through the mist west of Ireland.
The northern and western extent of North America is extraordinary and harkens to earlier maps that hypothesized such a massive northwest coast running toward Asia. The Strait of Anian narrowly separates the two continents, with the Kingdom of Anian placed in North America. Stamped across North America is a large note. It reads:
The North Part of America. An:D 1492. America was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in ye name of ye King of Castile, and from Americus Vesputus tooke its name who after Columbus made a farther discover thereof.
California is featured as an island, an increasingly common portrayal of the territory in the seventeenth century. This portrayal is quite interesting, however, as it tucks the island into a meandering and gargantuan northwest coastline. Compared to the fantasy of an insular California, the bulge often shown in earlier maps of Virginia has been corrected, and Cape Cod is relatively accurate in its depiction. Carolina and New Netherland are labeled, as are Plymouth and Boston south and north of the label for New England, respectively.
A single Great Lake is included, with the note, “This Lake is said to be miles long.” Farther west, the kingdom of Quivira is placed in the Pacific Northwest. This toponym refers to the Seven Cities of Gold sought by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541. In 1539, Coronado wandered over what today is Arizona and New Mexico, eventually heading to what is now Kansas to find the supposedly rich city of Quivira. Although he never found the cities or the gold, the name stuck on maps of southwest North America, wandering from east to west.
South America is slightly curved and is split into viceroyalties, administrative units of the Spanish Empire, and the Portuguese colony of Brazil. A note near the Equator states, “Guiana the most flourishing kingdom in America as the Spaniards and others affirm.” Tierra del Fuego is separated from an unfinished coast in the south, part of “Ye Unknowne Land.”
The Pacific Ocean is featured prominently, with many islands clustered in the west. These include the Solomon Islands, visited but not accurately charted by the Mendaña expedition in the sixteenth century, and part of New Guinea. In the central Pacific are two indistinctly-shaped islands called Tiburones (Spanish for sharks) and St. Peters. A note explains:
These two Islands Tuberones and St. Peters were by Magellanus called unfortunate because in them he found neythor man nor any thing necessary for ye life of man nevertheless yet fishing there aboutes is good enough.
In the bottom left corner is an elaborate cartouche decorated with a toucan, fruit, cherub, and one figure attempting to scramble over the strapwork. Within is an inset map of the Arctic Circle. It shows parts of coastal New France, Greenland, and North America leading to the Straits of Anian. This map is meant to suggest a navigable waterway through to Asian markets, a Northwest Passage. A note on the main map explains:
Farther towards ye North America is yet unknowne yet there are many conjectures concerning ye passing of ye Straits of Anian and Davis.
Another cartouche is in the lower right corner, with the title. There are also other decorative embellishments within the bounds of the map frame, as well as in the frame itself. In the interior of the landmasses, an armadillo and a caiman patrol central South America. In the north, a cow, deer, and buffalo range over the plains. At sea, several sea monsters, some quite morose, glide through the waters, as do European ships.
In the North Atlantic are two vignettes showing other types boats. First is a kayak with a bearded man holding a paddle and a sort of trident. The note says:
The Groenlanders use a Certaine kind of Boate made of Hydes in which there is roome for but one man who makes use but of one Oare and with his right hand holds an instrument with which he craftily darts at foule.
Near the Caribbean, a large canoe with two men is shown, with a fire blazing mid-canoe. The note reads:
A little cannow or boate which ye Indians use in Florida made of ye Trunk of a tree and shape it out by burning onely without usaing any other instrument or edge toole.
Walton's map, unlike its Dutch counterparts, has a charming, folk-art like quality, reflective of a period when English engravers were far less skilled than their Dutch counterparts.
States and Rarity
There are two states of this map, both of which are exceedingly rare. Including both states, OCLC lists only three institutional examples of the map, at the British Library, the Osher Map Library, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
These states can be differentiated by presence or absence of a date:
- Dated 1658 in title
- circa 1660: date removed.
This strait, believed to separate northwestern America from northeastern Asia, was related to the centuries-long quest to find a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Appearing on maps beginning in the mid- to late-fourteenth century, the rumor of this strait and a Northwest Passage in general inspired many voyages of discovery, including those of John Cabot, Sir Francis Drake, Gaspar Corte-Real, Jacques Cartier, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert.
The term Anian itself comes from Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century accounts of his travels. Polo used the term to refer to the Gulf of Tonkin, but cartographers thought it could refer to this supposed strait between Asia and North America. The Strait of Anian, so named, first appeared in a 1562 map by Giacomo Gastaldi, and was later adopted by Bolognini Zaltieri and Gerard Mercator.
Today, the most famous expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage are those that took place in the mid-nineteenth century, including the ill-fated Franklin voyage. However, finding a passage to Asia via a northern route was a centuries-old endeavor. Indeed, Ptolemy, in the second century CE, suggested that there was a sea route between Europe and East Asia. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century led Columbus and De Gama to explore for alternative access to Asian markets to the west and south. The information they brought back led Europeans to look to the northwest and northeast for a shorter, yet treacherous and icy, way to China.
The first recorded search for the Northwest Passage was the voyage of John Cabot in the late fifteenth century, following in the wake of Norse voyages to North America that occurred in the eleventh century. With the support of Bristol merchants, Cabot landed in Newfoundland in 1497. The following year, in a voyage supported by Henry VII, he left with five ships and 200 men; the squadron never returned. In the early sixteenth century, John’s son, Sebastian, led several voyages to what is today Canada.
Early English and French voyages to North America were constantly on the look-out for passages that might lead to the Pacific. For example, Jacques Cartier led an expedition at the behest of Francis I of France. Cartier ranged over the coasts of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; he was the first European to contact Prince Edward Island, which, alas, was not the Northwest Passage. A second voyage took Cartier to the location of Quebec, which he claimed for France.
The Spanish too sought the Northwest Passage. They originated the toponym of the Strait of Anian, a displacement of a place name from Marco Polo’s writings, which soon caught on with mapmakers across Europe. Conquistador Hernán Cortés funded the voyage of Francisco de Ulloa from Acapulco north in search of the western entrance to the Passage. He got to the Gulf of California before turning back.
The English did not mount many expeditions during the reign of Henry VIII, who was more focused on the power balance in Europe, but under Elizabeth I many voyages set out to the northwest. Martin Frobisher, a privateer, led three attempts on the Passage in 1576, 1577, and 1578. He thought that he had discovered gold in Frobisher Bay, on Baffin Island, but it turned out to be iron pyrite.
John Davis also led three expeditions north, in 1585, 1586, and 1587. He sailed along Greenland, Baffin Island, and Labrador, as well as charted the Davis Strait. He also found the entrance to Hudson Strait, which would be named for Henry Hudson thirty years later.
John Smith searched for the passage while sailing up Chesapeake Bay in 1608. He did not find it, but he wrote to his friend Hudson that he thought it still might lie just to the north. In the employ of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Hudson set out in 1609. He first ventured up the Hudson River; while this was again no Northwest Passage, it did help the Dutch to colonize New York, or New Amsterdam as they called the settlement. In 1610, Hudson tried again, this time entering the eponymous Hudson Bay. His ship was trapped in the ice, his crew mutinied, and Hudson, his son, and seven others were set adrift in a small boat, never to be seen again.
One of the mutineers who escaped trial was Robert Bylot, who accompanied Thomas Button on his Arctic voyage in 1612-13. Bylot also accompanied William Baffin to the Arctic in 1615 and 1616; their reports of Baffin Bay were considered fantastic until revisited by John Ross two hundred years later.
Two further explorers, Luke Foxe and Thomas James, went on separate voyages in 1631. Foxe investigated the western shore of Hudson Bay, while James visited the south. These were the last English attempts on the Passage for a century, but the names of Frobisher, Davis, Hudson, Button, Baffin, Foxe, and James are still sprinkled liberally in the high latitudes of the Arctic. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was founded in 1670, but they focused on trade, rather than exploration, until new attempts were made in the 1720s.
The Zeno family was part of the Venetian elite; indeed, their family had controlled the monopoly over transport between Venice and the Holy Land during the Crusades. Nicolo Zeno set off in 1380 to England and Flanders; other evidence seems to corroborate this part of the voyage. Then, his ship was caught in a huge storm, blowing him off course and depositing him in the far North Atlantic. He and his crew were wrecked on a foreign shore, the island of Frislanda (sometimes Friesland or Freeland).
Thankfully, the shipwrecked Venetians were found by King of Frisland, Zichmni, who also ruled Porlanda, an island just south of Frisland. Zichmni was on a crusade to conquer his neighbors and Nicolo was happy to help him strategize. Nicolo wrote to his brother, Antonio, encouraging him to join him and, good navigator that he was, Antonio sailed for Frisland and arrived to help his brothers. Together, they led military campaigns against Zichmni’s enemies for fourteen years.
Their fights led the brothers to the surrounding islands, presumably enabling them to make their famous map. Zichmni attempted to take Islanda but was rebuffed. Instead, he took the small islands to the east, which are labeled on this map. Zichmni built a fort on one of the islands, Bres, and he gave command of this stronghold to Nicolo. The latter did not stay long, instead sailing to Greenland, where he came upon St. Thomas, a monastery in Greenland with central heating. Nicolo then returned to Frisland, where he died four years later, never to return to Venice.
Antonio, however, was still alive. He ran into a group of fishermen while on Frisland. These fishermen had been on a 25-year sojourn to Estotiland. Supposedly, Estotiland was a great civilization and Latin-speaking, while nearby Drogeo, to the south, was full of cannibals and beasts. Antonio, on Zichmni’s orders, sought these new lands, only to discover Icaria instead. The Icarians were not amenable to invasion, however, and Antonio led his men north to Engroneland, to the north. Zichmni was enthralled with this new place and explored inland. Antonio, however, returned to Frisland, abandoning the King. From there, Antonio sailed for his native Venice, where he died around 1403.
News of the discoveries and the first version of the Zeno map was published in 1558 by another Nicolo Zeno, a descendent of the navigator brothers. Nicolo the Younger published letters he had found in his family holdings, one from Nicolo to Antonio and another from Antonio to their other brother, Carlo, who served with distinction in the Venetian Navy. They were published under the title Dello Scoprimento dell’isole Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrouelanda, Estotilanda, & Icaria, fatto sotto il Polo Artico, da due Fratelli Zeni (On the Discovery of the Island of Frisland, Eslanda, Engroenland, Estotiland & Icaria, made by two Zen Brothers under the Arctic Pole) (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1558).
At the time of publication, the account attracted little to no suspicion; it was no more and no less fantastic than most other voyage and travel accounts of the time. Girolamo Ruscelli published a version of the Zeno map in 1561, only three years after it appeared in Zeno’s original work. Ruscelli was a Venetian publisher who also released an Italian translation of Ptolemy. Ruscelli had moved to Venice in 1549, where he became a prominent editor of travel writings and geography.
Ruscelli was not the only geographer to integrate the Zeno map into his work. Mercator used the map as a source for his 1569 world map and his later map of the North Pole. Ortelius used the Zeno islands in his map of the North Atlantic. Ramusio included them in his Delle Navigationo (1583), as did Hakluyt in his Divers Voyages (1582) and Principal Navigations (1600), and Purchas (with some reservation) in his Pilgrimes (1625). Frisland appeared on regional maps of the North Atlantic until the eighteenth century.
In the nineteenth century, when geography was popular as both a hobby and a scholarly discipline, the Zeno account and map came under scrutiny. Most famously, Frederick W. Lucas questioned the validity of the voyage in The Annals of the Voyages of the Brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno in the North Atlantic (1898). Lucas accused Nicolo the Younger of making the map up, using islands found on other maps and simply scattering them across the North Atlantic. He also accused Nicolo of trying to fabricate a Venetian claim to the New World that superseded the Genoan Columbus’ voyage. Other research has revealed that, when he was supposed to be fighting for Zichmni, Nicolo was in the service of Venice in Greece in the 1390s. He is known to have drafted a will in 1400 and died—in Venice, not Frisland—in 1402.
Scholars still enjoy trying to assign the Zeno islands to real geographic features. For example, Frisland is thought to be part of Iceland, while Esland is supposed to be the Shetlands. Some still believe the Zenos to have sailed to these lands. Most, however, view the voyage and the map as a reminder of the folly and fancy (and fun) of early travel literature and cartography. Whatever the truth, the Zeno map and its islands are one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of cartography.
The popular misconception of California as an island can be found on European maps from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. From its first portrayal on a printed map by Diego Gutiérrez, in 1562, California was shown as part of North America by mapmakers, including Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius. In the 1620s, however, it began to appear as an island in several sources.
The myth of California as an island was most likely the result of the travel account of Sebastian Vizcaino, who had been sent north up the shore of California in 1602. A Carmelite friar, Fray Antonio de la Ascension, accompanied him. Ascension described the land as an island and around 1620 sketched maps to that effect. Normally, this information would have been reviewed and locked in the Spanish repository, the Casa de la Contractación. However, the manuscript maps were intercepted in the Atlantic by the Dutch, who took them to Amsterdam where they began to circulate. Ascension also published descriptions of the insular geography in Juan Torquemada’s Monarquia Indiana (1613) (with the island details curtailed somewhat) and in his own Relacion breve of ca. 1620.
The first known maps to show California as an island were on the title pages of Antonio de Herrera’s Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales (1622) and Jacob le Maire's Spieghel Der Australische Navigatie (1622). Two early examples of folio-maps are those by Abraham Goos (1624) and another by Henry Briggs, which was included in Samuel Purchas’ Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625). In addition to Briggs and Goos, prominent practitioners like Jan Jansson and Nicolas Sanson adopted the new island and the practice became commonplace. John Speed’s map (1626-7), based on Briggs’ work, is well known for being one of the first to depict an insular California.
The island of California became a fixture on mid- and late-seventeenth century maps. The island suggested possible links to the Northwest Passage, with rivers in the North American interior supposedly connecting to the sea between California and the mainland. Furthermore, Francis Drake had landed in northern California on his circumnavigation (1577-80) and an insular California suggested that Spanish power in the area could be questioned.
Not everyone was convinced, however. Father Eusebio Kino, after extensive travels in what is now California, Arizona, and northern Mexico concluded that the island was actually a peninsula and published a map refuting the claim (Paris, 1705). Another skeptic was Guillaume De L’Isle. In 1700, De L’Isle discussed “whether California is an Island or a part of the continent” with J. D. Cassini; the letter was published in 1715. After reviewing all the literature available to him in Paris, De L’Isle concluded that the evidence supporting an insular California was not trustworthy. He also cited more recent explorations by the Jesuits (including Kino) that disproved the island theory. Later, in his map of 1722 (Carte d’Amerique dressee pour l’usage du Roy), De L’Isle would abandon the island theory entirely.
Despite Kino’s and De L’Isle’s work, California as an island remained common on maps until the mid-eighteenth century. De L’Isle’s son-in-law, Philippe Buache, for example, remained an adherent of the island depiction for some time. Another believer was Herman Moll, who reported that California was unequivocally an island, for he had had sailors in his offices that claimed to have circumnavigated it. In the face of such skepticism, the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, had to issue a decree in 1747 proclaiming California to be a peninsula connected to North America; the geographic chimera, no matter how appealing, was not to be suffered any longer, although a few final maps were printed with the lingering island.