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Sailing the South Atlantic

Striking example of Jansson's sea chart of the South Atlantic, showing the coastlines of South America, Southwestern Africa, and an imagined Terra Australis.

The chart shows the proximity of Africa and South America. The ocean waters are criss-crossed with rhumb lines, which aid the navigator in setting a course. Both continents also have waterways marked, with Lake Zaire, the Amazon, and Rio de la Plata as the most notable features.

Tierra del Fuego is shown with a southward thrust, a misunderstanding of the connection of islands near Cape Horn to the larger archipelago. The southwest coast is still uncertain. To get to Cape Horn, ships would cross through the Strait of Le Maire, between Tierra del Fuego and Staten Land. The strait was named for the merchant Isaac Le Maire who financed the voyage led by his son, Jacob, and Willem Schouten that found the new route into the Pacific on their circumnavigation (1615-1617)

Another strait on the other side of Staten Land is named for Brouwer. As part of a Dutch West Indies Company expedition to Chile, Brouwer led a fleet from Recife, Brazil in 1643. The Company wanted to join a revolt already started by the Araucano Indians in an attempt to destabilize the Spanish hold on power. Brouwer had his fleet sail on an easterly route, discovering that Le Maire’s Staten Land was insular.

Brouwer’s Strait is proximate to the most arresting feature on this chart, the massive outline of Terra Australis Incognita. The shoreline is made of both solid coast and small islands and runs nearly the length of the chart.

Within the southern continent, the scale is accompanied by a pair of putti playing with surveying equipment while the hapless surveyor works nearby. In the upper left corner is an ornate, Orientalised cartouche featuring a turbaned map and an Indigenous man in a loincloth. It is topped by a hissing iguana.

Early modern mapping of the South Pole and Terra Australis

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.

Jan Jansson Biography

Jan Janssonius (also known as Johann or Jan Jansson or Janszoon) (1588-1664) was a renowned geographer and publisher of the seventeenth century, when the Dutch dominated map publishing in Europe. Born in Arnhem, Jan was first exposed to the trade via his father, who was also a bookseller and publisher. In 1612, Jan married the daughter of Jodocus Hondius, who was also a prominent mapmaker and seller. Jonssonius’ first maps date from 1616.

In the 1630s, Janssonius worked with his brother-in-law, Henricus Hondius. Their most successful venture was to reissue the Mercator-Hondius atlas. Jodocus Hondius had acquired the plates to the Mercator atlas, first published in 1595, and added 36 additional maps. After Hondius died in 1612, Henricus took over publication; Janssonius joined the venture in 1633. Eventually, the atlas was renamed the Atlas Novus and then the Atlas Major, by which time it had expanded to eleven volumes. Janssonius is also well known for his volume of English county maps, published in 1646.

Janssonius died in Amsterdam in 1664. His son-in-law, Johannes van Waesbergen, took over his business. Eventually, many of Janssonius’ plates were sold to Gerard Valck and Pieter Schenk, who added their names and continued to reissue the maps.