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Fine Golden Age Dutch Chart with the Island of California and an Early Mapping of New Zealand

Scarce early sea chart by Doncker, showing the West Coast of the Pacific Ocean, which extends from the island of California to Chile, with noteworthy insets of New Zealand, the Ladrones, and part of Japan and Yedso.

The east-oriented chart follows the coastline closely, stopping south of La Serena in Chile. It is one of the earliest regional charts of the Pacific Coast of the Americas.  There are three insets nestled into inland North America and what would be the Caribbean, along with the title cartouche. These insets, outlined by delicate floral edges, show islands of interest to Europeans, although they were still seldom frequented by them when this chart was published.

California is included prominently as an island. The Canal de Santa Barbara, Monte Rey, P. Conception, S. Diego, Mendocino, S. Quentin, C. Blanco and many other early place names appear. Very few other islands appear in the Pacific, however.

The largest insert, in the center of the other two, shows a variety of tiny islands in the West Pacific, including the Ladrones (Marianas). These would be the first islands a navigator would meet when crossing the world’s largest ocean, making them a welcome and necessary stopover place en route to Asia. The Ladrones, or Thieves’ Islands, were so named by Magellan’s crew, who had a boat taken from them by the native Chamorros people. The crew attacked the Chamorros in return, exacting a higher price than that which had been taken.

The inset of New Zealand is a detailed treatment of Abel Tasman's discoveries in New Zealand, including five place names. Tasman had visited the island on his first voyage in the southwest Pacific, from 1642-44, the first European to do so. This is one of the earliest printed charts to give such a finely-wrought treatment of New Zealand. A more complete understanding of the islands that make up New Zealand would not be attained until Captain Cook visited the islands a century after this map was made.

The other inset shows the tip of Japan, along with three other islands, Yedso, Staten landt, and Compa[n]es Land. Also known as Yesso, is a feature included on many seventeenth and eighteenth-century maps. Historically, Ieso (Eso, Yeco, Jesso, Jeso, Yedso, Yesso) refers to the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan. It varies on maps from a small island to a near-continent sized mass that stretched from Asia to Alaska.

Nearby are two other hypothetical islands, Staten landt, and Compa[n]es Land. In the sixteenth century, Juan, the grandson of Vasco de Gama, was a Portuguese navigator who was accused of illegal trading with the Spanish in the East Indies. Gama fled and sailed from Macau to Japan in the later sixteenth century. He then struck out east, across the Pacific, and supposedly saw lands in the North Pacific.

Several voyagers sought out de Gama’s lands, including the Dutchmen Matthijs Hendrickszoon Quast in 1639 and Maarten Gerritszoon Vries in 1643. Compagnies Land, along with Staten Land, were islands sighted by Vries on his voyage. He named the island for the Dutch States General (Staten Land) and for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) (Compagnies, or Company’s Land). In reality, he had re-discovered two of the Kuril Islands. Here, Doncker has included both Staten Landt and Compag[n]es Land, separated from each other by the Straat de Vries, named for the navigator.

States of the Map and Rarity

  • State 1 (1659):  Yucatan, Gulf Coast of Central America and East Coast of Venezuela not shown, just the west coast.
  • State 2 (1660):  Yucatan, Gulf Coast of Central America and East Coast of Venezuela added.

This fine chart illustrates a seldom seen world, as the Pacific was still seldom traversed by Europeans at this time. It is not often seen on the market.

California as an island

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. While most of these show the equivalent of the modern state of California separated from the continent, others, like a manuscript chart by Joao Teixeira Albernaz I (ca. 1632) now in the collection of the National Library of Brasil shows the entire western half of North Americas as an island. 

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 Ascensión, 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 Contratación. However, the manuscript maps were intercepted in the Atlantic by the Dutch, who took them to Amsterdam where they began to circulate. Ascensión also published descriptions of the insular geography in Juan Torquemada’s Monarquia Indiana (1613) (with the island details curtailed somewhat) and in his own Relación breve of ca. 1620.

The first known maps to show California as an island were on the title pages of Antonio de Herrera’s Descripción de las Indias Occidentales (1622) and Jacob le Maire's Spieghel Der Australische Navigatie (1622). Two early examples of larger 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.

Edward Brooke-Hitching, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps (London: Simon and Schuster, 2016); Thomas Suarez, Early Mapping of the Pacific (Hong Kong: Periplus, 2004); Lawrence C. Wroth, “The Early Cartography of the Pacific,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 38, no. 2 (1944): 87-268; McLaughlin with Mayo, The Mapping of California as an Island: An Illustrated Checklist, map 21; Leighly California as an Island: An Illustrated Essay; Polk, The Island of California: A History of the Myth (Spokane: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1991); Wagner, 382; Leighly, 36; Lowery, 150; Sanderson, 61; Putman, 134-35; Goss, 35. KAP
Hendrick Doncker Biography

Hendrik Doncker was a prominent bookseller in Amsterdam best known for his sea charts and nautical atlases. He issued his own original charts, which he updated frequently, and also worked with colleagues like Pieter Goos, for example to produce the pilot guide, De Zeespeigel. He died in 1699, after fifty years in business. His plates then passed to Johannes van Keulen.