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First Edition of De L’Isle’s Influential Map of the Northern Hemisphere

Fine example of the first state of De L’Isle’s polar projection, focused on the Arctic.

This map would become the prototype for a number of other eighteenth-century maps of the Northern Hemisphere and would be re-issued by De L'Isle and his successors for the next seventy years.

The map shows the entire Northern Hemisphere. The projection has the opposite effect of a Mercator projection, which tends to stretch and distort landmasses that are close to the poles. Here, it is territory close to the equator that is stretched, allowing the Arctic to come into sharp focus.

California is shown as a peninsula, although other contemporary maps still featured it as an island. Greenland is connected to Northern Canada in Baffin Bay, a common hypothesis at this time. Japan too is shown in what appears a rudimentary form; a more horizontal orientation of the archipelago was typical on maps until slightly later in the eighteenth century.

In the North Pacific, an unfinished island extends eastward. This Terre de la Compagnie is near Terre d’Yedso, an exaggeration of Hokkaido. Nearby, a note ties the former to the voyage of Dom Jean de Gama, who supposedly discovered a large coastline in the area. All three of these proved to be chimeras which shrank over the course of the century and eventually disappeared from maps.

The unfinished shores of North America and Greenland suggest that further exploration is necessary to better understand the Arctic. Indeed, the map seems to imply that there may be a navigable route north of Asia or around Baffin and Hudson’s Bay, a nod to the much-sought and still-elusive Northwest Passage.

North Pacific chimeras: Eso, De Gama, and Compagnie Land

Historically, Eso (Yeco, Jesso, Yedso, Yesso) refers to the island of Hokkaido. It varies on maps from a small island to a near-continent sized mass that stretches from Asia to Alaska. Eso is often tied to two other mythical North Pacific lands, Gamaland and Compagnies Land.

Juan de Gama, 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. These lands were initially shown as small islands on Portuguese charts, but ballooned into a continent-sized landmass in later representations.

Several voyagers sought out de Gama’s lands, including the Dutchmen Matthijs Hendrickszoon Quast in 1639 and Maarten Gerritszoon Vries in 1643. Compagnies Land, often shown along with Staten Land, were islands sighted by Vries on his 1643 voyage. He named the islands 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. However, other mapmakers latched onto Compagnies Land in particular, enlarging and merging it with Yesso and/or Gamaland.

In the mid-eighteenth century, Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer in Russian employ, and later James Cook would both check the area and find nothing. La Perouse also sought the huge islands, but found only the Kurils, putting to rest the myth of the continent-sized dream lands.

Guillaume De L'Isle Biography

Guillaume De L'Isle (1675-1726) is probably the greatest figure in French cartography. Having learned geography from his father Claude, by the age of eight or nine he could draw maps to demonstrate ancient history.  He studied mathematics and astronomy under Cassini, from whom he received a superb grounding in scientific cartography—the hallmark of his work. His first atlas was published in ca. 1700. In 1702 he was elected a member of the Academie Royale des Sciences and in 1718 he became Premier Geographe du Roi

De L'Isle's work was important as marking a transition from the maps of the Dutch school, which were highly decorative and artistically-orientated, to a more scientific approach. He reduced the importance given to the decorative elements in maps, and emphasized the scientific base on which they were constructed. His maps of the newly explored parts of the world reflect the most up-to-date information available and did not contain fanciful detail in the absence of solid information. It can be fairly said that he was truly the father of the modern school of cartography at the commercial level. 

De L’Isle also played a prominent part in the recalculation of latitude and longitude, based on the most recent celestial observations. His major contribution was in collating and incorporating this latitudinal and longitudinal information in his maps, setting a new standard of accuracy, quickly followed by many of his contemporaries. Guillaume De L’Isle’s work was widely copied by other mapmakers of the period, including Chatelain, Covens & Mortier, and Albrizzi.