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Remarkable Early English Map of the North Polar Regions

Fine example of Moses Pitt's original map of the North Pole and surrounding lands.

Moses Pitt initially set out to produce an expanded edition of Jansson's Atlas Maior with his partner Jacob Van Waesberg. Unfortunately, after the production of several volumes, the project failed, landing Pitt in debtor's prison—a common story for mapmaking at this time. While most of the maps produced for the atlas were re-issues of earlier Dutch maps, Pitt's map of the North Pole was a new production.

The map's nomenclature is in English and clearly suggests both a Northwest Passage and a Northeast Passage. However, the ends of both routes are in “Parts Unknown,” most of which are helpfully covered by the title cartouche vignettes in the upper left corner.

Iceland is shown in good detail, with Mt. Hekla erupting. Some geographical information is labeled for the far north of Muscovy and Scandinavia, and Nova Zembla has a complete coastline. However, Svalbard, which was often also called Greenland, as it is here, has an incomplete coast to the east. Actual Greenland is connected to Baffin’s Bay, a common geographical depiction of the time. The mythical island of Frisland (here Freesland), part of the Zeno Map controversy, is southwest of Iceland.  

Previous attempts at finding the Northwest Passage are evident in the place names on the map. Not only are explorers like Hudson, Baffin, Button, and James memorialized here, but there are also corrections like “Briggs Bay formerly Hubbert’s Hope.” Briggs Bay is named for Henry Briggs, a mapmaker whose work was used by Luke Foxe and Thomas James in their voyages of 1631. The hope of the inlet was proven to be only a bay, not a route inland toward the west.

The map is elegantly finished with four compass roses and a small table explaining abbreviations in the bottom right. In the bottom left is an elaborate coat of arms belonging to the Right Honourable Charles FitzCharles, Earle of Plymouth, Viscount Totnes, and Baron Dartmouth. Fitzcharles was an illegitimate son of Charles II. He was given several titles by his father, including the first (and only) Earldom of Plymouth, before dying in a campaign in Tangiers (he drank contaminated water). He passed away in 1680, very shortly after this map was made, and is buried in Westminster Abbey, in the tomb formerly occupied by Oliver Cromwell.

The title cartouche in the top left is accompanied by two vignettes. To the left is an Inuit hunter with bow and spear. An Inuit mother and child, also with spears, are standing before him, near a wooden home. In the water behind them is an Inuit in a kayak; he has a spear as well. To the right is an image of Europeans whaling in northern waters. They are hunting both narwhals and double spouted rorquals.

Finally, in the top right is an interesting discussion of the insularity of Nova Zembla. Pitt has included an inset map showing the island as a peninsula. He writes:

In the Philosophicall Transactions of a[n]o 1674 n[o]. 101, there is set down a Description of Nova Zembla as it was sent to the Royall Society from a Russia Merchant and discovered by order of the Grand Czaar, but there being not joined to it either Longitude Latitiude or other measure, we thought it better to follow the two newest Maps, one printed at Amsterdam a[n]o 1678, the other at Nuremberg 1679: and to place this by it selfe: which shews it not an Iland but joyned with the Continent at letter K.

Pitt is referring to an article in the publication of the Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions. The article was titled, “A letter, not long since written to the publisher by an experienced person residing at Amsterdam, containing a true description of Nova Zembla, together with an intimation of the advantage of its shape and position.”

The search for a Northeast Passage to the eighteenth century

A Northeast Passage was a popular topic for states and navigators from the sixteenth century, just like the more well-known Northwest Passage. In 1553, Hugh Willoughby, with backing from London merchants, sailed north. Willoughby’s crew got separated from their navigator, Richard Chancellor, rendering them lost. Russian fisherman found their frozen bodies the following summer.

Jacon van Heemskerck sought the Northeast Passage beginning in 1596, accompanied by Willem Barentsz as pilot. They discovered what they called Spitsbergen, which is now known as part of the Svalbard Archipelago. Their ship became locked in the ice and they were forced to winter in situ, the first time a ship had done so. In the spring, they escaped in open boats; Barentsz died, but van Heemskerck made it to the coast of Lapland.

By the seventeenth century, Russian traders had found a continuous sea route, the Mangazeya Seaway, from Arkhangelsk to the Yamal Peninsula. From there, adventurers would portage to the Gulf of Ob. However, sailing around land farther east proved difficult, if not impossible, in the early modern period. Voyages pioneering parts of the Northeast Passage continued, however. For example, Fedot Alekseev and Semyon Dezhnev sailed from the Kolma River, around the Chukchi Peninsula, and into the Pacific in 1648, proving that Asia and North America were not connected.

The search for a Northwest Passage to the eighteenth century

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.  

In the employ of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Hudson sought a more southerly route than others 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 Map and the mythical island of Frisland

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. 

Condition Description
Old Color, recently retouched.
Katherine Neal, “Mathematics and Empire, Navigation and Exploration: Henry Briggs and the Northwest Passage Voyages of 1631,” Isis 93, no. 3 (2002): 435-453; Philip Hatfield, “The Search for the Northwest Passage,” History Today 67, no. 2 (2017): 10-17; Glyn Williams, Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for a Northwest Passage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); “A letter, not long since written to the publisher by an experienced person residing at Amsterdam, containing a true description of Nova Zembla, together with an intimation of the advantage of its shape and position,” Philosophical Transactions 9, issue 101 (1674): 3-4; Edward Brooke-Hitching, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps (London: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 240-243; Richard I. Ruggles, “The Cartographic Lure of the Northwest Passage: Its Real and Imaginary Geography,” in Meta Incognita: A Discourse of Discovery; Martin Frobisher’s Arctic Expeditions, 1576-1578, edited by Thomas H. B. Symons (Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1999), vol. I, 179-256. KAP
Moses Pitt Biography

Pitt was from Cornwall, where he was baptized at St. Teath in 1639. He was educated locally but moved to London when apprenticed to bookseller Robert Littlebury. At the end of his apprenticeship, in 1661, he was made free of the Haberdasher’s Company. His first books to be published with his own imprint appeared in 1667.

Pitt specialized in learned publications and imported scholarly works from continental Europe. He also published the writings of members of the newly formed Royal Society, including Robert Boyle, as well as high-ranking clergymen. In 1678, Pitt was the first bookseller to offer his wares via an auction.

Thanks in part to his ties to the Royal Society, Pitt announced in 1678 that he would publish a massive twelve-volume atlas of the world. The plates were to be based on Dutch maps, with a text written by Bishop William Nicholson and Richard Peers. However, only four volumes ever appeared.

Pitt, who was also managing several properties in Westminster and had expanded in a partnership to Oxford, was spread too thin. The cost of each volume of the atlas alone Pitt estimated at £1,000. One by one, his ventures turned foul, landing him in debtors’ prison for seven years. He died in London, but not in prison, in 1697.