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South Polar Exploration and Geographical Conjecture in the First Half of the Eighteenth Century—Rare First State!

Remarkable map of the southern hemisphere, a foundational map from notable French mapmaker Philippe Buache.

This is Buache's first attempt at depicting the Southern Hemisphere and is based on a 1714 map by his father-in-law, Guillaume Deslisle. However, Deslisle’s map extends to the Equator, while Buache has decided to focus more narrowly, from the Tropic of Capricorn south.

The map lacks any attempt to outline Antarctica, which was still unknown in the middle of the eighteenth century although it had been depicted on maps since the early-sixteenth century. Instead, Buache uses this map to consolidate information about far southerly voyages and to highlight the possible importance of the discovery of Cap de la Circoncision by Bouvet de Lozier on his voyage of 1738-9.

Buache's second map of the area, issued in 1739 and reprinted in 1754, would show Buache’s conjectural southern continent, complete with an inland sea. Buache was one of the most prominent proponents of the existence of a southern continent, based on the theory of continental balance and scattered reports from navigators like Bouvet de Lozier.

On the edges of the map is an account of the 1738-9 expedition led by Bouvet de Lozier. Bouvet de Lozier was an employee of the French East India Company who was convinced that, given a chance, he could make discoveries around the South Pole, or near the much-vaunted Terra Australis Incognita. Bouvet de Lozier meticulously searched the South Atlantic in the Aigle and Marie, but he had to return to France earlier than expected because his crew became too ill to continue. In the 1750s, he served as the governor of the Mascarene Islands, east of Madagascar. He was France’s best-known explorer at the time this map was printed.

Bouvet de Lozier’s journals mention icebergs between two and three hundred feet high and half a league to two or three leagues in circumference. There is also an extensive discussion and view on this map of Cap de la Circoncision, which would later become Bouvet Island. The island was discovered on January 1, 1739, the first time land had been spotted in the area. Bouvet de Lozier spotted the island through the fog, was not able to land, and did not circumnavigate his discovery, thus not clarifying if it was an island or part of a continent. This obscurity and potential made it of intense interest to geographers.

The map also incorporates information from Abel Tasman (1642-3) and other Dutch voyages which touched on New Zealand and Australia. Also shown are the southern hemispheric expeditions of Amerigo Vespucci (1503), Francis Drake (1577-80), Ferdinand Magellan (1519-1522), Pedro Fernandez de Quiros (1605), Jacques Le Maire and Willem Corneliszoon Schouten (1615-17), Edmund Halley (here labeled as  1700, but actually 1699), William Dampier (1699-1701), and the voyage of the St. Louis (1708).

  • Amerigo Vespucci, best known for lending his name to two continents, made at least two voyages to the Americas between 1497 and 1504. He published accounts of his adventures in 1503 and 1505, popularizing his descriptions and navigational prowess. The voyage alluded to here, in 1503, supposedly sailed to 52°S, although scholars dispute the veracity of this claim.
  • Ferdinand Magellan is widely celebrated as the first commander to lead a voyage around the world. While one of his ships, the Victoria, did limp back to Spain after three years with only 18 men, Magellan himself had died in the Philippines.
  • Francis Drake led another circumnavigation, the world’s third, from 1577 to 1580.
  • Pedro Ferdinand de Quiros accompanied a late-sixteenth century voyage in search of the Solomons. He became obsessed with finding the southern continent and led an expedition in 1605 in search of it. His crew landed on Vanuatu but forced Quiros to leave. He lobbied for more expeditions but died before he could undertake them.
  • Le Maire and Schouten led an attempt to undermine the Dutch East India Company monopoly on the entrance to the Pacific via the Straits of Magellan. They found an alternative route around Cape Horn via a strait now named for Le Maire. They then set out across the Pacific, completing a circumnavigation of the globe from 1615 to 1617.
  • Edmund Halley led three voyages in the Paramore making observations on magnetic declination. In 1698 and 1699 he sailed in the far southern Atlantic and sighted large icebergs.
  • William Dampier, after writing a celebrated voyage account of his years as a buccaneer, was given command of HMS Roebuck. From 1699 to 1701 he led an ill-fated expedition that sunk the Roebuck yet also saw him land on western Australia.  

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 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, made this map. 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. He researched the southern continents suggested by previous mapmakers, including Ortelius, to create his own construction. The latter 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. 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.

Text Translation:


19 July 1738, the 2 frigates Aigle and Marie left from Port de l’Orient. 8 September passed the Equator. 11 October arrived at St Catherine’s Isle off the coast of Brazil. 13 November set sail from this island to go to look for latitude 44° roughly on 355° longitude. 26 [November] thick fog at latitude 35° and 344° longitude; often one could not make out objects at gun-shot distance. It lasted until the 20th of January. 3 December we began to see gulls and extremely large whales and numerous birds at 39° 20´ latitude and  35° longitude. Believing ourselves close to some land, we sounded without finding the bottom at 180 fathoms. 7 [December] cold weather even though we were then in the summer and the sun was close to the solstice. 10 [December] at latitude 44° and on the Prime Meridian, the land [we had come] to view is located in this place by some geographers. We could not find any land; either it has been mislocated or was just some island. 25 [December] at a latitude equivalent to that of Paris and 7° longitude, the air very cold. Saw the P… icebergs, which made one suspect nearby lands. 28 [December], latitude 51° 13´ longitude 15° 22´, a variation of the compass observed from 24° northeast to 50° northwest; became 15 different irregularities which one had already observed in approaching the icebergs of Hudson Bay and the Davis Strait. First of January 1739, view of an extremely high landmass at 54° latitude and 28° 30´ longitude. We named it the Cape of the Circumcision. For twelve days we were unable to land there because of the icebergs, the fog and adverse winds. From the 12th to the 25th [January], we coursed latitudes 51° for 425 leagues, always seeing whales and sea-lions etc. 5 February, at 44° 30´, the vessels separated. M Bouvet made for the Cape of Good Hope and M Hay for the Isle de France. 4 March, anchorage at Cape of Good Hope, where we recognised that we had been carried to the east coast; conjectured that strong winds, from the 25th to 31st January, had done it. Arrived in France 24 June without loss of any man, despite the extreme fatigue of the voyage.

MAP OF THE SOUTHERN LANDS contained between the Tropic of Capricorn and the South Pole, where can be seen the new discoveries made in 1739 south of the Cape of Good Hope on the orders of the Gentlemen of the Indies Company. Drawn up from the memoirs and the original map of M de Lovier Bouvet, leader of this expedition, by Philippe Buache of the Academie Royale des Sciences, son-in-law of the late M Delisle, Private Geographer to the King, and from the same Academie.

PLAN and VIEW of the lands of the CAPE OF THE CIRCUMCISION, situated at about 34 degrees southern latitude and 28 degrees, 32 minutes longitude.

Icebergs seen in January 1739.

LAND that extends 8 to 20 leagues to the east north-east and 6 leagues to the southeast.

Cape of the Circumcision. This variation was observed: 6° 30´ on one compass and 4° on another, on 30 December 1738, at latitude 32° 26´ and at 35° 43´ longitude.

These icebergs seemed to be 2 to 300 feet high and from half a league to 2 or 3 leagues around.

Philippe Buache Biography

Philippe Buache (1700-1773) was one of the most famous French geographers of the eighteenth century. Buache was married to the daughter of the eminent Guillaume Delisle and worked with his father-in-law, carrying on the business after Guillaume died. Buache gained the title geographe du roi in 1729 and was elected to the Academie des Sciences in the same year. Buache was a pioneering theoretical geographer, especially as regards contour lines and watersheds. He is best known for his works such as Considérations géographiques et physiques sur les découvertes nouvelles dans la grande mer (Paris, 1754).