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The First Printed Map of the Arctic Voyages of Martin Frobisher and John Davis In Search of the Northwest Passage – The First Printed Map to Show Compass Deviation

The Plancius-Claesz map of the North Atlantic and Maritime Canada is a map of landmark importance. Drawn by Petrus Plancius, engraved by Joannes van Doetecum the Elder, and published by Cornelis Claesz in Amsterdam in 1594, the map was the first to include the findings of the Arctic expeditions of John Davis and Martin Frobisher, as well as the first to translate the manuscripts of Bartolomeu Lasso in print. It is also the first printed map to show compass deviation.

Known to survive in only a few uncolored examples, the present example is exceptional, offered in scintillating original hand-color, completely unrestored and without embellishment.

The map stretches from North Africa, Spain, and the British Isles west to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the North American mainland. Greenland and Iceland are in the north. Many islands dot the waters, including mythical features like Frisland, Hy Brasil, Buss Island, and St. Brendan’s Island. The actual island of Bermuda is tucked into the southwest corner. Both the coastal toponyms and those within the Saint Lawrence River have been substantially updated compared with those on previous maps, as has the configuration of Newfoundland.

An inset shows the Davis Strait in detail, and this is the first printed map to show the discoveries of John Davis in 1585. The strait is also on the main map, in a slightly different configuration. This is to allow for differing understandings of the geography as described by Davis. Joining the inset in the top left corner is a triple scale bar. Both are set in attractive strapwork frames. A similar frame at the lower center recounts initial European encounters with New France.

The most striking inset is the finely-engraved vignette of whaling near the bottom border. Harpooners in small boats, led by a naked spiritual or deified guide, spear struggling whales in choppy seas. Their ships sit at anchor in the distance, while rendered oil is being rolled away in barrels onshore. Fishing off Newfoundland was common from at least the late fifteenth century. Whaling in the area was also a lucrative enterprise, especially in the hunt for the oil-rich Northern Atlantic Right Whale. It is based on an engraving by Hans Bol and Phillip Galle of 1582.

The final decorations of note on the map are the large ships and whales that are set into the Atlantic. Rhumb lines criss-cross the seas, suggesting this map, while not a seagoing chart, was intended for a maritime audience of merchants, captains, and their fellows.

There are two large compass roses included, one in the northeast and one in the center of the map. Near the center compass is a latitude bar set at a slant. This is an attempt to indicate magnetic variation, which affected compasses and, therefore, navigation. Magnetic variation is the difference in degrees between true north and magnetic north. Burden (85) explains that this is the “first attempt to show the deviation of the compass on a printed map.”

As seen in the toponyms on the Canadian coast, the map is the first to translate the manuscripts of Bartolomeu Lasso to print. Cortesão and Teixeira da Mota (PMC III, pages 91-92) concluded that Plancius made specific errors when copying the toponyms from Lasso’s manuscript maps, which help to definitively establish the lineage of this map. Lasso was an important Portuguese cartographer who also had a strong influence on Dutch cartography; in 1592 the States-General authorized Cornelis Claesz to copy Lasso’s maps. One detail from Lasso that makes this map special is that this is the first printed map to show Newfoundland as one island, not two or more.

First map to illustrate English discoveries in the Arctic 

According to Schilder (MCN VII, pages 121-129), this was the first printed map to relate the Arctic discoveries of Martin Frobisher and John Davis, and as such was the earliest map to include English efforts to find a northern passage to China. Frobisher (ca. 1535-1594) was an English privateer and sometime pirate who led three voyages north (1576, 1577, and 1578). He sailed to the south of Greenland, into the Hudson Straits and up Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island. Davis (ca. 1550-1605), half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, led three voyages to the far north (1585, 1586, 1587), specifically to Greenland, Baffin Bay, and Labrador. Plancius would have learned of these findings from the Molyneaux globe of 1592, the first terrestrial globe made in England.

A toponym of especial interest is Norombega Pars south of Nova Francia. This name first appeared as Oranbega on Giovanni da Verrazzano’s 1529 map.The place would gain a mythic reputation based on the stories of David Ingram, a marooned English sailor. He described silver thrones and vast cities, but his story was doubted by both later travel writers such as Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas.


This is an example of the first state (of three, per Schilder’s MCN VII), with the pasted-on title and text. Only seven examples of the first state are recorded, with none in the United States: Amsterdam Universiteitsbibliotheek; The American Museum in Bath; Badische Landesbibliothek, Karlsruhe; British Library; Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, Paris; Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne; Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

The last example to appear at auction was a black and white example of a later state, sold in 1948 as part of the Harmsworth Trust Library Auctions. They listed it as, “A very rare and important map... There is no copy in America... The map is also of interest in bearing an ‘oblique meridian’, showing the magnetic variation off the N.E. Coast of America.”

The mythical islands of the North Atlantic

The North Atlantic is especially prone to mythical or elusive islands, a result of the rich seafaring cultures that border it and the intensity of the expansion and commercial trade of European empires in the Atlantic World.

This map features several of these islands. The most noticeable is Frisland, near Iceland, whose fascinating story and association with the Zeno Map is told below. Nearby to Frisland is Bus Ins., or Buss Island. This island originates in reports about Martin Frobisher’s third voyage, specifically George Best’s A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discoverie of a Passage to Cathaya (1578). One of Frobisher’s ships, the Emmanuel, which was a busse, hence the island’s name, supposedly sailed along the island on its homeward journey in 1578. Hakluyt included a description of the island in his Principal Navigations (1598). It was variably sighted and sought by seventeenth-century navigators and John Seller charted it his English Pilot (1671). The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) sent an expedition in search of it in 1675, but they found nothing. By the eighteenth-century, cartographers supposed the island was fabulous or sunken, demoting it to a navigational hazard. A further voyage in 1791 finally proved its non-existence.

Due south of Buss Island is another small dot, this one labeled Brazyl. Hy Brasil is an enduring Atlantic chimera emerging from Celtic folklore. It ranges on maps from just off the west coast of Ireland to the area around the Azores. The island was initially described as a rich paradise not unlike Atlantis; it emerged from the depths for a short period and then would disappear. It started to appear on portolan charts in the fourteenth century and continued to be a stalwart of maps and charts into the nineteenth century. The island was the subject of a fanciful pamphlet by Richard Head in 1675. Despite no accurate reports of its whereabouts, the island appeared on Admiralty charts and other reputable maps for centuries, usually in the latitude of 51°N and at a longitude of 17°W.

A final island of note is that of St. Brendan, here the center of a set of rhumb lines just south of Newfoundland. Like Hy Brasil, this island is also connected to Irish lore. St. Brendan, hearing of a promised land from St. Barrind, decided to take a group of monks to find the paradise in the sixth century. After 43 days the monks landed on a deserted island. This is only the first of a series of islands which they encounter, before facing a frozen sea. They have more adventures and eventually return home. The island itself initially appeared near the Canary Islands, but by 1570 Abraham Ortelius placed it near Newfoundland, where it stayed until slowly disappearing from maps in the seventeenth century.

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
Exceptional sixteenth-century hand-coloring. Centerfold toned. Trimmed to the platemark at the left edge.
Burden, map 85; Schilder, Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica, VII, 121-129; Portugaliae Monumenta Cartographica, III, 91-92; Edward Brooke-Hitchings, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps (London: Simon & Schuster, 2016). AC with KAP.
Petrus Plancius Biography

Petrus Plancius (1552-1622) was born Pieter Platevoet in Dranouter in West Flanders. He trained as a clergyman in Germany and England, but he was an expert not only in theology but in geography, cosmography, and navigation. After fleeing prosecution by the Inquisition in Brussels, Plancius settled in Amsterdam where he first began his forays into navigation and charting. As Amsterdam was a hub for trade, Plancius was able to access Portuguese charts, the most advanced in the world at that time. Plancius used these charts to become an expert in the sailing routes to India, knowledge that gained him opportunity. Plancius was one of the founders of the VOC, for whom he worked as their geographer. He also served on a Government Committee to review the equipment needed for exploratory expeditions.