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Celebrating the Geographic Encounters of the Eighteenth Century, including the Controversial Sea of the West

Fine example of Buache’s enhancement of Guillaume De L’Isle’s double-hemisphere map of the world.

Originally published in 1720, Buache, De L’Isle’s son-in-law, augmented this state of the map, adding significant new geographic information in the North Pacific and his own geographic theories about Antarctica.

The map is elegantly decorated with a ribbon scroll revealing the title and surrounding the coat of arms of the Bourbons, France’s rulers. While dedicated to the King, it was made for the scientific elite. As revealed in the cartouche in the lower center, De L’Isle originally made the map for the Mémoires de l'Académie royale des sciences, the publication of France’s scientific body. This state has been updated with details presented by Buache to the Académie in the early 1750s, when he was working especially on hypothesizing the likely shape of Antarctica and Alaska, as well as publicizing the Sea of the West.

Some of the most interesting geography is that of the mythical islands of the North Pacific (see below) and Australia. The west coast is labelled according to Dutch encounters with the continent in the early seventeenth century. The east coast is suggestively filled in, creating a large landmass that includes New Guinea, Van Diemen’s Land, and Quiros’ Terre Australe du S. Esprit (see below).

In the north of Australia is Carpenterie, so named in 1623 by Jan Cartensz after Pieter de Carpentier, the VOC governor of the East Indies at that time. Farther west and south is Terre d’Endracht. The Endracht was the second recorded European ship to contact Australia (1616). In the southwest is Terre de Leuwin, named for the Leeuwin, whose crew charted some of the southwest coastline in 1622. Terre de Nuits is named for Pieter Nuyts, a Dutch navigator who commanded the Gulden Zeepaert along the southern coast in 1627.

New Zealand is connected by a dotted line to a large Antarctic island. There are two of these southerly landmasses. Notes nearby explain Buache’s conception of what might lie at the South Pole. He hypothesized, here and on other maps, that the southern pole must contain a frozen sea, fed by mountain ranges and huge rivers in order to produce icebergs of the size reported by Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier, Edmond Halley, and others (see below).

The map is also a chronicle of the routes of a number of important explorers, showing the tracks of Magellan (1520), Mendaña (1595), Quiros (1605), Le Maire (1615), Tasman (1642), Halley (1700), the St. Louis (1709), the St. Antoine (1710), and Bouvet (1738-9).

This edition also incorporates the Russian discoveries in Alaska, as well as Buache’s ideas about the interior geography of the Pacific Northwest. The first (1728-30) and second (1722-41) Bering Expeditions redrew the known features of the far northern Pacific by encountering and charting the Alaskan mainland and islands, as well as the Bering Strait. Buache incorporated this information, as well as that of more dubious sources, like the Admiral de La Fonte’s letters, in a series of maps produced in the early 1750s. The speculative geography is repeated here, including Fonte’s inlet and lakes, as well as the findings of Juan de Fuca and Martin Aguilar.

Near the Sea of the West (see below) is the label, “Foussang des Chinois.” This note stems from the work of French Orientalist Le Guignes, who hypothesized that the Chinese arrived in the New World over a millennium before the Europeans, most famously in his 1761 work, Recherches sur les Navigations des Chinois du Cote de l'Amerique, et sur quelques Peuples situés a l'extremite orientale de l"asie. Le Guignes was named a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1752 and his work was well known across Enlightenment Europe, as evidenced here.

The Sea of the West

The 1592 voyage by Juan de Fuca is celebrated as discovering the Salish Sea for Europeans. Of course, de Fuca's travels are little known, and it is uncertain if he ever even sailed into the straits which now bear his name. Navigators such as Cook doubted him, but it now seems that de Fuca's account of his voyage matches strongly with the geography of this area. De Fuca describes a large bay with numerous archipelagos in which he spent many days sailing. Intriguingly for those seeking a Northwest Passage, he described a vast inland sea which he saw but did not reach. 

This idea of an inland sea or bay was picked up by Guillaume De L'Isle, who drew several conjectural maps which included a Sea of the West, though these were never printed. The myth of the Sea of the West was picked up again later in the eighteenth century, when Philippe Buache and Joseph-Nicolas De L’Isle, Guillaume son-in-law and brother, respectively, began to incorporate the feature in their own maps in the early 1750s. The exact nature of this Sea varied from map to map, but the grandest ideas depicted a vast body of water stretching nearly to the Mississippi.

While not all maps of the period depicted such a sea, many did. Russian exploration to the northwest was the primary reason this short-lived myth was dispelled, even though initial voyages had not ruled out such a bay. Gerhard Muller's map is perhaps the most influential of the period to not show this bay, and his work was responsible for laying the cartographic foundations for a Pacific Northwest we now recognize today.

Quiros and Espiritu Santo

This map adopts a particular and somewhat peculiar configuration for Australia that includes a prospective eastern coastline which extends all the way to 180°E. Two rivers flow to that far shore, the Jordan and the St. Salvador.

These rivers are part of Terre Australe du St. Esprit. This toponym connects the speculative coastline to the voyages of Pedro Ferdinand de Quiros at the turn of the seventeenth century. Quiros was a skilled pilot who accompanied Alvaro de Mendaña on his second voyage to the Solomons in 1595-6 (the first voyage took place in 1567-9).

After returning to Spain, Quiros convinced authorities that he could find Terra Australis, the southern continent, if they gave him ships and supplies. He set out in 1605 and eventually landed in Vanuatu. He mistook one of the islands for the fabled continent and called it Austrialia de Espiritu Santo. The largest island in the chain is still called Espiritu Santo today.

Quiros intended to set up a colony on the supposed continent. He performed a series of elaborate possession rituals and founded a city he called Nueba Hierusalem. The “city” was nestled between two rivers which Quiros called the Jordan and the San Salvador (likely today’s Jordan and Vitthié Rivers). However, his crew forced him to leave. Quiros returned to Mexico, but his second-in-command sailed west, through the strait now bearing his name. Due to state secrecy, however, the strait remained largely unknown until the 1760s.

Upon his return, Quiros revved up his campaign, lobbying once again for a voyage to return to his supposed southern continent. To gain support, Quiros wrote at least fifty memorials to advertise his successes and lay out his plans. Fourteen of these were printed between 1607 and 1614.

The most widely circulated was the Eighth Memorial. In it, he describes Austrialia de Espiritu Santo to be as wide as Europe, Asia Minor, the Caspian Sea, and Persia combined, “in its outline it quarters the entire Globe.” Printed in Madrid in 1608 and Seville in 1609, the Eighth Memorial was reprinted in 1612 by Dutch cartographer Hessel Gerritsz in his Detectio Freti Hudson.

Quiros’ discoveries remained tantalizing and would be revived by geographers for the next two centuries. For example, in the mid-1740s, in his reissue of Harris’ Navigantium atque Itinerantium Bibliotheca, John Campbell explained that it was likely that New Guinea and Van Diemen’s Land were all disparate parts of a large Terra Australis that connected to New Holland. His main source to back up this theory was Quiros’ memorials.

Quiros also featured in other prominent voyage collections of the mid-eighteenth century, namely Charles de Brosses’ Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes (Paris: Durand, 1756) and Alexander Dalrymple’s An Historical collection of the several voyages and discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean (London, 1769-71).

A hypothetical eastern coastline for Australia

Cartographically, there was variation in the placement of a hypothetical eastern coastline that included Espiritu Santo. One of the earliest maps to show this depiction seems to have been Guillaume Delisle’s 1714 map of the southern hemisphere. The map shows Espiritu Santo with the Jordan and San Salvador rivers at roughly 185°E (from an Atlantic prime meridian), but it is not connected to New Holland. Others also adopted the idea of an Australian continent stretching to Espiritu Santo, including Richard Cushee in his 38 cm. diameter terrestrial globe of 1731.

The idea of a hypothetical eastern coast, evident in the famed Bonaparte Tasman map, was revived in the 1740s and 1750s. One of the world maps in Campbell’s collection, by Emmanuel Bowen, shows T. de St. Espirit at 150°E (Greenwich meridian) as part of a suggested eastern coastline for Australia.

In 1753, Bellin connected Van Diemen’s Land to Espiritu Santo (145°E, Paris meridian), but added a note explaining the link as unproven. Robert de Vaugondy’s map of 1756 also connects the two into a large continent with New Holland (Espiritu Santo at 170°E, with an Atlantic meridian). Interestingly, the latter map was included in De Brosses’ voyage collection, wherein De Brosses expressed his belief that Espiritu Santo was insular.

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

The etymology of the idiom Yesso (Eso, Yeco, Jesso, Yedso) is most likely the Japanese Ezo-chi; a term used for the lands north of the island of Honshu. During the Edō period (1600-1886), it came to represent the ‘foreigners’ on the Kuril and Sakhalin islands. As European traders came into contact with the Japanese in the seventeenth century, the term was transferred onto European maps, where it was often associated with the island of Hokkaido. It varies on maps from a small island to a near-continent sized mass that stretches from Asia to Alaska. 

The toponym held interest for Europeans because the island was supposedly tied to mythic riches. Father Francis Xavier (1506-1552), an early Jesuit missionary to Japan and China, related stories that immense silver mines were to be found on a secluded Japanese island; these stories were echoed in Spanish reports. The rumors became so tenacious and tantalizing that Abraham Ortelius included an island of silver north of Japan on his 1589 map of the Pacific.

Yesso 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 these chimerical islands, 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.

Buache's Mer Glaciale

Several mid-eighteenth-century maps, initially those of renowned theoretical geographer Philippe Buache, show a hypothetical depiction of what is now called Antarctica. The landmass is split into two with a large Mer Glaciale running through their middle. The smaller of the two is separated from Tierra del Fuego but extends north to land spotted by Bouvet de Lozier in 1739.  Across the frozen sea is the larger of the two of Buache’s Antarctic lands. It extends east, running well south of Van Diemen’s Land, which had been skirted by Tasman in his voyage of 1642-3. Farther east in the Pacific the shore twists north to include New Zealand, which was also contacted by Tasman.

Bouvet’s sighting of Cap de la Circoncision is near one of the entrances to the polar sea. The other opening into the inland sea, to the southwest of South America, was placed where the buccaneers Sharpe and Davis had reported icebergs in 1687. Buache believed that the icebergs must have derived from a floating ice sheet, as in the Arctic. This hypothesis led him to conclude that the southern continent was not a single landmass but two islands separated by a frozen inland sea, from which icebergs detached themselves to float northwards.

The inland sea theory was based upon work Buache had developed over a number of years. His ideas were presented to the Académie des Sciences in 1744published as Considérations géographiques sur les terres australes et antarctiques in 1761, and republished in English in The Gentleman's Magazine in 1763. In it, he hypothesized that the southern pole must contain a frozen sea, fed by mountain ranges and huge rivers in order to produce icebergs of the size reported by Bouvet, Halley, and others. The Antarctic inland sea was much discussed by geographers at the time and it was copied by several other mapmakers.

Guillaume Delisle 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.

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).