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Fine Mid-Eighteenth-Century World Map by One of France’s Premier Mapmakers

Scarce first edition of Jacques Nicolas Bellin's large-format map of the world on Mercator's projection, depicting recent geographic encounters throughout the world and geographic theories, including the Sea of the West.

The map centers the Atlantic Ocean, and the geographic information nearest to Europe is the most certain and complete. As the viewer’s gaze radiates farther afield, however, there are many unfinished coast lines. Most of these are accompanied by an explanatory note, discussing past attempts to elucidate the features of the area. For ease of reading, the map also repeats certain longitudes at both ends of the map, which means that the Solomon Islands appear twice.

In the northeastern Pacific (on both ends of this map), off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula is a corner of land that is flanked by dotted lines. A note explains that this feature was seen by “Tchirikow” in 1741. This is a reference to Aleksey Ilich Chirikov, one of the officers who served on the Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733-1743), which was led by Vitus Bering. Chirkov also served on the First Kamchatka Expedition (1725-1731), which is mentioned here with Alaskan coasts that were “seen by the Russians in 1728.”

On the later expedition, Chirikov, as Bering’s second-in-command, took the St. Paul east and eventually made landfall in what is today southern Alaska (also noted on this map), sighting many islands along the way. Bering, meanwhile, wrecked in the St. Peter, dying on an island now named for him. Near to Chirikov’s island here is “Terre vue par Jean de Gama,” Terre de la Compagnie, I. des Etats, and Terre d’Yeco, all persistent Pacific geographic chimeras.

To the south, Australia is outlined with solid lines in the north and west, with dotted lines suggesting a larger continent. The lines connect Australia to New Guinea, but also to Terre du St. Esprit in the east, Terre de Diemen in the south, and Terre de Lewin, Endract, and With in the west. The last of these and Terre de Diemen all trace their names to Dutch encounters with the landmass, popularly known then as New Holland. Terre de Diemen, now Tasmania, was named for Anthony van Diemen, Governor General of the Dutch East India Company from 1636 to 1645. Under his urging, Abel Tasman sailed on two voyages in the early 1640s that encountered Tasmania and New Zealand for the first time by a European. The westernmost names all derive from Dutch ships and voyages; for example, Pieter Nuyts (here Nuits) commanded the Gulden Zeepaert along the southern coast in 1627 and the Eendracht (here Endract) was blown off course and made landfall in western Australia in 1616.

The other connected land, Terre du St. Esprit, stems not from the Dutch, but a Spaniard, Pedro Ferdinand de Quiros, who led an expedition in search of the Southern Continent in the early seventeenth century. The land he found, which he called Austrialia del Espiritu Santo, was described as paradisiacal by Quiros when he landed there and tried to begin a colony in 1606. His crew forced him to leave, however, and the island was then shifted on maps by subsequent geographers to serve various cartographic hypotheses. In reality, it was an island in the archipelago of Vanuatu; today it is still called Espiritu Santo.  

Another area of interest on this map is the interior and northern reaches of North America. A large note in the Far North explains that it is unknown if this area is made up of land or sea. Below the Arctic Circle are a series of lakes leading suggestively west from Hudson’s Bay. A note explains, “The English searched in this area for a passage to the South Seas [the Pacific], but we have reason to believe there is none.”

Interestingly, Bellin prefers to leave much of the space in what is today Canada blank, rather than conjecture as to a possible inland waterway. His contemporaries, most prominently Joseph-Nicolas De L’Isle and Philippe Buache, were publishing a series of controversial maps during this same period with several lakes leading across the continent—a Northwest Passage. The only of Buache and De L’Isle’s ideas to be seen here is the Mer de l’Ouest, which he has left open to the Pacific to the west.

The map’s decorative elements are saved for the title cartouche, in the lower left, and the advertisement in the lower right. In the advertisement, Bellin discusses the projection chosen for this map, the Mercator projection, and explains why it is preferable to use and view than other projections.

The present map was made just fifteen years before the voyages of Captain Cook and his contemporaries would radically change European understandings of global geography. A later edition, published in 1784, would be updated to include Cook's findings in the Pacific and along the Northwest Coast of America, including a very early appearance of Hawai’i and details of Cook's explorations in New Zealand and along the Alaskan coastline.

Both this and the later state of the map are part of a fascinating sequence of world maps by Bellin; however, the present map is not to be confused with a smaller version which begins with "Essay d'une Carte Reduite . . . ".

The Sea of the West

Many European maps of North America in the eighteenth century depict a large, western inland sea, hundreds of miles in diameter, with a small inlet to the Pacific and even some interior islands. The origins of this myth can be traced to several different sources and are tied to the search for a Northwest Passage. Like many cartographic myths, the Sea of the West persisted for decades, even in the face of strong evidence pointing to its non-existence.

One of the first European navigators to supposedly explore this area was Martin Aguilar. A Spanish captain, he sailed with Sebastian Vizcaino on a reconnaissance expedition up the California coast in 1602-3. Aguilar, commanding the Tres Reyes, was blown off course, to the north. When the seas calmed, Aguilar reported that he had found the mouth of a large river. Eighteenth-century geographers later conjectured that the river was the entrance to the Sea of the West.

Other maps placed the entrance to the Sea of the West via the Juan de Fuca Strait. Juan de la Fuca is the Castilianized name of Greek navigator Ioánnis Fokás (Phokás). Little archival evidence survives of Fuca’s career, but a chance meeting with an English financier, Michael Lok, in Venice in 1596 gave birth to rumors of Fuca’s voyages in the Pacific. Fuca reported that he had been sent north from New Spain twice in 1592 in search of the Strait of Anian. The Spanish Crown failed to reward Fuca’s discovery of an opening in the coast at roughly 47° N latitude and Fuca left the Spanish service embittered. His story lived on in Lok’s letters and eventually was published in Samuel Purchas’ travel collection of 1625. On many eighteenth-century maps, Fuca’s Strait is linked with a River or Sea of the West. In 1787, the present-day Juan de Fuca Strait was named by the wife of naval explorer Charles William Barkley, making permanent a label that had previously just been hopeful guesswork.

The source of the modern (18th Century) myth of the Sea or Bay of the West (Baye ou Mer de L'Ouest in French), are manuscript maps by Guillaume De L'Isle, who served as the Royal Geographer to the King of France at the end of the 17th Century and beginning of the 18th Century and is widely regarded as the most important map maker of his time. There is a map in Yale's map collection, which depicts a 16th Century Thames school map of North America with a large, "Branch of the South Sea," which closely resembles De L'Isle's Mer de L'Ouest, and may well be the source of De L'Isle's idea.

At the end of the 17th Century, Guillaume De L'Isle had access to the best available maps of the interior of North America, which were being provided from a number of missionary sources, as the French Missionaries pushed west of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River and obtained information from the indigenous Indian tribes. De L'Isle was regularly producing and updating his manuscript maps in an attempt to integrate new and often conflicting information and improve upon the existing maps of North America. Many of his maps can be viewed as drafts, which were discarded in favor of other and considerably different models.

There are several De L'Isle manuscripts in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, prepared as early as 1696 (dated), that depict this cartographic myth. Interestingly, while De L'Isle was a prolific publisher of printed maps, he never depicted the Sea or Bay of the West on any of his printed maps, which strongly suggests that he was not able to reconcile this information with the best available source information from America. During this same period, Jean Baptiste Nolin, who had in the prior decade collaborated with Vincenzo Maria Coronelli on his monumental globe for Louis XIV and produced a series of highly important maps of North America and its regions, would have also had access to many of the same reports and maps as De L'Isle. Nolin apparently gave greater credence to the concept than De L'Isle.

The earliest printed map to show the Bay of the West is Jean Baptiste Nolin's rare wall map of the world, published in about 1700.  Nolin plagiarized the idea from Guillaume De L'Isle, as he testified when suing Nolin for plagiarism. He said, the Sea of the West “was one of my discoveries. But since it is not always appropriate to publish what one knows or what one thinks one knows, I have not had this sea engraved on the works that I made public, not wanting foreigners to profit from this discovery” (as quoted in Pedley, The Commerce of Cartography, 109). The court sided with De L'Isle and issued an order requiring Nolin to destroy the copper plates for the map (see Shirley 605).  Nolin's map was in turn copied by the Mortier family, who issued 3 world maps shortly thereafter, showing Nolin's version of the Sea of the West, but the myth ignored for nearly half a century.

While the myth of the Sea or Bay of the West temporarily languished, the proliferation of Russian exploration off the Northwest Coast of America after 1740, as reported by Guillaume's younger brother Joseph Nicholas De L'Isle, reinvigorated interest in the region and forced the most prominent map makers of the period to re-examine existing knowledge. Joseph Nicolas served as a geographer to the Russian Academy and returned with this information to Paris.  The re-introduction of the sea in the mid-eighteenth century was the result of Guillaume De L’Isle’s son-in-law, Philippe Buache’s review of his father-in-law’s papers. Although Guilluame De L’Isle never published a printed map showing the sea, he had postulated that it could exist, and that it might connect to a Northwest Passage through New France, not through English territory farther north.

The sea was a major part of Buache and Joseph-Nicholas Delisle’s maps of the North Pacific, published in the 1750s. While controversial, the features of those maps were quickly copied by other mapmakers, including the Sea of the West. The inland body of water lingered on maps until the later-eighteenth century.

During a period between 1750 and 1770, the most prominent French and British map makers advanced multiple and widely varying theories on the Northwest Coast of America. Denis Diderot dedicates several of the 10 maps in his monumental Encylopedie (1779 and after), to a comprehensive survey of the maps proffered by Joseph Nicholas De L'Isle (Guillaume's brother), Philippe Buache, Thomas Jefferys and others. The debate ended with Captain James Cook's and later George Vancouver and Comte Jean de la Perouse's explorations in the late 18th Century.

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.

Graham Seal, The Savage Shore: Extraordinary stories of survival and tragedy from the early voyages of discovery (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); Thomas Suarez, Early Mapping of the Pacific (Hong Kong: Periplus, 2004); Mary Sponberg Pedley, The Commerce of Cartography: Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-Century France and England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); H. R. Wagner, "Apocryphal Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America," Proceedings of the AAS XLI (1931): 179-234. KAP
Jacques Nicolas Bellin Biography

Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (1703-1772) was among the most important mapmakers of the eighteenth century. In 1721, at only the age of 18, he was appointed Hydrographer to the French Navy. In August 1741, he became the first Ingénieur de la Marine of the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine (the French Hydrographic Office) and was named Official Hydrographer of the French King.

During his term as Official Hydrographer, the Dépôt was the one of the most active centers for the production of sea charts and maps in Europe. Their output included a folio-format sea atlas of France, the Neptune Francois. He also produced a number of sea atlases of the world, including the Atlas Maritime and the Hydrographie Francaise. These gained fame and distinction all over Europe and were republished throughout the eighteenth and even in the nineteenth century.

Bellin also produced smaller format maps such as the 1764 Petit Atlas Maritime, containing 580 finely-detailed charts. He also contributed a number of maps for the 15-volume Histoire Generale des Voyages of Antoine François Prévost.

Bellin set a very high standard of workmanship and accuracy, cementing France's leading role in European cartography and geography during this period. Many of his maps were copied by other mapmakers across the continent.