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Fine French Atlas World Map with the Sea of the West

Striking map of the world on Mercator's Projection, showing a number of important explorers’ routes.

The map appeared in Rigobert Bonne’s Atlas de toutes les parties connues du globe terrestre, dresse pour l'histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans le deux Indes. The atlas was an accompaniment to the Abbé Raynal’s influential L’Histoire de deux Indes, one of the first world histories.

Somewhat unusually, the Pacific is centered here. There are no Arctic or Antarctic lands, although there are unfinished coastlines near Spitzbergen and Russia and a cote inconnuë northwest of Europe.

The north of North America is striking in its lack of completion and its fantastical inclusions. There is a Sea of the West and huge lakes stretching to the northeast, suggesting a possible inland Northwest Passage. These are “pretended discoveries of Admiral de Fonte.” Admiral de Fonte supposedly sailed to the area in the mid-seventeenth century. The first mention of Fonte appears in two letters published in London in 1708 in two issues of The Monthly Miscellany or Memoirs for the Curious. The Fonte letters had been reprinted by Arthur Dobbs in his 1744 An Account of the Countries adjoining Hudson's Bay and were mentioned in other travel accounts. 

The letters recounted that Fonte had found an inlet near 53°N which led to a series of lakes. While sailing northeast, Fonte eventually met with a Boston merchant ship, commanded by a Captain Shapley. One of Fonte's captains, separated from the Admiral, reported he had found no strait between the Pacific and the Davis Straits, yet had reached 79°N, helped by local indigenous peoples. This story, with its suggestion of water passages connecting the Pacific Northwest with the east, inspired hope in some and doubt in others in the mid-eighteenth century. A few, like Irish mapmaker John Green, thought the entire story a farce. Many, including Joseph-Nicolas De L'Isle and Philippe Buache, thought the information conformed neatly to other recent discoveries and included Fonte on their maps.

 Although published from ca. 1774, this map does not integrate the latest expeditions of Wallis or Cook, suggesting it was prepared earlier, perhaps in conjunction with the first edition of L’Histoire de deux Indes in 1770. This means that Tahiti is not included, that New Zealand is incompletely outlined, and that the east coast of Australia is absent.

There are several ships’ tracks that criss-cross the map including several early-eighteenth century  French voyages, the First and Second Kamchatka Expeditions to the Bering Strait (1728-1730, 1733-1743), the treasure galleon route between Acapulco and Manila, Mendaña’s attempt to re-find the Solomons (1595), Magellan’s pioneering circumnavigation (1519-1522), Tasman’s initial European contact with New Zealand (1642-3), Le Maire and Schouten’s voyage around Cape Horn (1615-1617), and Halley’s voyages observing magnetic variation at the end of the seventeenth century.

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 Sea of the West was speculated to exist by Guillaume De L’Isle, France foremost theoretical geographer, around the turn of the eighteenth century. It first appeared in print on maps published by Johann Baptiste Nolin ca. 1700, but it quickly disappeared thereafter.  

The re-introduction of the sea in the mid-eighteenth century was the result of De L’Isle’s son-in-law, Philippe Buache’s review of his father-in-law’s papers. Although De L’Isle never published a 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. Nolin had plagiarized the idea from Guillaume, as the latter testified when suing the former 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 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.