Antarctica as a Concept—Theorizing the Southern Continent
Seldom-seen map of the South Polar Regions by Reiner & Josua Ottens, complete with text panel at the side.
Based on the work of the highly influential French mapmaker Philippe Buache, the map features a series of voyages that reached far southerly points. The most recent, and important of these, was that of Bouvet de Lozier in 1738-9. He discovered an island, Cap de la Circoncision, which excited geographers, as it might have been connected or near the much vaunted, yet still unknown, southern continent.
A description of Bouvet’s voyage, in French and Dutch, is included in a text panel to the side. An inset of Cap de la Circoncision, surrounded by icebergs, is included in the bottom right corner. Also, in a choice that harkens back to Delisle’s map of 1714, mentioned in the title here, this map includes the entire southern hemisphere, to the Equator, rather than only from the Tropic of Capricorn, as on Buache’s map.
The port allegedly discovered by Francis Drake, otherwise known as Drake's Island, in 1577, lies to the southwest of Cape Horn. Some of the more notable features are Edmond Halley's sighting of Antarctic ice, and the routes of Tasman, Mendaña, Quiros, Magellan, and Drake.
The Voyage of Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier
Emphasized on the map (heightened in orange) is the route of the 1738-9 voyage of Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier (1705-86), commanding the ships Aigle and Marie, undertaken at the behest of the French East India Company. Bouvet's mandate was to find the apocryphal great southern continent. The text mentions Bouvet's discovery of icebergs between two and three hundred feet high and half a league to two or three leagues in circumference. On January 1, 1739, Bouvet encountered an icy promontory, which he named Cap de la Circoncision, at 54° South, below Africa.
Severe fog and ice ensured that he was unable to explore the area further, and thus he was unaware that the landmass was part of an island, and not a southern continent. Bouvet lost sight of the cape and was unable to relocate it in the days that followed. For many decades after this map was printed, it remained a mystery as to the true nature of this discovery. Bouvet's plotting of his course was inaccurate, and desspite of several attempts, the cape was not encountered again until 1808, when it was proven to be an island. Named Bouvet Island, it is one of the world's most isolated points of land, very distant from both Africa and Antarctica, and is today administered by Norway.
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 of 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 begin 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, took Delisle’s 1714 map and added more recent expeditions, most significantly, Bouvet de Lozier’s discovery of Cap de la Circoncision surrounded by icebergs. 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 mountains ranges and river basins. He also traced the southern continents suggested by previous mapmakers, including Ortelius, to create his own construction. This 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.
The Ottens brothers, Reiner and Joshua, operated a successful printing partnership in the mid-eighteenth century (fl. 1726-1765). They began the venture in 1726, publishing maps and other prints as “R & I Ottens.” They specialized in the reprinting of others’ work, especially Guillaume De L’Isle. In 1750, Reiner died; his soon, also Reiner, took his place, but the firm began listing their works as “Joshua & Reiner Ottens.” The firm lasted until Joshua’s death in 1765. Joshua’s widow, Johanna de Lindt, sold their remaining stock of plates in 1784.