Sign In

- Or use -
Forgot Password Create Account

Herman Moll's Celebrated "Codfish Map" of North America, One of the Earliest Large-Format Maps of North America Printed in England

Highly decorative, large-format map of North America and the West Indies popularly known as the "codfish map" thanks to its vignette of fishermen catching and drying cod along the shores of Newfoundland.

It is one of the maps most beloved by connoisseurs and was first issued by Herman Moll in his atlas, The World Described (London, 1715). It would later be copied by George Grierson in ca. 1735 in Dublin.

Geographic content

This engaging map extends from Greenland in the north down to the Caribbean, with the tip of South America near the southern edge. It extends westward to include the Pacific coasts and eastward all the way to Ireland, on the opposite side of the Atlantic. The map is an excellent overview of how the British conceived of North America and the West Indies during the first half of the eighteenth century.

The British colonies along the Atlantic Seaboard are relatively well-mapped, based on late seventeenth-century cartography although, curiously, New England is exaggeratedly narrow; this is especially evident in Massachusetts.

The cartography becomes less confident as one moves north into the Canadian Maritimes, Quebec and Newfoundland, where Moll only had access to outdated French sources. Hudson's Bay is generally well formed due to early exploration and the charting done consistently since the 1660s for the benefit of the Hudson's Bay Company. The bay includes the tracks of two exploratory expeditions seeking the Northwest Passage.

The first of these is the final voyage of Henry Hudson. In the employ of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Hudson sought a more southerly route than other explorers in 1609. He first ventured up the Hudson River; while this was certainly no Northwest Passage, it did help the Dutch to colonize New York, or New Amsterdam as they called the settlement. In 1610, the voyage shown here, Hudson tried again, this time entering the eponymous Hudson Bay. His ship was trapped in the ice, his crew mutinied, and Hudson, his son, and seven others were set adrift in a small boat, never to be seen again.

The other voyage, marked by a dotted line, is that of a Captain James. This refers to Thomas James’ voyage of 1631-2. Funded by the Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers, his crew sailed into Hudson’s Bay where they scuttled their ship in the fear the ice would break it up, wintered on land, raised their ship the following spring, and limped home. Together with the contemporary voyage of Luke Foxe, they showed that there was no obvious passage to the northwest via Hudson’s Bay.

The Great Lakes and the Mississippi are recognizable to the modern eye, based on French and Jesuit sources. Inland, the mythical 'Long River' connects the Mississippi River to the far west. As stated on the map, this riverine detail is derived from Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan, a notorious French adventurer and fraudster who claimed to have discovered this waterway in the 1690s. He included the detail on a map within his bestseller Nouveaux Voyages dans l'Amerique Septentrionale (1703). The 'Long River' was accepted and incorporated into the popular cartographic conception of the region by most of the leading mapmakers of the time, including Guillaume de L'Isle.

California is prominently shown as an island, including the note that "New Albion" was discovered by Sir Francis Drake in 1578. Moll included this detail because, as an ardent partisan of the British cause, he thought it gave the British a claim to the area, rather than the Spanish. Near to this chimerical island, the Pacific Northwest is labeled as "Parts Unknown", accompanied by the apocryphal “Straits of Anian.”

The depiction of the West Indies and the Spanish Main is conventional for the period, and features the tracks of the Spanish 'Flota', or fleets of treasure galleons, from Veracruz, Panama and Cartagena, to Havana and then onwards across the Atlantic to Seville. Moll was personal friends with many of the leading British privateers of the era and maintained a particular interest in potential targets for state-sanctioned piracy. To this end, Moll includes an explanation in the bottom right corner outlining how the galleons operate.

A notable aspect of the map is the depiction of the prevailing trade winds, in the manner pioneered by the brilliant English scientist and thematic cartographer, Sir Edmund Halley (1656-1742). Moll, an acquaintance of Halley, was well aware that an understanding of this phenomenon was crucial to trans-Atlantic navigation and, therefore, to Britain.

At the bottom left are a series of ten vignettes of plans of key American ports, including: St. John's, Newfoundland; Boston; New York; Charleston, South Carolina; Port Royal & Kingston, Jamaica; Havana; Portobello, Panama; Veracruz, Mexico; Cartagena, Colombia and Acapulco, Mexico (importantly the eastern terminus of the Spanish 'Manila Galleons', which travelled across the Pacific between Mexico and the Philippines). All of these insets underline the commercial and national undercurrents evident on the map.

Decorative content

The left side of Moll’s map features a veritable pageant of artistic embellishments. In the center is the famous aforementioned codfish view. Far beyond being a mere artistic conceit, it is symbolic of the important codfish industry of Newfoundland. Since 1713 this trade had been dominated by the British; it was the second largest source of wealth from North America, rivaled only by Virginia's tobacco crop.

The upper left corner is filled with a remarkable, large cartouche. It is framed by figures of Native Americans and Inuit, while the treasures of the continent lie below. The title and dedication are within a decorative frame. The dedicatee is Lord Somers (1651-1716), a prominent politician while Moll was making the map (although it was published after his death). A co-founder of the influential Whig Junto, he was the architect of the 1707 Acts of Union between Scotland and England and the Protestant Succession of 1714.

The cartouche was engraved by a “G. Vertue,” or George Vertue (1684-1756). A skilled engraver, he was also an enthusiastic antiquarian. In 1717 he was named the official engraver of the Society of Antiquaries. Clients included the Duke of Portland, the Earl of Oxford, the Duke of Norfolk, and Frederick, Prince of Wales.

Strait of Anian

This strait, believed to separate northwestern America from northeastern Asia, was related to the centuries-long quest to find a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The rumor of this strait and a Northwest Passage in general inspired many voyages of discovery, including those of John Cabot, Sir Francis Drake, Gaspar Corte-Real, Jacques Cartier, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

The term Anian itself comes from Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century accounts of his travels. Polo used the term to refer to the Gulf of Tonkin, but cartographers thought it could refer to this supposed strait between Asia and North America. The Strait of Anian, so named, first appeared in a 1562 map by Giacomo Gastaldi, and was later adopted by Bolognini Zaltieri and Gerard Mercator.

California as an island

The popular misconception of California as an island can be found on European maps from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. From its first portrayal on a printed map by Diego Gutiérrez, in 1562, California was shown as part of North America by mapmakers, including Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius. In the 1620s, however, it began to appear as an island in several sources. While most of these show the equivalent of the modern state of California separated from the continent, others, like a manuscript chart by Joao Teixeira Albernaz I (ca. 1632) now in the collection of the National Library of Brasil shows the entire western half of North Americas as an island. 

The myth of California as an island was most likely the result of the travel account of Sebastian Vizcaino, who had been sent north up the shore of California in 1602. A Carmelite friar, Fray Antonio de la Ascensión, accompanied him. Ascension described the land as an island and around 1620 sketched maps to that effect. Normally, this information would have been reviewed and locked in the Spanish repository, the Casa de la Contratación. However, the manuscript maps were intercepted in the Atlantic by the Dutch, who took them to Amsterdam where they began to circulate. Ascensión also published descriptions of the insular geography in Juan Torquemada’s Monarquia Indiana (1613) (with the island details curtailed somewhat) and in his own Relación breve of ca. 1620.

The first known maps to show California as an island were on the title pages of Antonio de Herrera’s Descripción de las Indias Occidentales (1622) and Jacob le Maire's Spieghel Der Australische Navigatie (1622). Two early examples of larger maps are those by Abraham Goos (1624) and another by Henry Briggs, which was included in Samuel Purchas’ Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625). In addition to Briggs and Goos, prominent practitioners like Jan Jansson and Nicolas Sanson adopted the new island and the practice became commonplace. John Speed’s map (1626-7), based on Briggs’ work, is well known for being one of the first to depict an insular California.

The island of California became a fixture on mid- and late-seventeenth century maps. The island suggested possible links to the Northwest Passage, with rivers in the North American interior supposedly connecting to the sea between California and the mainland. Furthermore, Francis Drake had landed in northern California on his circumnavigation (1577-80) and an insular California suggested that Spanish power in the area could be questioned.

Not everyone was convinced, however. Father Eusebio Kino, after extensive travels in what is now California, Arizona, and northern Mexico concluded that the island was actually a peninsula and published a map refuting the claim (Paris, 1705). Another skeptic was Guillaume De L’Isle. In 1700, De L’Isle discussed “whether California is an Island or a part of the continent” with J. D. Cassini; the letter was published in 1715. After reviewing all the literature available to him in Paris, De L’Isle concluded that the evidence supporting an insular California was not trustworthy. He also cited more recent explorations by the Jesuits (including Kino) that disproved the island theory. Later, in his map of 1722 (Carte d’Amerique dressee pour l’usage du Roy), De L’Isle would abandon the island theory entirely.

Despite Kino’s and De L’Isle’s work, California as an island remained common on maps until the mid-eighteenth century. De L’Isle’s son-in-law, Philippe Buache, for example, remained an adherent of the island depiction for some time. Another believer was Herman Moll, who reported that California was unequivocally an island, for he had had sailors in his offices that claimed to have circumnavigated it. In the face of such skepticism, the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, had to issue a decree in 1747 proclaiming California to be a peninsula connected to North America; the geographic chimera, no matter how appealing, was not to be suffered any longer, although a few final maps were printed with the lingering island.

Tooley, 82; McLaughlin, 192; Thomas James, The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Captain Thomas James (1633); Adapted by KAP
Herman Moll Biography

Herman Moll (c. 1654-1732) was one of the most important London mapmakers in the first half of the eighteenth century.  Moll was probably born in Bremen, Germany, around 1654. He moved to London to escape the Scanian Wars. His earliest work was as an engraver for Moses Pitt on the production of the English Atlas, a failed work which landed Pitt in debtor's prison. Moll also engraved for Sir Jonas Moore, Grenville Collins, John Adair, and the Seller & Price firm. He published his first original maps in the early 1680s and had set up his own shop by the 1690s. 

Moll's work quickly helped him become a member of a group which congregated at Jonathan's Coffee House at Number 20 Exchange Alley, Cornhill, where speculators met to trade stock. Moll's circle included the scientist Robert Hooke, the archaeologist William Stuckley, the authors Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, and the intellectually-gifted pirates William Dampier, Woodes Rogers and William Hacke. From these contacts, Moll gained a great deal of privileged information that was included in his maps. 

Over the course of his career, he published dozens of geographies, atlases, and histories, not to mention numerous sheet maps. His most famous works are Atlas Geographus, a monthly magazine that ran from 1708 to 1717, and The World Described (1715-54). He also frequently made maps for books, including those of Dampier’s publications and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Moll died in 1732. It is likely that his plates passed to another contemporary, Thomas Bowles, after this death.