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Looking at Old Maps: The World Through the Eyes of Early Mapmakers

By Jeffrey Murray, Senior Archivist, Library and Archives Canada

Old maps, especially those produced in the 16th and 17th centuries when cartography (mapmaking) in Europe was getting serious, are often filled with delightful images of the new continents. For modern-day viewers, some of these images are bizarre because mixed in with fairly realistic depictions of wildlife and scenes of Native life are sea monsters and other imaginary creatures. While this mixture of artwork may seem strange, it actually tells us a lot about the perceptions of early cartographers (mapmakers) who were learning about new lands beyond Europe's borders.

Image of an enlarged section of the map entitled North America, 1715 Image of a map entitled North America, 1715

Figure 1. In this 1715 map, British mapmaker Herman Moll gives life to Europe's imagined higher intelligence of the beaver. They walk erect and divide their work into European trades: beaver woodsmen cut trees; carpenters trim them into usable lengths; porters carry material to the dam; masons construct the actual dam; and in the background, doctors treat exhausted workers.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 21061)

 

Cartographers who mapped the new lands were faced with huge areas of terra incognita (Latin for "unknown lands"), and had to somehow fill in the blank spaces. "The less familiar the country, the more blank spaces there were to be filled and the greater the need to convey its characteristic features by means of drawings,"1 wrote the late Leo Bagrow, one of Europe's most respected scholars of early maps, in his History of Cartography. The solution of the mapmakers was to fill the gaps in their masterpieces with drawings of plants, animals and Indigenous peoples, going beyond strict mapmaking to provide an impression of the region's geography.

Image of a map entitled La Nuova Francia, 1556

Figure 2. In 1556 the Venetian mapmaker Giacomo Gastaldi completely filled the interior parts of Atlantic Canada with highly imaginative views of the landscape and its people. Without this artwork, there would have been little for Gastaldi to map, since most of the region was still unknown to Europeans.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 52408)

Few cartographers saw first-hand the regions they were expected to map. Only the more fortunate had access to dried animal skins or Native artifacts and even fewer to a live plant or animal. Most had to rely on written travelogues (diaries of journeys) and second-hand accounts. This may explain why many of their drawings have an uneven sense of scale -- beavers might be portrayed as large as bears, for example -- or a loose grip on reality -- like an opossum with its pouch up around its shoulders instead of between its hips.

Image of an enlarged section of the map entitled Ocenunus Occidentalis, 1541 Image of a map entitled Ocenunus Occidentalis, 1541

Figure 3.  Because early cartographers had to rely mostly on written accounts, it is no wonder they sometimes drew animals that are difficult for us to recognize today, like this opossum from a 1541 map of South America.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 10027)

Cartographers over-used some animal species and ignored others; they showed a lot of larger mammals, as well as some birds and reptiles. To look at some of the maps, you might think only deer, bear, beaver, muskrat and fox populated the North American forests. Wilma George, formerly a zoologist at Oxford University, argues that this is because these animals were the ones most often noted in explorers' journals, and further, that "the abundant large animals provided a more striking contrast with home than insects and snails which must, however, have been much in evidence."2

But George does not explain why some species of large animals were hardly ever drawn on maps. The North American bison, for example, never became a cartographer's favourite, despite its abundance and uniqueness to the region. Could it be that mapmakers were just interested in showing species that had an obvious economic importance to Europe? Bison had no value to Europeans until the mid-19th century, when mapmakers no longer drew wildlife on their maps. Even when bison do make an appearance, as in Johann Baptist Homann's 1720 map of the Mississippi, the animal appears more like a docile milk cow than a wild beast of the plains.

Image of an enlarged section of the map entitled Amplissiama regionis Mississippi, 1720 Image of a map entitled Amplissima regionis Mississipi, 1720

Figure 4.  A very docile bison (or buffalo) and its Native herders (lower right) are a central feature of this 1720 map by Johann Baptist Homann.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 24544)

By the early 17th century, terra incognita was shrinking and cartographers had to make room on their maps for new geographical information. They gradually moved their drawings of nature out into decorative borders. They also began using symbols to portray ideas about nature like the changing of the seasons, the differences in the continents, and the classical Greek belief that all matter is composed of four elements -- earth, fire, water and air.

Image of a map entitled Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis, 1641

Figure 5. In this 1641 map, representations of fire and air are spaced across the top of the map sheet -- closer to the heavens -- and water and earth across the bottom.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 27678)

To illustrate these things, cartographers turned to classical Greek and Roman mythology. For example, it is not unusual to find Bacchus, the god of wine, representing one of the seasons by his involvement in grape collecting or wine making, both autumn activities in Europe. Or to find Neptune, god of the seas, sitting in a chariot made of seashells and representing the element water; or to find an "Indian" princess, complete with feathered headdress, spears and arrows, representing the wild and untamed Americas.

Image of a map entitled Mappe-Monde Geo-Hydrographique, 1686

Figure 6. The classical Roman figures used by Gerard Valck in this 1686 map would have been familiar to educated Europeans of the day: spring, represented by Flora (upper left), the Roman goddess of flowers, is planting a field; Bacchus (lower left), god of the vine, engages in the fall grape harvest.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 27710)

Image of a map entitled Orbis Terrae compendiosa descriptio, 1592

Figure 7. In this 1592 map a scantly clad America (lower left) is pictured seated on an exceptionally large armadillo. In other maps, America will sometimes be associated with alligators and iguanas.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 8142)

Image of a map entitled Nova et Accuratissima Totius Terrarum Orbis, 1664

Figure 8. In 1664 Joan Blaeu used the age of his characters (bottom, left to right) to reflect the seasons: spring is a youthful woman with flowers; summer is a woman crowned with grain; autumn is a mature woman with a fall harvest; and winter is an old man warming himself by a fire.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 108622)

It would be too simplistic, however, to assume that the cartographer's illustrations of nature served no other purpose than nice-looking filler for uncharted lands. At least one geographer, the late Brian Harley, took issue with jumping to such quick conclusions. He said that much of the illustration of the North American landscape actually looked a lot like what you'd find on maps of Europe from the same time.

Had the European cartographers, for lack of information, filled the empty American landscape with the symbols that were most familiar to them? Or was the similarity a subconscious act to make the new lands appear less scary to potential investors and settlers?

Image of a map entitled Poli Arctici, 1715

Figure 9. This 1715 map is highly suggestive of European attitudes towards the polar regions. It is completely surrounded by scenes from the Arctic whaling industry, a reminder of the fortunes to be made in this inhospitable land
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 21059)

Harley sided with the second view. When Europe's nobility looked at these maps, instead of foreign lands, they saw a landscape populated with ordinary wildlife. As if to make the new lands seem even less unusual, the entire map was framed with a European engraving style and often showed no sign of Native ownership. Terra incognita appears as an empty territory waiting to be divided up and filled by the nations of Europe. Harley pointed out that maps like these went along with the colonial attitude that Europe had a right to take over and govern lands outside their borders. In other words, their maps are ethnocentric images: a licence for the appropriation of the territory depicted.

Image of an enlarged section of the map entitled North America, 1714 Image of a map entitled North America, 1714

Figure 10. In the title panel (upper left) of this 1714 map, George Willdey surrounded an Indian princess -- the personification of America  -- with exotic New World riches: sugar cane, tobacco (in box), pineapple, an alligator and a pot of gold. Mercury, a symbol of commerce, helps support a miniature of King George I
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 24606)

If the hand of the mapmaker is indeed guided by subconscious motives, then many of these maps can be seen more as advertisements than as portrayals of a new landscape. Champlain's 1612 map of New France, for example, offers a visual panorama of Canada's wealth: beaver, foxes, deer, and other animals hint at the potential of the fur trade, while the abundant sea life, forests, and fruits allude to the diversity of the country's natural resources. In reality, Champlain's map is a clever but unconscious act to get support for future investment and expeditions. "The map makes a political statement," points out map collector Joe Armstrong, "it is ... the work of ... a skilful psychologist [and] promoter."3

Image of a map entitled Carte geographique de la Nouvelle Franse, 1612

Figure 11. In his 1612 map of New France, Samuel de Champlain cleverly incorporated a variety of the region's plants and animals, together with scenes of Native life. The map emphasizes the diversity and extensiveness of Canada's natural wealth. In many respects, it is an invitation to potential investors and settlers
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 6327)

No matter how they are interpreted, there is no denying that the maps produced during Europe's great age of exploration are magnificent: a unique blend of science and art that has seldom been equalled. However, you will rarely see these masterpieces in museums and galleries, because art historians write them off as unimportant and scientists see them only as quaint relics. Nonetheless, early maps can be very revealing about the world in which they were created.

Notes

1. Leo Bagrow, History of Cartography, London: C.A. Watts & Co., 1964: 215

2. Wilma George, Animals and Maps, London: Secker and Warbug, 1969: 25

3. Joe C.W. Armstrong, From Sea Unto Sea: Art and Discovery Maps of Canada, Scarborough, Ont.: Fleet/Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1982: 7

Further Reading

Animals and Maps, by Wilma George. London: Secker and Warbug, 1969. 235 p.

  • George provides a fascinating look at all the beasts (some strange, others not so strange) that early European mapmakers incorporated into their maps. This book iswritten for adults.

The Road to There: Mapmakers and Their Stories, by Val Ross. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2003. 146 p.

  • Ross presents a popularized history of the world's greatest mapmakers. She begins with the portolan charts of the ancients and ends with NASA's space probes. Written for juveniles, The Road to There is a fascinating, well-illustrated history.