Saturday, October 09, 2010

Mystery map, 1710

While looking for a completely different map in the online Siberica collection of the Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, I came across this lovely and puzzling goodie.

Distantia Asiae et Americae (click for larger view)

If you're like me, the first thing you noticed about the map is the sheer beauty of the engraving, the large ships, the symbolic American and Asian natives, and the sea monsters. Next, you probably tried to orient yourself to the strange coastlines. A few familiar names eventually showed up to give you the key you needed. There's California on the left, portrayed as an island. On the right, the large island is labeled Iaponica--Japan. California and Japan, that should have been all you needed to orient yourself and realize... the map is backwards! The mapmaker helpfully included and inset, showing the Eastern Hemisphere, no doubt to help his readers know what part of the world they were looking at, but it's backwards, too. The strangeness of it all sent me scrambling to find out more about the map. This is what I discovered.

The map is entitled "Distantia Asiae et Americae." It is from Geographica politica, volume 7 of Heinrich Scherer's New Atlas, published in Augsburg, Bavaria between 1702 and 1710. The maps were probably prepared in 1699 and 1700 under Scherer's direction, but he didn't live to see the entire Atlas published dying in 1704. The Atlas is highly thought of among historians of cartography because of Scherer's use of thematic maps, such as geologic maps that ignored borders and human settlements in favor of river and mountain systems. The biography of Scherer at tells us that he was a Jesuit and Royal Tutor to the Princely house of Bavaria. He was a very devout Catholic who included a great deal of religious imagery in his maps. Looking at some of his other maps, I could see that that was true. In many, the title covers almost a quarter of the page and features saints, the Madonna, and dramatic scenes of colorful heathens being converted. But no one could tell me why this map is backwards.

Just for the hell of it, let's look at the map itself. We'll start on the left with America. In the far north is Nova Dania, New Denmark, a name given to the northwestern part of Hudson's Bay by Jens Munk when he wintered there in 1619-20. Nova Dania wandered around maps for the next century following various speculations about the Northwest Passage.

Next, moving south is Provincia Luysiana and the river Mesaschipi. At the time Scherer prepared his map, the French province of Louisiana claimed the entire drainage of the Mississippi from the Appalachians to unknown regions to the north and west. On this map the Mississippi reaches almost to the Pacific coast. Between two of its tributaries is, what I believe is, a monkey. South of Louisiana is Novum Mexicum with two lions.

The westmost part of the American mainland is Regnum Anian. The Kingdom of Anian had a long existance on maps of the western and northwestern parts of North America. The name originally appeared in a 1559 edition of Marco Polo as a northern province of China. Anian began appearing on maps in the next decade as the hypothetical straits separating Asia from America. Originally a province on the Asian side, Anian soon moved to the American side. Mercator may have been the first to do this. For the next two hundred years Anian moved around, sometimes a kingdom, sometimes a waterway, but always associated with a passage through the continents. It was the Spanish equivalent of the Northwest Passage.

Across the Mare Vermeio from Anian and New Mexico is the Island of California. When California first appeared on the map in the mid 1500s, geographers knew it was a peninsula and it stayed a peninsula for over a half century. But in 1624 it became an island and stayed that way for almost a century. The Island of California comprised more than just the Baja Peninsula. It often extended over thirty degrees of latitude. Scherer's California extends from around the twentieth parallel, off the left side of the map, to the forty-ninth parallel, the current US-Canadian border. Along its western coast, Cape Mendocino (Northern California) and Cape Blanco (Southern Oregon) are marked. It wouldn't be until the 1720s that California was rejoined to the mainland.

This a good place to mention the lines of latitude and longitude on the map. The main lines are ten degrees apart. Nothing special there. However, there are two extra lines on the map. Forty-eight North is labelled "Parallelus Monacensis" and approximately two-hundred-fourteen East is labeled "Antimeridianus Monacensis." These mark the latitude and longitude of Monachus (Munich) on the other side of the world. If you look at your own map of the world, you'll see that forty-eight North runs just south of Munich, but that thirty-four East (214 minus 180) is nowhere close. Thirty four east runs through the Crimea. What gives?

The use of the Greenwich Meridian as the zero meridian is a fairly recent standard. In the nineteenth century, several countries used some point in their national capitols as the zero meridian for mapmaking. I have some maps of the US that use the Washington meridian and maps using the Paris meridian are easy to come by. But, before the era of nationalism, most of the West used the edge of the known world as the prime meridian. From the time of Ptolemy, that point was the westernmost of the Canary Islands, Ferro, which is eighteen degrees west of Greenwich. The discovery of the Azores in 1431 might have pushed the prime meridian another thirteen degrees west, but the mapmakers of Europe wisely chose to stick with Ferro rather than revise their maps every time some sailor ran aground on a new rock in the Atlantic.

Knowing that we need to correct the lines of longitude by approximately twenty degrees, we can see that Scherer's intelligence on Asia was pretty good. China, Japan, the Marianas, and the mouth of the Amur River are all placed within a few degrees of their actual locations. Further north things begin to fall apart. In 1700, the only Europeans who had visited Northeastern Asia were Russian fur trappers who rarely left records, and the records they did leave had little in the way of scientific observation in them. Scherer's intelligence on the location of the other side of the Pacific is about as good as his intelligence on it's shape. Correcting the longitude, he places Cape Mendocino at 162° W when it should be 140° W.

European geographers had a hard time accepting the existence of so much water on the other side of the world. Earlier mapmakers believed Asia was much larger than it is, leading Columbus to believe he could sail directly west from Spain to reach Japan. After Columbus, many geographers were happy to make North America an extension of Asia. As Jesuits and Dutch merchants brought back new information about the shape of Asia and Spanish Conquistadores about the shape of Central America, European mapmakers filler space in the Pacific by having North America balloon far to the west. Others, while finally accepting that North America could not fill the space, seized on any available rumor to place another land mass between Asia and North America. This brings us to Japan.

At first glance, the blob called Iaponica looks nothing like the Japan that appears on our maps. But, like most old maps, as you look at it and begin to identify the features, you can see that most of the important parts are there. Start near the bend and locate Yedo. That's Tokyo. From there, you can identify the main island of Honshu and details like Yokohama bay, the Chiba Peninsula, Kyushu and Shikoku Islands, and a number of cities. The familiarity ends there. In the north, a narrow isthmus connects Honshu to Iedso and to east of that lies Compagnie Land.

Asianists and map geeks will recognize Iedso as a variant spelling of Ezo, the old name for Hokkiado, the northern island of Japan. Ezo was another geographic mystery to European mapmakers. Most of what Europeans knew about Japan in the seventeenth century came from Jesuits and Dutch merchants who were based in the southern part of the country. In the mid sixteenth century, Jesuits reported the existence of a land north of Japan called Yeco, Jeso, Yedzo, or something similar. No one was sure whether Ezo was an island, part of the Asian mainland, part of North America, or the edge of a large land mass between Asia and America. In the early years of the seventeenth century rumors began to circulate that a Spanish ship, traveling east from the Philippines to Mexico, had been blown off course and discovered a land in the north rich in gold and silver as all unreachable lands were. In later versions, the ship became Portuguese with a captain named Juan de Gama. In some geographer's minds, de Gama's land and Ezo were one and the same. In others, Ezo was a part of the Asian mainland and de Gama's land was a separate land in the North Pacific.

The Dutch East India Company sent Abel Tasman to look for de Gama's land in 1639. He failed and we now have to be satisfied with only one Tasmania. Four years later they sent a second expedition under Maarten Vries to look for the northern Eldorado. Vries reached southern Japan in May 1643 and sailed north, keeping the coast in sight. By early June, Vries had reached Ezo. Because Vries stayed far enough offshore to avoid antagonizing the Japanese, who severely limited their contact with outsiders, he missed the straits separating Honshu from Ezo and Ezo from Kunashir, the first of the Kurile Islands. Vries believed Ezo to be beyond the jurisdiction of the Japanese emperor, which was true. The further north he went, the more comfortable he became with coming in close to examine the shore. In this way, he discovered the straits between Kunashir and Etorofu and between Etorofu and Urup. Vries sailed through the northern strait and explored the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk, reaching the coast of Sakhalin Island before turning east. On his way out of the Sea of Okhotsk, he mapped the western side of Etorofu.

When Vries tried to sum up the geographic knowledge he had gained, he created a map of the eastern side of Ezo that influenced cartographers for the next hundred fifty years. Vries drew the Pacific side of the island fairly accurately though he exaggerated some of the features. He lengthened the eastern end of the island by combining Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai Islands into a peninsula. Sailing into Okhotsk, he produced an excellent chart of southeastern Sakhalin, which he then attached to the northern part of Ezo. He charted both sides of Etorofu, which he named Staten Eylandt (State Island). It was on Urup where he made his greatest mistake. Although he only saw the tip of Urup, Vries believed it to be the edge of a much larger land mass, possibly even North America. He gave the land the prosaic name of Compagnie Land, claiming it for the Dutch East India Company.

When Scherer began working on his atlas, fifty years after Vries' voyage, the Dutch maps were still the most detailed intelligence available for that part of the world. A half century of speculation by sailors and mapmakers had, in fact, clouded some of the detail brought back by Vries. Compare Scherer's "Iedso" with Jan Janssonius' "Landt van Eso" from his 1652 map of Japan and Korea, one of the first maps to use Vries' report, and a modern satellite image of the area Vries explored.

Detail of Jan Janssonius' 1652 map of Japan and Korea.

Detail of Scherer's map, c. 1710.

Google maps, 2010.

On the Janssonius map, Etorofu is recognizable as Staten Eylandt. The two southeastern capes on Sakhalin, Patience and Aniwa are recognizable and properly oriented. By the time Scherer drew his map, most of that detail had been lost. Etorofu is a generic blob and Capes Patience and Aniwa have lost their shape and rotated ninety degrees. It's odd that Scherer did not avail himself of the original Vries material rather than using inferior later interpretations of it. Japan is obviously important to the purpose of Scherer's map. It's the most detailed part of the map, having more cities marked than the entire rest of the map.

I'll finish here. There are lots of other aspects of the map that could generate posts of their own: the animals or the iconography of the colorful natives, for example. If anyone has any more information about the map, I'd love to hear it. I'd especially love to know why it's backwards.

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