Friday, January 20, 2012

Booty: A Curious Coastline

I have a fascination for old charts and maps of coastal areas, which is probably no surprise to any of the Brethren. When long-time Triple P supporter Dwight sent me this brief article from io9, I thought it worth looking into and subsequently well worth sharing. Particularly since what you are looking at is intended to represent my home state, Alaska, and much or the Pacific Northwest.

The above map is from French philosphe Denis Diderot’s 1772 masterwork, the Encyclopedie. Diderot was one of the founding thinkers of the Enlightenment, a thorn in the Catholic Church’s side and a general Renaissance man. His Encyclopedie is available here online.

The enormous work included maps from all around the world, including this one which over at Frank Jacobs’ Strange Maps blog calls an “eclectic mix of geographic fact and fiction.” As Jacobs notes, the soft edged portions of coastline are a cartographer’s code for areas that have not yet been subjected to the arduous and in that era dangerous process of sounding. In such cases, a ship or ships had not yet been sent to the area to sail the coastlines and document each inlet, bay and islet over a course of months or even years. The mapmaker was simply giving his best guesstimate based on the rest of the known world.

This particular map differs from others of its era that were simply place keepers until further exploration could be done in that it identifies and charts a much wished for but mythological river, of sorts. If you click the picture to enlarge (or go to the hi-res link in the io9 article) you will note the strait that exits the Baye d’Hudson and flows into the Pacific with an outlet just above the word Amerique. That is what was known then as the Strait of Anian and would later be called the Northwest Passage. Clearly the mapmaker was perpetuating a fable that could never – and would never – be charted because it did not exist.

For all his genius, poor Diderot unknowingly perpetuated a scam that would lead to the unfortunate and unnecessary deaths of hundreds of men before Europeans finally gave up the search in the mid-19th century. As funny as this “half-baked Alaska” is, there is a bit of tragedy behind it as well.

Header: Pacific Coast map from Diderot’s Encyclopedie c 1772


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! A good example of wishful thinking and it's sometimes tragic (or pathetic, depending on your point of view, I guess) results...

Pauline said...

I'm sure this wasn't the only map that showed the Northwest Passage. In fact, it might be interesting to follow up on just how many - and from what era to what era - did. But, as you note, any contribution to the perilous search for that kind of lost horizon is not a good thing.