I’ve just been in Rome where I was lucky enough to see some huge maps painted in the 1580s on the walls outside the offices of the Papal foreign office. They form a kind of mural atlas covering all the known world – and quite a lot that was then unknown! The Vatican diplomats of old could just pop out of their offices to check where a place was by looking at these amazing frescoes. But I hope they didn’t rely on them too heavily.
These old maps reveal dramatically the state of geographical ignorance at that time:
The Pacific basin is almost a complete blank and most of what’s shown is either in the wrong place or just plain imaginary.
At the southern end of South America the Straits of Magellan are duly shown – no big surprise since Magellan had sailed through them in 1520. But where is Cape Horn? Nowhere to be seen. (It was only discovered by the Dutch in 1616.) South America just keeps on going southwards, and Tierra del Fuego (or ‘Fuogo’) forms the northern end of ‘Terra Incognita’ – the great unknown southern landmass.
There’s no sign of Australia or New Zealand either, and New Guinea floats right in the middle of the Pacific like a long pale slug. Further north, Japan acts as a kind of bridge between Siberia and North America!
We shouldn’t be surprised. It was only possible to start making accurate charts of the world’s oceans and to record the shapes of the continents when celestial navigation had at last reached maturity in the mid-18th century. And that depended on the invention of the sextant and chronometer, and the brilliant work of astronomers and mathematicians from all over Europe.
Mapping the world properly was a laborious and dangerous process. It depended on the heroic endeavours of the first great maritime surveyors: men like Bougainville, Cook, Bligh, La Pérouse, Vancouver, Flinders, King, Stokes and FitzRoy – to name but a few. Some of them never made it home, and they all suffered huge privations. Too few of them are remembered today.
But you can soon read their extraordinary stories in Sextant!