Recreations in Cartography


Recreations in Cartography was written Bertelle M. Lyttle and first published in Harpers Monthly Magazine for its April 1902 issue.  

The boy who stated that a vessel going from the Potomac by way of the Suez Canal to Manila would pass through the Gulf of Mexico, plaintively remarks, ” I am not real sure of this, for we haven’t had maps yet.” He was merely asserting in one way the educational value of illustration. Probably in accordance with this truth the first Grecian map of the universe was drawn by some enthusiastic teacher of literature to illustrate Homer’s very general statements concerning a great river that encircles the entire earth.

Just what conceptions, opinions, and debates were the result of this daring performance history tells us not. But enough thought was given to the subject before the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages for two great books to have been written upon geography. Ptolemy, one of these authors, is particularly interesting to us, since his work, found at the time of the Renaissance, became the standard work for the two centuries during, which our country’s existence was being determined. Each publisher of this book procured a scholar to write about the new land and to furnish an illustration for the universal conditions as they appeared to him. Ptolemy himself was a knowing man, who lived about 150 A. D). For him the world was round, though its size was much too great. His worst mistakes were to consider Ceylon too large, India not a peninsula, and the Mediterranean one third too long. The Baltic and the Black seas were placed too near together. Ptolemy also erred in believing that a tropical sea existed with one or two continents to the south. This southern continent idea is interesting to us, since it explains some of the wonderful shapes given to our Western lands. The philosophers of ancient times considered the question of tropical heat, realized its intensity in the Sahara, and concluded that it must be worse at the equator. If this were so, life would be impossible; therefore, as water appeared south of all explored lands, surely wise Nature must have placed water everywhere at the equator, and then, for the sake of uniformity, another continent at the south similar to the one at the north. For centuries Europe had no geographical teaching, at least no progressive teaching. The Christian Church seemed to fear that its doctrines and science would prove incompatible; so its efforts were all bent toward teaching its people contentment. As a result, even Ptolemy’s progress was lost, and people reverted to the Homeric idea. An Italian poet of the early fifteenth century tells us that a T within a circle makes a map of the universe. If we try it (T), we find the circumfluent river, the Equatorial sea, one large continent to the north, and two to the south. The same idea with one continent to the south is shown on the reverse side of a fifteenth-century medal (Figure I.).

"Map of the Universe" shown on reverse side of a fifteenth century medal.

Figure I – “Map of the Universe” shown on reverse side of a fifteenth-century medal.

The cartographers of the Middle Ages were artists with vivid imaginations, whatever their scientific standing may have been. Chaos, the home of the quarrelsome winds, and the mythical animal supporters of the earth, may all be found just at the edge of the world’s plane. The rim that prevented the water from flowing over is about the only improvement that our practical minds can suggest. All else is very plausible; and we certainly cannot wonder, as we look upon the hideous creatures of Chaos, that it was necessary to use force and to accept convicts in order to obtain crews for the early explorations. If we divide our maps into three general classes artistic maps, maps to illustrate ideas, and maps to illustrate facts—we may place the works of Olaus Magnus among the best examples of the first class. His map of Iceland (Figure II) is particularly good.

Figure II - Map of Iceland projected by Olaus Magnus  in 1589.

Figure II – Map of Iceland projected by Olaus Magnus in 1589.

How happy the polar bear on the ice-floe seems; also his friend who has been fishing. Less fortunate appears a third bear, who is endeavoring to find shelter in a shallow cave. The horseman’s struggle with the wind in the upper part of this map suggests fierce gales from the northwest. Evidences of other conflicts appear in the watch – towers along the shore, the armored horseman, and a church with a few “saxa ” about it. Some. barrels near the coast may signify commerce, while the chief industry of the region is plainly shown in the numerous forms of fish-ing. The picture of a huge fish devouring a boat, however, is reserved for another map.

Another good illustration of this style of cartography is Ramusio’s map of Lake Mexico (Figure III. ) . In order to be a little different from the others, or perhaps on account of a belief in the laws of gravitation, Ramusio has placed the south at the top of this map. His view of the city is an extreme instance of the early style that showed a city not by a dot, but by a drawing of its most famous building. The likeness of the drawing to the original structure was not necessarily very exact. Jerusalem is indicated by a church, Rome by a fortress or church. Other cities are represented by fortresses, walls, castles, or churches.

Figure III - Map of Lake Mexico as drawn about 1650 by Giovanni Battista Ramusio, a Venetian Statesman, in which the Points of the Compass are reversed, the South being at the top of this Projection.

Figure III – Map of Lake Mexico as drawn about 1650 by Giovanni Battista Ramusio, a Venetian Statesman, in which the Points of the Compass are reversed, the South being at the top of this Projection.

Such maps generally give excellent pictures of the fountains from which all great rivers were supposed to flow. There is a question in my mind as to whether the tub-like sources of the three rivers in our Iceland map are not ground springs, and whether the peculiar arrangement of lines at the beginning of the Nile in Verrazano’s map (Figure IV) may not be intended for a mountain spring—the fountain idea modified to suit an age just learning to distrust myth and fable.

Figure IV - Anglo Saxon map of the tenth century.

Figure IV – Anglo-Saxon map of the tenth century.

From this attractive class of cartography we turn naturally to its near relative, the cartography that owed its being to literature, imagination, and theory, with a few facts of travel as aids, to be regarded if convenient. Here we might place our Italian poet’s primitive Mappa Mondo; also the Anglo-Saxon map (Figure IV) of the tenth century. Apparently this is the work of a thoughtful student who is endeavoring to illustrate the literature which he has read. One is tempted to undertake a guess concerning the books, which the library of this student contained. Evidently the Old Testament was not one, since the Jordan is not shown at all, and the Red Sea’s position would render the miracle of its crossing entirely unnecessary.

Perhaps this student, more fortunate than we, had access to Livy’s complete history. He evidently had learned some where of Babylon’s greatness, the Persian Gulf, the history that had been made in Asia Minor, and of the insignificance of the tribes north of the Pontus. Olympus, Troy, and the Columns of Hercules were real to him, and Italy was far more important than Greece. The position of Italy brings to mind all that literature tells us of that country’s shape, the peninsula ending in a boot form. For his own neighborhood our Anglo-Saxon friend had neither maps nor literature to help him, so he used tradition and current events to the best advantage.

Of about the same date is an Arabic map, evidently a rough sketch of the Mediterranean. In very similar fashion Cortez, about 1522, drew an outline of the Gulf of Mexico. Undoubtedly both were quickly drawn to illustrate some thought requiring no exactness, and, by mistake, have come down to us as formal maps. We often make equally inaccurate and unrecognizable maps when trying to direct some one or to de-scribe some locality; and our line that accompanies the words ” somewhere out here ” is probably the direct descendant of those regular coast-lines that showed the unknown coasts in so many of the early maps. Perhaps it was in this way that the 1642 map of the Ottawa route was drawn (Figure V).

Map of the Ottawa River route, drawn 1642.

Map of the Ottawa River route, drawn 1642.

One other division of the theory maps is worthy of remark. Behaim and Toscanelli, following the idea that the world was round and about _one-third too small, plaeed Japan on the site of modern Mexico. Columbus sailed west to reach China. When he found land, what was more probable than that it was the desired Asiatic coast? We can almost hear now the well-rounded Latin sentences in which the rival geographers proclaimed their views. Franciscus Monarehus in 1526 declares the new discoveries to be but the coast of Asia, and draws a map to show the situation. ” Not so,” says Coppo, two years later. ” This land is too near. It must be only a large island.” So he draws his map to show how mattersers really stand. Then, to finally determine the question, the Carta Marina is drawn, about 1548. Everything save the St. Lawrence River is nicely accounted for upon the Asiatic coast, and the question is settled. The recorders of facts are thereafter recognized, and America becomes an independent continent.

Perhaps it is with these maps that so curiously blend fact and fiction that Greenland should be mentioned. This point of land had journeyed from Europe to Asia, thence to America. Later it was relegated to the arctic continent, whence it has been since detached by some geographers. Others are not so certain that the explorations justify the assertion of the island formation.

More scientific accuracy commenced to prevail in the maps as popular and commercial interests grew. The explorers began to make careful maps of the regions they visited, drawing a rough boundary for the adjacent regions in order to give the relative positions. The Arabs had followed this plan centuries before, thus continuing the old Roman geographical progress. By the eleventh century they had produced a very good map of the known world, one which Christian Europe might have adopted had the knowledge of the infidel been less despised.

Had our European cartographers done equally well, we should be spared some of our present peculiar maps of our native land. Majollo, early in the sixteenth century, and Michael Lok, as late as 1582, both probably following the explorer Verrazano, showed all of the territory north of the Ohio and west of the Appalachian Mountains as part of the Great South Sea. or as the Mare. de Verra. The story runs that Verrazano, landing at Cape Hatteras, saw the waters of the two sounds in the distance, and imagined them the sea. The map showing Verrazano’s career as a navigator is one of the most accurate of the period. Verrazano drew the Gulf of Mexico, South America, Africa, the Mediterranean, Arabia, and India in excellent fashion. A Portuguese sailor for many years, he was most familiar with Africa, and it is in this region that his cartography is best.

The French explorers in Canada tried to do equally well, but failed, chiefly because they were too eager for reports, and therefore too willing to hear, interpret, and repeat the native tales. Cham-plain’s failure to interpret correctly the tales about Niagara caused Lake Erie to be the last of the Great Lakes to be discovered, and meantime presents to those who have experienced Lake Erie’s storms an amusing suggestion of what might have been, —a peaceful river, such as the Detroit.

All of the explorers, French. English, and Spanish, were looking for the passage that connected the two great oceans, and which would give the de-sired route to Asia. Small wonder that we find in successive maps ready-built Panama and Nicaraguan canals, the Mississippi flowing into the Gulf of California, and the Missouri into Puget Sound, and the Great Lakes, by a long chain of rivers and lakes, connected with the Mere del Quest. Hudson Bay was once represented as the looked-for Western Sea, and later it. was provided with a straight. and narrow passage extending directly westward to the Pacific. In the early nineteenth century the passage had moved farther north; in the middle of the century it had disappeared, and the arctic continent was shown as entirely inclosing the northern waters, even as it did in 1724. Today the passage is once more shown, and the arctic continent has disappeared.

Notwithstanding discoveries of recent years, if we east a backward glance and realize that since 1860 the Northwest Passage of 1800 has been revived, that teachers to-day point, with pride to maps which show the productions and occupations of the world after the style of °Inns Magnus, and that government engineers prophesy that Lake Erie will ere-long become Champlain’s quiet river, while the waters of the upper lakes flow over the Chicago divide into the Gulf, we may think that perhaps the most we can expect will be that geographers and cartographers will endeavor to tell the truth as they know it, regardless of personal theory or prejudice.


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