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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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16th Century

The "Behaim Globe" of 1492  --  the same year that Columbus set out on his first voyage  --  depicts an empty ocean between Europe and Asia. Ten years later, the "Cantino Chart" (1502), originated by the survivors of the Gaspar Corte-Real voyages, was the first to depict any part of Canada. In the north central part of the chart is the southern tip of Greenland and the east coast of Newfoundland. A different outline of this area appeared a few years later with the La Cosa (1500-08), Contarini (1506) and Ruysch (1507) world maps, based on the hypothesis that Greenland and Newfoundland were joined, all part of a vast northeastern extension of Asia. The Ruysch map shows the earliest surviving place name in Canada: "In. Baccalauras" is now Baccalieu Island off Breakheart Point, between Trinity and Conception Bays.

Inset from a map: "Universalis Cosmographis," by Waldseemüller, [1507]

In 1507, the geographer Martin Waldseemüller startled Europe with a new globe that suggested Columbus and his successors had travelled to a separate continent from Asia, one previously unknown to Europe. Waldseemüller's globe and an inset on his world map revolutionized the cartography of the New World and introduced the place name "America," after a minor Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. As the notion of a new continent slowly gained credibility, expeditions were sent to find a way through the inconvenient landmass.

Subsequent voyages by Verrazano (1524) and Gomes (1525) coasted from Florida to Newfoundland. Although they could not find a through-passage, they produced rough charts of the coast. The best of these were Spanish charts by Ribeiro (1529) and Santa Cruz (1541). All of these charts show Cabot Strait as a bay, and some, such as those by Santa Cruz, depict Nova Scotia as an island.

In 1534, King François I dispatched the first Cartier expedition to probe a westward opening north of Newfoundland (Strait of Belle Isle) that had been reported by Basque fishermen. With the three Cartier voyages (1534, 1535, and 1541-2) the geography of the St. Lawrence Valley first appeared on maps. None of Cartier's original charts have survived. Those believed to be closest to his originals are a chart of the first expedition drawn by the cartographer Jean Rotz (1542), and the 'Harleian Map' (1547) and two maps by Pierre Desceliers (1546 and 1550), of the later expeditions. These last three maps attached the name "Canada" to the north coast of the St. Lawrence, near Québec. According to Cartier, the word meant "a village" in the language of the Iroquoian people who lived there. In addition to these French maps there are others in Portuguese and Spanish, such as the beautiful Spanish map made for Nicolas Vallard in 1547.

Map: "Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad usum Navigantium…," by Gerard Mercator, 1569   Map: "Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad usum Navigantium…," by Gerard Mercator, 1569

Few printed maps of the period deserve consideration. The exception is the famous world chart by Gerard Mercator (1569). It introduced the Mercator map projection on which a straight line is a line of constant compass bearing. As such it became indispensible to navigators and consequently much copied. Practically all the maps showing Canada, to the end of the 16th century, were based on Mercator's map.

After Cartier's expeditions into the St. Lawrence Valley and the earlier ones south of Newfoundland showed that there was no western opening to Asia, further searches were abandoned. It was the English who now attempted to find a northern passage to the west. The existence of such a route was first theorized by Sebastian Cabot in 1508-09 and appeared on most early maps, but an effort to find it was first undertaken by Martin Frobisher in 1576. Only his first of three successive expeditions resulted in exploration. The other two were attempts to mine gold on Baffin Island.

The published maps, two by James Beare (1578), a captain of one of Frobisher's ships and one by Michael Lok (1582), were so crude that cartographers had little idea where Frobisher had been. On later maps the strait (Frobisher Bay) he thought was a western passage appeared on the southern tip of Greenland. John Davis's three voyages (1585-87) first appeared on maps in the 1590s. The maps by Mercator (1595) and Wytfliet (1597) are representative of Davis's contribution.

Map illustration: Wright's "World Map" of 1598

The magnificent world map by Edward Wright, published by Richard Hakluyt in 1599, best illustrates 16th century accomplishments. It is an honest depiction of the known world, uncluttered by myth and unsubstantiated hypothesis.




Beare, James.
[World Map.] In George Best, A true discourse... . 1578.
[Frobisher's Straits.] 1578

"Carta du navigar... ." ["Cantino Chart."] [ca. 1502].

Contarini, Giovanni
[Contarini/Roselli World Map.] 1506.

[Desceliers, Pierre]
["World Map."] 1546.
Desceliers, Pierre.
["World Map."] 1550.

La Cosa, Juan de
["La Cosa World Map."] 1500, [1508].

Lok, Michael
Illustri Viro, Domino Philippo Sidneo... . 1582.

Mercator, Gerard
Nova Et Aucta Orbis Terrae... . 1569.
Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio. 1595.

Ribeiro, Diogo.
"Carta Universal... ." (Vatican version), 1529.

Rotz, Jean
["Map of North America and West Indies."] 1542.
[Rotz, Jean]
["Harleian Map"] [1542-44].

Ruysch, Johannes
Universalior Cogniti Orbis Tabula... . [1507-08].

Santa Cruz, Alonso de
["Chart of the North Atlantic," from the Islario General.]

["Nicolas Vallard Map."] 1547.

Waldseemüller, Martin
[Waldseemüller Globe] 1507.
Universalis Cosmographia... . (New World Inset) [1507].

[Wright, Edward]
[World Map.] Published by Hakluyt in Principal navigations... .1598.

Wytfliet, Cornelius
Estotilandia Et Labradoris Terra. 1597.

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