Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

13 November 2014

Lines in the Ice: maps and the history of exploration

The history of maps and the history of exploration used to be one and the same. In the mid 19th century, when the first national map libraries and geographical societies were created and old maps began to be looked at and collected more systematically, their purpose was to illustrate the apparently ever improving knowledge of the geography of the world thanks to the intrepid explorers of the past.

There are many people who continue to hold on to this interpretation of maps, and that’s fine. There was a point in the past where European knowledge of the Arctic, for example, was worse than it is now, and we can claim today to know more about it than we ever have, even to the point of being able to map the Arctic sea-bed geology.

The problem with it is that it simplifies things and gives the impression of an irrepressible march towards a state of perfect knowledge. Notions of progress and determinism are more problematic today. We move backwards, sideways, at various paces in different circumstances. At various stages in their 16th century quest for a Northwest Passage, explorers such as Martin Frobisher and John Davis headed down dead ends and in wrong directions. Henry Hudson wasn’t looking for his eponymous bay when he stumbled into it. The path towards discovery was never a smooth one. In the Arctic, the very path changes with the ebb and flow of the ice.

The idea of a progressively more perfect march of maps also makes the rather large assumption that mapmakers were absolutely always cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die doing their best to tell the truth (as they saw it) in their maps. We can see evidence to the contrary in two cartographic treasures of the Tudor quest for the Northwest Passage.


George Best, [World Map], from 'A true discourse of the late voyages of discoverie ... under M. Frobisher', London: Henry Bynnyman, 1578. British Library G.6527.


The first is a map included in the description of Martin Frobisher’s voyage to the Arctic, published in 1578  to generate publicity in further journeys there to mine sparkly but worthless iron pyrite brought back from Canada (used to make roads around Dartford). If the world map is anything to be believed, Frobisher really was a dunce for missing the vast, gaping wide passage to the Indies. Exaggerated on the map, it was intended to give the impression to would-be backers that the next mission could not possibly fail!

Thorne 1576

Robert Thorne, Orbis Universalis Descriptio [London : T. Dawson for T. Woodcocke, 1582]. British Library C.24.b.35

Another map, produced in 1527 but published later in 1576, shows a completely different Arctic. There is no passage to the Indies, just the impenetrable bulk of North America. No way through there, then. How can two contemporary maps be so different? Because maps lie, and lie for a reason. Robert Thorne’s map was produced for the Muscovy Company, who wanted to direct resources and impetus to the Indies in the opposite direction, via a Northeast Passage over modern-day Russia.

The path to map perfection is strewn with false capes, dead ends, and more than a few icebergs.

Lines in the Ice: seeking the Northwest Passage , a free exhibition at the British Library, opens tomorrow (Friday). Hat and scarf recommended.