13 April 2015
As we enter the final week of the British Library's free exhibition Lines in the ice: seeking the Northwest Passage, here are my top five (unashamedly map-heavy) highlights of what has been a memorable and eventful five month residency.
1. Robert Thorne's world map from 1582.
You probably won’t see another one of these exhibited in your lifetime, one of the earliest maps to have been printed in England, with only two in existence today, a clever bit of publicity by the Muscovy company which aimed to convince that the North West Passage didn't exist. Judging from the following 250 years of mostly fruitless searching, perhaps this point of view could have been given a bit more attention.
2. Listening to icebergs
They are very big and very cold, and make a surprising racket. Curator Cheryl Tipp selected a number of sounds for the exhibition, which appear on sound points, and piped directly into the space. The angry polar bear was particularly eloquent.
3. Explorer Ryan Nelson speaking at the BL
In an amazing coup, the British Library, the Eccles centre for American Studies and the Canadian High Commission hosted a talk by Ryan Harris, the man who discovered Sir John Franklin's ship Erebus on the sea bed. The event sold out almost before the ship was discovered!
4. An egg-shaped Arctic-biased world map on display for the first time
This rare and extraordinary educational 20th Century map (featured in this book) cleverly positions the Arctic (and Antarctic) centre stage using the 'Atlantis' projection. Its purpose was to focus minds on these zones in order to combat the vast problem of overpopulation. Oil was first extracted from within the Arctic Circle just a few years later.
5. Writer-in-residence Rob Sherman and his explorer Isaak Scinbank
Top: Rob Sherman, bottom: Isaak Scinbank
Rob Sherman's work has been a stunning feature of the exhibition. His fictional explorer Isaak Scinbank, online and in his written journal (which is exhibited), attempted to discover what happened to Sir John Franklin. For me, Rob's work has helped explore how narratives and stories (and their meanings) develop and change over time, and how they can be invested in objects. This isn't the last you'll hear of Rob, I feel fairly certain...
6. Charles II's map of the Arctic
Moses Pitt,' A map of the North Pole and parts adjoining’, from The English Atlas , London, 1680. British Library Maps 1.TAB.16.
Another map that has never before been exhibited is Moses Pitt's map of the Arctic, this copy owned by Charles II and acquired by the nation via the Topographical Collection of George III.
The gold leaf on this map will be shimmering in public until Friday, so if you have the chance to visit the exhibition before then, please do. We are also holding a free seminar on Friday to celebrate the end of Rob Sherman's residency. Thank you to all who has visited Lines in the Ice since November, and thank you to everybody who helped make the exhibition a reality.
15 December 2014
This gripping guest blog, in conjunction with our current Arctic exhibition, has been generously provided by historian James Evans. James is author of Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England.
There ‘remained only one way to discover’, the Bristol merchant Robert Thorne told fellow Englishmen early in the 16th century, ‘which is into the north’.
Officials and merchants had seen the wealth amassed in Spain and Portugal by the discovery of new routes across the ocean. But while the Pope tried to reserve all non-Christian lands to the Iberian nations, the English insisted this could apply only to territories reached by sailing south.
To the unexplored north England claimed a God-given right. After all, John Cabot had discovered North America for the English in the 15th century, soon after Columbus’s epochal voyage. And many thought there must be a passage here to ‘Cathay’, as China was then known, to match that in the south – because land on the earth was bound to be balanced. How else would it spin straight?
Robert Thorne, Orbis Universalis Descriptio. London, 1582. British Library C.23.b.35.
Thorne wrote a tract, and drew a map, to illustrate his ideas. He argued the English could sail due north, across the Pole, then descend towards undiscovered lands in the Pacific. He admitted that many considered this impossible, the sea in the far north being ‘all ice’, the cold ‘so great that none can suffer it’. But others believed ice formed only near land, while open ocean, across the top of the world, would remain clear.
Thorne tried to organise a voyage to test the idea, but died before he could. Not until Henry VIII had died too did power pass to men who truly believed in the value of exploration. Under Edward VI, Cabot’s son, Sebastian, was lured back from Spain – and it was he who oversaw, in 1553, a major English attempt to find a northern passage.
Which way would they go? North-west? North-east? Or directly north? The watching Spanish ambassador fretted, rightly, that England was ‘seeking the road to the Indies’. But he didn’t know whether the north could offer one. No one did. The lack of knowledge about this part of the world is shown on a map made for Henry VIII by Jean Rotz, on which huge empty spaces reveal the ignorance which existed concerning the north parts of the world.
Jean Rotz, [Double hemisphere world map], from A Boke of Idrography, London, 1545. British Library Royal MS 20 E IX
The 1553 crews went north-east, hoping a passage this way would be an ‘easy matter’. But of course it wasn’t. The world was in the grip of what has become known as the ‘Little Ice Age’, and ice, to the north, was more extensive than it is now. It was an extraordinary venture, which began trade with Russia via the White Sea – a region carefully charted by William Borough, who sailed as a teenager – and it set an important example. But it failed to find a northern passage.
The ship belonging to the expedition captain, Sir Hugh Willoughby, became hopelessly lost. The land ‘lay not’, he wrote in frustration, ‘as the globe made mention’. His men tried to see out the winter. His log, today in the British Library, records their desperate final weeks, locked in what it describes as a ‘haven of death’.
Sir Hugh Willoughby, [Extract from a journal of a journey to Cathay, c. 1554], British Library Cotton MS Otho E VIII
The company set up then in England, whose monopoly extended across the north, continued to look north-east. Further attempts were made by Stephen Borough (William’s older brother), and later by Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman. But the landmass pushed them further north, as they moved east, and the ice proved impenetrable.
Attention, in England, switched to the north-west, where Martin Frobisher thought discovery ‘the only thing of the World’ left undone to make a man rich and famous. (The map-maker Abraham Ortelius produced the first Atlas in 1570 – the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum – and his page on the Arctic north showed clear passages to both north-west and north-east.)
The British Library's free exhibition Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage, is now open.
Maps and views blog recent posts
- Where’s Father Christmas? A look at the Atlas de Finlande, the first national atlas
- King's Topographical Collection: curator's pick
- A list of where to find free-to-access digitised British Library maps
- Festive Fairyland
- The long search for HMS 'Terror'
- Hooked on Georeferencing
- Putting yourself on the (old) map
- Maps lie in a new online course
- Lines in the Ice: top five highlights
- England and the North-East Passage